European Western Balkans

The Skopje-Athens agreement: A view from (North?) Macedonia

Photo: Tanjug / AP Photo / Yorgos Karahalis

A week ago, the Macedonian and Greek prime ministers, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, came out with a detailed proposal to end their countries’ near-three-decade-long name dispute. Zaev and Tsipras’ joint proposal provoked immediate reactions in both countries, Europe and the world, ranging from the very positive to the very negative, showing that both Zaev and Tsipras are risking their political careers to a great extent. To be implemented, the agreement requires support from their governments, the parliaments, and, in the case of Macedonia, also the citizens, via a referendum.

What does the deal involve?

The Macedonian government, parliament and citizens must accept that the name of their country will no longer be “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and/or “Republic of Macedonia”, but “Republic of North Macedonia.” This name must be used both externally and domestically.

The name of the official language will remain “Macedonian”, as it was registered in the UN, but a clarification will be added that it belongs to the family of South Slavic languages.

While the country code will remain MK or MKD, the car licence plates will have to change from MK and MKD to NM or NMK.

Macedonia needs to change its Constitution. It will have to inform more than 190 countries throughout the world that, in line with the Bilateral Agreement, the new name of the country is The Republic of North Macedonia (or North Macedonia for short), to be used in all future official correspondence.

Furthermore, Macedonia needs to distance itself from any association with the ancient Hellenic civilization. A joint expert committee will need to revise school textbooks, maps and other documents if deemed inappropriate. This will be done in both countries. In addition, both countries agreed to intensify their cooperation in areas such as the economy, defence, politics, society, education, science, research etc.

If the Macedonian government, parliament and citizens accept these terms, it will pave the way for the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

How will it be implemented?

According to the Agreement, Macedonia needs to change its Constitution by amending its Preamble, article 3 (territory and borders), and article 49 (status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian nation in neighbouring countries).

How exactly these articles will be revised remains to be further elaborated by the government and experts. The same applies for the adjectival reference usage, which, besides official institutions and public entities, also encompasses private entities and actors.

Is it a good deal?

Yes, this is a good deal, but is it fair? Could it have been better? Maybe in other historical, political and geopolitical circumstances. I like to believe that this is the best deal the Macedonian government and negotiators could have got at this moment.

In the eyes of Macedonians, the best deal would be for Greece to accept that the country is called the Republic of Macedonia and its people are Macedonians. For Greeks, the best deal would be for them to abandon the name ‘Macedonia’ and call themselves something else. Both sides spent 25 years hoping that the situation would dramatically change so that one or the other option became realistic.

The Greeks could never convince Macedonians to completely change their name, language and nationality. The Greeks could not get this perfect option during the 1990s trade embargo, when the economic situation in Macedonia was desperate; they could also not get it during the Kosovo war and the conflict in Macedonia. The Macedonians could not get their perfect deal when Greece was going through the financial crisis and was under pressure from many EU member states, nor when, at the NATO summit, US President George W. Bush stood behind Macedonia. At no point was the preferred option of either side a realistic prospect.

Will it be implemented?

The agreement between the Macedonian and Greek Prime Ministers is an important first step, but there are several steps that must follow. This is even more the case in Macedonia than in Greece, where only government approval and ratification is needed. Both in Macedonia and Greece, the future steps do not depend on the will of the two prime ministers or their parties. However, in Macedonia, the Government unanimously adopted the text of the Agreement and is prepared to sign it and send it to the Parliament for ratification.

The first challenge is the parliamentary approval (simple majority) of the Agreement. With the recent widening of the ruling coalition to include another party, however, this would be an achievable task.

Once the parliament ratifies the agreement, Greece will unblock the opening of EU accession negotiations and the invitation for NATO membership. This would be the first visible sign that the implementation of the agreement had started.

Every step thereafter will be more difficult to achieve.

For example, in order for the agreement, once ratified by the Parliament, to come into force, the country’s President has to sign it. The President of Macedonia Gjorge Ivanov has already publicly announced that he will not sign. According to the Macedonian legal system, in this case, the act is returned to the Parliament for another round of voting. If the Parliament votes in favour, then the President is constitutionally obliged to sign it. However, this would not be the first time the incumbent President has refused to sign a law, and he said recently that there is no power in the world that can make him do it.

