The opinion was originally published on the blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
On 25 January, the Greek Parliament ratified the Prespa Agreement, ending the three decades long Athens-Skopje name dispute. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is henceforth named ‘Republic of North Macedonia’, and its citizens are called ‘Macedonians/citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia’. The citizens of North Macedonia talk the ‘Macedonian’ language, which belongs (as the agreement explains) to the family of South Slavic languages.
Moreover, the two countries acknowledge that the terms ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonian’ clearly point to different historical contexts and different cultural heritages. In this way, North Macedonia gets disassociated from the ancient Hellenic civilisation, developed in antiquity, in historical Macedonia. Lastly, North Macedonia revised its Constitution to ensure that the agreement is fully applied domestically, as well as to eliminate and/or revise all passages that could be taken to imply irredentist aspirations towards Greece.
The resolution of the name dispute is a major positive development in the Balkans, contributing to the consolidation of stability and the advancement of the region’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures. However, the way the Greek political system has dealt with the issue at hand has challenged the quality of democracy and the strength of societal cohesion in the country. Indeed, the resolution of the name dispute revealed a serious paradox.
While the overwhelming majority of Greek people (6 to 7 out of 10 according to different surveys) have firmly stood against any compromise on the matter, most political parties, including several of those which ultimately voted against the agreement (representing in total 9 out of 10 MPs in the current parliament), have been long pronouncing their support for a compromise solution with a composite name that would include a geographical qualifier to Macedonia. As a result, there is a clear discrepancy between the views of Greek society and the positions of its elected representatives.
The people’s uncompromising position on the name dispute can be explicated by reference to at least three main reasons. First of all, while the ‘Macedonian question’ has been on the agenda for almost three decades, there has never been any serious debate in the country to inform the people about what’s really at stake. Emotional arguments and historical self-evident accounts of the origins of Ancient Macedonia have masked any discussion about the nature of the dispute in modern times. Moreover, the decision in 2007 of most Greek political parties to move to a more conciliatory position, advocating their support for a compromise solution, has not been sufficiently explained to the people.
The second reason concerns the context of a decade-long economic crisis in which many people feel that they have already paid materially and symbolically a too heavy price. In this regard, the compromise in the name dispute has been seen by many frustrated people as adding insult to injury. The fact that the Euro-Atlantic partners of Greece have unequivocally supported the deal has unintentionally affirmed the perceptions of many people that the agreement serves international rather than Greek interests.
Last, but not least, while the discrepancy between the views of the people and of their elected representatives is well established, none of the main political parties has attempted to remedy it. On the contrary, the latter have used the resolution of the name dispute as an opportunity to adjust their electoral tactics and score points in view of the coming parliamentary elections. The entanglement of the name dispute with electoral considerations has contributed to the extreme polarisation of politics around the articulation of false “patriots-traitors” and “pragmatists-ultranationalists” dichotomies.
Moreover, the ratification of the Prespa Agreement just a few months ahead of national elections has presented individual MPs (coming from smaller parties that may not enter parliament again) with an opportunity to change party affiliation. As a result, some ANEL MPs gave a vote of confidence and/or voted in favour of the Prespa Agreement, while POTAMI witnessed the decision of a few of its MPs to fully support the positions either of New Democracy or SYRIZA.
In parliamentary democracies, the views of societies and of their representatives are usually realigned through elections. For Greece, the worst-case scenario would be that new and established ultranationalist forces and far right parties (e.g. Golden Dawn) capitalise on public discontent and increase their parliamentary influence. The maturity of the Greek political system and its readiness to deal with the implementation of the agreement and bring people’s day to day problems back to the top of the agenda will largely determine whether such a pessimistic scenario takes place.