SKOPJE/ATHENS – In his article for Foreign Affairs magazine, Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), said that the Athens – Skopje agreement is merely the first step to ending the decades-old dispute. On the other hand, translating it into reality will require much more, as there are important actors within Greece, Macedonia, and beyond who would like to see the agreement fail.
“If the deal succeeds, however, it will likely provide a series of positive knock-on-effects and reap benefits not just for the two countries in question but also for the Balkans at large”, Bieber wrote for Foreign Affairs.
Bieber emphasized that the path to implementing the deal remains long – first, the EU will invite Macedonia to begin accession talks in late June or early July; afterwards, Skopje will ratify the agreement but without the normal two-thirds of Parliament that is required for constitutional changes, thus paving the way for a referendum on the name change in the fall.
Bieber stressed that if Skopje fails to pass the legislation domestically, Greece can refuse to ratify NATO membership or block Macedonia from EU accession. Possibly the largest challenge to the agreement’s survival is a promised referendum on its new name that is planned for the fall when—so it is hoped—Macedonia receives an invitation to join NATO and begins EU accession talks. Thus, the vote would not simply be on ratifying the agreement but also on Euro-Atlantic integration.
Bieber thinks that there are also formidable obstacles to the agreement’s acceptance in Greece because the junior coalition party, the far-right Independent Greeks, previously rejected any agreement that would even mention, Macedonia. This means that the ruling Syriza party will have to gather support from opposition parties or persuade its coalition partner to back a deal. The largest opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, which is expected to win the next election, is divided over the issue.
Nevertheless, there are regional forces – just as there are national ones within Greece and Macedonia – that would prefer the deal to fall through, believes Bieber. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, openly encouraged the obstructionist Macedonian opposition to reject the deal. Furthermore, Russia has interest in the naming dispute – to prevent EU and NATO enlargement and keep the conflict in the Western Balkans unresolved.
“The agreement is not only about an overdue resolution to the name dispute. It also constitutes a breaking point for the region. If it succeeds, it can revitalize EU integration and the overall reform dynamic, if it fails, it might take years for another opportunity like this one to appear”, Bieber concludes.