Furthermore, the constitutional change will require the support of two-thirds of parliamentarians. The leader of the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE, Hristijan Mickovski, whose party holds the key to the two-thirds majority, has distanced himself from the agreement. The stance of VMRO-DPMNE could also have a decisive impact on the outcome of the referendum.

If the incumbent president or VMRO leadership believes that opposition to the agreement will increase their support among voters at the next elections, then they will most probably continue to oppose it. As it looks now, they believe that it will, and they are so convinced that they even wish to see early parliamentary elections take place alongside the referendum, or perhaps the 2019 presidential elections.

Do citizens want implementation?

The idea that striking a deal with Greece and taking the country out of isolation is not welcomed by Macedonian citizens and voters is sometimes taken for granted, but a closer look at VMRO’s recent results points to a different conclusion.

Confronted with the results of the status quo, in the 2016 general elections the citizens gave VMRO (the status quo party) almost 30,000 votes fewer than in the 2014 elections. At the same time, the SDSM (the party campaigning for change and compromise with neighbours) received more than 150,000 more votes than in 2014. When the SDSM signed an agreement with Bulgaria, in summer 2017, VMRO campaigned hard against it. They even boycotted the parliamentary session.

The local elections, in October 2017, also took place at a time when the SDSM was making compromises with their partners in the government from the Albanian political parties, something severely criticised by the VMRO. Elections also took place at the moment when the government was stating very openly that they sought compromise with Greece.

What was the impact on the election results? The Macedonian citizens supported the ruling government, giving it more votes than in 2016, and VMRO suffered a crushing defeat that led them from 58 to only 5 mayoral seats.

The strategic question for the current leadership of VMRO, which claims to seek a new vision for their party that will one day allow them to regain the confidence of their voters and govern again, is to revisit the idea that opposition to compromise with Greece is beneficial for their electoral success. This should come with the understanding that the non-implementation of this particular agreement (no matter how good or bad it is) would lead to a deadlock and a return to the status quo. Their partners in the EPP should help them understand all these aspects.

The takeaway

From the Macedonian perspective, the agreement is a well-balanced compromise that needs to be accepted in order to develop friendly relations with our southern neighbour and unblock our EU and NATO perspective. It is not a perfect solution, but postponing the agreement with Greece and continuing the drama would be even worse. The only thing we have at the moment is this agreement. It is a clear reflection of the facts of life and real politics.

If there were to be a new agreement, this one would be seen as a minimum and both sides will want more. If this agreement does not fly, than any future one would be very difficult to achieve, meaning that Macedonia would need to substantially revise its two main foreign policy objectives – membership of the EU and NATO.

In order for this to succeed, i.e. to be implemented this summer and before the referendum, the EU needs to open accession negotiations and Macedonia needs to enter NATO. A decision to open negotiations would be a huge help in ensuring the agreement’s successful implementation.

Winning the hearts and minds of Macedonian and Greek citizens, politicians and governments will need a lot of effort and explanation. Zaev and Tsipras, as well as many other politicians, intellectuals and NGOs, are ready to argue in favour of the deal. And while it is up to them to win it, support from their EU friends, governments and parties (EPP, PEL), but also from our other neighbours, will be crucial.

We now look forward to the June Council of the European Union endorsing the Commission recommendation of 17 April and giving the green light for opening accession negotiations with Macedonia. This is not only merited, in recognition of the country’s considerable reform results, but it will crucially contribute to the full implementation of the agreement in the interest of both countries, the region, and our Union as a whole.

After months of deliberations, in October 2016, the Norwegian government decided not to gift a mountain peak to neighbouring Finland to mark its 100 years of independence. The local authorities who came up with this proposal received mostly positive reactions from the public. The Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg welcomed it as “a clear sign that Norway and Finland have a close relationship,” but at the same time rejected it because “the alteration of borders between countries causes too many judicial problems that could affect the Constitution.”

The article has originally been republished on the BiEPAG Blog and can be accessed here.

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