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


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.

Rebel with a Cause: Greece’s Chicken Game


In a classic scene in “Rebel without a Cause” Jim , played by James Dean is racing with Buzz  towards a cliff, whoever jumps out first is the chicken, the looser. Jim jumps out on time, while Buzz gets caught in the car door and drops down the cliff with his car.

This scene is not only popular with movie buffs, but also with scholars. Scholars of game theory, like Yanis Varoufakis, the new Greek minister of finance. This “chicken game” is about driver’s drive towards each other on a collision course (an alternative version of heading for the cliff). One of the two must swerve, or both might die. However, who gets out of the way first is a ‘chicken’. Varoufakis in his writings about game theory uses the alternative term of ‘hawk and dove’.

Key to winning this game is to signal to the other side that you are more determined or more crazy than the other. If you are convincing, the other side will swerve first. You can signal by expressing your determination or–more drastically–by pulling out the steering wheel and giving yourself no choice but to stay on course. There are two ways in which you can loose. You can send signals that you are willing to swerve or you can forget to signal to the other that you pulled out the steering wheel and thus you precluded the option to swerve without letting the other side know. This is what happened in Kubrick’s Dr. Stranglove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. Here the Soviet Union built a doomsday machine that would annihilate the earth if the Soviet Union was attacked, but forgot to tell the US about it.

The new Greek government is currently playing a game of chicken with the EU (while some have characterized this as a gamble, I would consider the term game, in this understanding more useful). When Varoufakis says that there is no plan B, he is telling the EU and the GFKT (group formerly know as the troika) that he and his government are not going to swerve. As a game of chicken, it is a gamble, will the other side swerve first? Greece since the elections is signaling that it will not move, but so have some key EU actors, including Germany. The gamble is that Greece has less to loose than the EU. Even if Greece would have to leave the Eurozone, the cost would be high for Germany and other countries, so there is no scenario in which Greece would be the only looser.

The current government will have only one shot at this game, and it seems to be serious about it now. While a recent comment in the FT argues that Varoufakis would be overplaying his hand, one could also see it as astrategy of brinkmanship. It also has the advantage of a clear majority in parliament and a population supporting a shift from the status quo. On the other side, the EU is a much more complicated ‘driver’. The likelihood of somebody being a ‘chicken’ seems greater here.



Europe’s racism: Blonde angles and closed borders

Two events have made me ashamed of being European in recent weeks. First, more than 300 human die in the waters of the Mediterranean of Lampedusa trying to reach Europe. Poor and persecuted, woman, men and and children drown in the sea. The response of many, including Italian prime minister was  shock and recognition of the tragedy. However, the only policy response was muddled and shameful: it is about strengthening Europe’s borders. The stated goal is to also prevent people smuggling, but it is cynical to respond to the death of migrants with stronger controls.

Just a few days ago, European media, from Greece to Britain reported about a ‘blond angel’ found in a Roma camp in Greece. The immediate assumption of the many media reports was that the child, who was not biologically related to her parents, was abducted and that it must have been from Scandinavia or somewhere north due to the blonde hair and green eyes. The racist imaginary in these reports is striking on many levels. Besides (mostly unconsciously) drawing on old stereotypes about Roma abducting non-Roma children, it assumes that blonds cannot be Roma and the assumption that the child was used by the family. While European media might have been more sensitive if the case had involved Jews, Roma remain fair game for such stereotypes.

Much attention is paid when Front Nationale wins a by-election or the Freedom Party does well in Austria. However, the real worry should be elsewhere, the racism of the media that seem acceptable and the willingness of Europe to let refugees drown off its shore to protect some imaginary splendid isolation. Both events highlight that isolationism and xenophobia are no longer a national concern, but a European one and that just being European (and favoring European integration) is not enough. Europe needs a debate about racism and how we marginalize millions of Roma (and others) in our midst and we need a debate about migration and how Europe has become an immigrant society and how it needs to confront refugees risking their lives and often lots of money to get to Europe not with more border controls, but with more openness and support for those in need.

