A Controversy that Favors Nationalists and Extremists. Why solving the Macedonian Name Dispute matters.

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Protests in Athens, 4.2.2018, including Golden Dawn supporters.  Source: Al Jazeera

The following article was published on 4 February by the Greek To Vima in which I have tried to lay out arguments why a resolution of the name dispute with Macedonia is also in Greece’s interest.

Next to the absurd conflict over a bit of water and the fish contained in it between Slovenia and Croatia, the name dispute between Greece and its northern neighbor belongs to the open questions in the Balkans that have perplexed outside observers. For a quarter of century, this conflict has held both countries hostage. For one of the two–hopefully soon formerly known at the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia–it has not only prevent membership in NATO and the EU, it also led to a lost decade under the authoritarian and nationalist rule of former prime minster Nikola Gruevski. His “antiquization campaign” was trying to both deliberately provoke Greece and to built up a new variant of the national identity few citizens believed in. For Greece, it has undermined its legitimacy in becoming a key player in the Western Balkans and damaged its position in the EU. I have witnessed more than once–behind closed doors and in public events–diplomats from the EU and member states rolling their eyes as the Greek representative duly sought to ‘correct’ the name of its northern neighbor.

Now is the best opportunity to end the dispute after more than 25 years. Both governments seem serious about resolving it and there are good reasons for tackling it finally. The government in Skopje is committed to addressing it: It has no sympathy for the claim that the citizens of today have any link to ancient Macedonians and rejects these historical or any territorial claims. Instead, it wants both to improve relations with Greece and join NATO and the EU. A stable, prosperous neighbor in the same political, economic and security structures as Greece must also be the country’s national interest. This would create more stability for Greece. Furthermore, it would allow the country to emerge as a more important actor in the Western Balkans: During the years of crisis in the EU, the Western Balkans have been neglected, which has triggered a rise of authoritarianism,  a stronger role of Russia and other outside actors in the region. Now, the EU seems to be re-engaged as the European Commission is planning a new strategy for the region, the Bulgarian and Austrian presidency of the EU want to focus on enlargement and there is a general re-commitment to the region and its future in the EU. Resolving the name dispute now would allow Greece to become one of the drivers of change in the region, together with Bulgaria and Austria, as three of the biggest supporters of the Western Balkans inside the EU.

The risks are great, if the resolution of the dispute is sabotaged by nationalists in either country. If a compromise is derailed in Greece, it would not only reinforce the image of the country as a spoiler, blocking a reformist and pro-EU government, but it would also diminish its leverage in the Western Balkans. If anything, not resolving the name dispute with the current government would strengthen the forces that nationalists in Greece claim to be a threat: nationalist parties and groups would benefit in its northern neighbor, who seek to overthrow the government. For the government in Skopje, it would struggle to stay in power and loose a lot of momentum for reform, with NATO and EU membership slipping further away.

The current moment is a reminder that this dispute, as many others, does not pit one nation against another, but moderate, pragmatic citizens and politicians against nationalists and radicals in both countries.

There is no serious group making territorial claims on Greece north of the border (unlike some radical groups in the diaspora) and there is no reason why the name “Macedonian” cannot be used for both Greeks in the North of Greece and its northern neighbors. A failure to settle will letter to bitterness, especially in the smaller, weaker country that has more to loose.

Settling the name dispute will always be only the first step of a new type of relations between the two countries. The fear of irridentism or a monopolistic claim over the name “Macedonia” or the history can never be addressed by blocking the northern neighbor from using the name it calls itself. Confronting these worries cannot be achieved through pressure, but rather dialogue. Thus, any settlement should include a process of that includes different forms of dialogue between civil society, between historians and politicians to build trust, and confront mutually hostile claims. Nobody says this will be easy, but 2018 provides for an opportunity. Keeping the status quo on the other hand, is going to increase tensions and contribute little to improve the security or concerns of either Greece or its northern neighbor.

One Response to A Controversy that Favors Nationalists and Extremists. Why solving the Macedonian Name Dispute matters.

  1. James E French says:

    Excellent recommendation with sound reasoning.

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