Prospects for settling the name dispute notwithstanding the setbacks

Zaev and Tsipras; Photo: Government of Macedonia

Following years of a deepening political crisis, Macedonia got a new government last year, praised by many as a harbinger of hope for the settlement of grave and long-lasting disputes, including the one with Greece on the name.

The new PM Zoran Zaev and his cabinet have kick-started efforts to resume the talks on settling the dispute since the very onset and have pledged on a number of concessions to finally reach an epilogue of the dispute in 2018. Furthermore, one could also feel a rather positive attitude coming from the Greek officials and the overall climate indicated that 2018 might be a year of an opportunity to resolve the name issue.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ and the Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias’ pursuit of a compromise that would appease the Greeks proved to be quite challenging.

A composite name was proposed that would include the word Macedonia but provide a clear differentiation from the Greek province of Macedonia. Furthermore, Greek side was adamant that the new compound name would be used both in domestic affairs and internationally (erga omnes). In addition to this, Greece is seeking constitutional changes and guarantees against irredentist claims, according to the government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos.

However, PM Tsipras has been faced with a challenging task within the domestic arena. His junior coalition partner, a populist Independent Greeks party (ANEL) has staunchly opposed any kind of compromise on the name dispute, and some of its prominent members stated they would reject any proposal that contains the name “Macedonia” and even called for a referendum on the matter.

In addition to nationalist parties and the Greek Orthodox Church, compromises on the name have also stirred national sentiments of the Greek public.

Following the rally in Thessaloniki, the first major protest since the conclusion of an interim accord on the name issue in 1995, another one was held in Greece’s capital, gathering more than 100,000 protesters who opposed the inclusion of the word ˝Macedonia˝ in the new compound name.

Further, but not less serious challenges to the settlement of the name dispute lie in the very essence of the dispute. Apart from the name itself, the dispute touches upon sensitive issues of national identity, history and symbolism.

PM Zaev has so far expressed his willingness to contribute to solving the long-lasting dispute. The airport in Skopje, the avenues and the highway bearing the name of the Alexander the Great are to be renamed, a gesture aimed at demonstrating Macedonia’s firm commitment to resolve the dispute.

“I will not present any red lines because red lines obstruct us from solving problems. I will use other methods so that the red lines become the light that will get us out of the darkness of the problem,” Zaev said in an interview on Greece’s Alpha television.

However, some of the Greek analysts, such as Jorgos Tzogopoulos, of the ELIAMEP think tank, remain wary of Macedonian optimism, Deutsche Welle (DW) reports.

“Gruevski’s provocations are a thing of the past, but that doesn’t mean his successor will simply change the country’s name,” he argued.

(DW, 17 January 2018)

Foreign Minister Kotzias and his counterpart Nikola Dimitrov will meet in Sofia on 15 and 16 February, on the sidelines of the informal meeting of the heads of diplomats of the EU countries and candidate countries, where they are expected to discuss further steps in the process of resolving name dispute. According to the Independent Balkan News Agency, the meeting between the two foreign ministers is deemed crucial for the continuation of the talks.

Macedonia hopes that the name dispute would be solved by the end of the first half of 2018, ahead of the upcoming NATO Summit in June, when it anticipates the invitation to join NATO. It remains to be seen if a goodwill and mutual commitment would prevail over the setbacks.


Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States