The Risks and Benefits of Ethnic Citizenship

Millions of people in Southeastern Europe are citizens of more than one state. Many acquired this status when they were gastarbajteri [guestworkers] in Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Western Europe; others received a second passport as they fled the wars that accompanied the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For some people, dual citizenship seems due to a quirk of fate: for example, their father may have been born in a different Yugoslav republic than they and held that republican citizenship when Yugoslavia was still a single country and when republican citizenship had no practical significance. Due to some long abandoned vestiges of patriarchal rules, today they have the right to a second citizenship of a republic they never lived in. Among the many ‘multi-citizens’ of Southeastern Europe there are probably a million who have received passports from countries they have never lived in. Hundreds of thousands of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold Croatian citizenship as a result of their ethnic Croat identity. Over 50,000 Macedonians also became citizens of Bulgaria after declaring themselves to be ethnically Bulgarian. Recently, Serbs from Bosnia (and elsewhere) have been able to become Serbian citizens by declaring their loyalty to Serbia—most prominently, President of the Serb Republic, one of the two Bosnian entities, and Milorad Dodik, who publicly submitted his request for citizenship to the Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremić in 2007. Nearly a million Moldovan citizens have applied for Romanian passports and over 100,000 have been granted EU citizenship, on the grounds that they are descendents of former Romanian citizens who lost their Romanian citizenship when Bessarabia was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1944.

Read the rest of the comment at: http://www.citsee.eu/op-ed/risks-and-benefits-ethnic-citizenship


Solving the Macedonian name dispute

A group of Balkan scholars recently met in Ohrid and in its aftermath in a creative brain storming exercise have finally come up with a solution to the name dispute over Macedonia (esp. hat tip to Jelena V.). The solution is strikingly simple: The final name of the country is McDonia. It is sufficiently different from the contested name and yet sounds strikingly similar. In addition, it can also resolve McDonia’s financial woes by signing a 20 year lease of the country to a well-known American fast food chain. This shall secure sufficient income for the country and will revive the beef and potato industry. Finally, the insertion of the golden arches will aestetically compliment the existing flag. There are many opportunities for resolving further problems. For example, the largest nation in the country could be simply known as BigMac, the population constituting a quarter Quarter Pounders and many new names to diffuse ethnic tensions.

Finally, it would also provide for an opportunity to liven up the plans for Skopje 2014.

The economic crisis, Greece and the Balkans

The economic crisis has hit the Western Balkans particularly hard. The region was hit hard in absolute terms, a result of half-hearted economic reforms and the elites denial over the economic crisis reaching the region (a number of government ministers across the region predicted that their country would be spared).
The region was also hit hard psychologically as growth has been sluggish or started from such a low level that the perceived benefits by most citizens are limited. As a result the reservoir of patience is small.

Cover from the German Weekly Focus "The Cheater in the Euro Family"

Who will benefit from the crisis? There are no clear winners or loosers. However, overall populism is likely to gain ground. Good evidence of this is the media exchange between Germany and Greece with German media going for some good old Balkan stereotypes and Greek media dragging out WW2 to counter German criticism of the Greek economy. While for the German media, Greeks are cheating, stealing Balkanites (which of course bodes well for the enlargement of the region), while Greek media like to draw parallels between the EU and NAZI occupation, as in the cartoon from Kathimerini below.

EU inspectors arriving/“Just a sec!” the minister yells and tears his shirt off/Then you see him demonstratively flagellating his bare torso with a rod. Three men are standing next to him in Gestapo uniforms barking “Sehr gut!”.

From Kathimerini: EU Inspectors Arriving (and sounding/looking like the Gestapo)

In Bosnia, it seems to disadvantage the established nationalists, esp. in the Bosniak-Croat Federation, but might help new nationalist/populists, such as the tycoon Radoncic, who recently suggested that non-Bosniaks should not be working for the Federations public broadcaster. In Serbia it is likely to help the populist Progressive Party. While no elections are scheduled in the region this year except for Bosnia, governments are likely to adopt populist policies. At least at the moment, it does not appear that opportunity to clean up the act in terms of inefficient public administration is being seized upon. Unlike in Greece, the unions are mostly weak and fragmented in the region, so paralysis is unlikely to come from the streets.

Altogether the economic crisis motivates political elites to claim political successes on other fronts: Unfortunately, this is unlikely to benefit the resolution of outstanding conflicts, from the name dispute between Greece and Macedonia to the relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

In particular, the prospects of resolving the name issue between Greece and Macedonia seems as remote as ever. While the Papandreou government has been more pragmatic than its predecessor, it seems improbable that it has the courage to move a solution forward in the context of the deep economic crisis and faced with the fact that the leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy, is Antonis Samaras whose hard line over Macedonia called the downfall of the Mitsotakis government in 1993.

The possibly most important aspect of the crisis is the policy of the EU. We have seen a serious erosion of solidarity among current EU members and the economic crisis in Greece is likely to disadvantage the countries of the region: Whether they are members (such as Bulgaria) and are now less likely to be admitted to the Euro-zone to countries in the Western Balkans, who are now likely to be scrutinized more extensively than they would have been before.

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