The Price of Solving the Macedonian Issue

The name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been a contentious issue for 25 years, polarising those who support the name and those who argue the state should not be called ‘Macedonia’. The Greek government has consistently fallen in the latter category. After many rounds of UN-mediated talks from the 1990s through to 2017 failed to reach a solution, the leaders of the two Balkan countries finally reached one in 2018 after months of negotiations.

Rafaela Piyioti, a staff writer for Shield, is an undergraduate in the War Studies and Philosophy BA programme at King’s College London. In the future, she would like to undertake a law conversion degree. In her free time, she likes traveling and experiencing new cultures. She finds studying new countries and cultures and identifying their political impact very interesting.

The name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been a contentious issue for 25 years, polarising those who support the name and those who argue the state should not be called ‘Macedonia’. The Greek government has consistently fallen in the latter category. After many rounds of UN-mediated talks from the 1990s through to 2017 failed to reach a solution, the leaders of the two Balkan countries finally reached one in 2018 after months of negotiations. The solution is known as the Prespes Agreement. The FYROM is now officially called North Macedonia since both FYROM’s and Greece’s governments voted in favour of the new name deal and is now in the process of entering NATO and the EU. Greece passed the Prespes deal on 25 January 2019, with 153 votes in favor and 146 against following several days of debate within the Parliament and protests in the streets. The UN has welcomed the agreement between the two states; NATO and the European Union both support this solution as well, and are happy to discuss future membership for North Macedonia. Though some groups view this agreement positively, I argue recognising the FYROM by this name creates two security threats for Greece: it threatens to reshape Greek borders and it may encourage extremist right-wing nationalism. Instead, I suggest the state be called Skopje, after its capital. (I will refer to it by this name throughout the article.)

It was the UN in 1995 that elected to call Skopje the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Thanks to that decision, more than 100 countries now refer to the FYROM simply as ‘Macedonia’. Yet Macedonia is a region, not a country: it encompasses not just Skopje, but also parts of Greece and Bulgaria. For this reason, Greece never recognised Skopje as the FYROM. In fact, Greece initially refused to recognise Skopje by any name which included ‘Macedonia’.

The deadlock ended in June 2018, when the prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia (Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, respectively) agreed on an ostensibly ‘best-of-both-worlds’ solution: Skopje would be called ‘North Macedonia’. This name has now been officially approved by the parliaments of both countries and it aims to create a new identity: North Macedonian. This ‘North Macedonian’ identity will emphasise Slavic roots – to distinguish between Macedonians in Greece and the Eastern Europeans in Skopje – but still recognise its members as Macedonian.

That new identity is concerning. As argued many times by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy – the main Greek opposition party – the Prespes Solution is a bad solution. This is because once there is a North Macedonia, one would expect there also be a South Macedonia – yet there is no such place. There is, however, a region in Greece whose residents call themselves Macedonians. In Thessaloniki, the airport is called the International Airport of Macedonia. These Greek Macedonians feel the Greek government has betrayed them. Further exacerbating tensions are nationalists in North Macedonia, some of whom want to expand the country’s borders to encompass the rest of the Macedonian region. I do not believe war will break out between Greece and North Macedonia, but I do expect border tensions to increase.

A map by the author highlighting the disconnect between the FYROM and Macedonia.

In addition to the tension at the Greek borders, Prime Minister Tsipras’ decision to recognize North Macedonia has triggered a new wave of extremist nationalism in Greece. Many Greeks consider Tsipras to have betrayed the Greek people and ‘sold’ their history. In July and August, people gathered in the streets, protesting against the government and going on strike to try and stop the recognition of Skopje as North Macedonia. In Thessaloniki – the aforementioned area where many Greeks think of themselves as people with Macedonian heritage – some politicians have already become victims of politically-motivated violent crimes. One example is the attack against the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris. Boutaris generated controversy when he declared the solution to the Macedonian issue ‘a useful one’ and far-right Greek Macedonians assaulted him at a First World War remembrance event. The latest incident of violence occurred on 20 January 2019 when more than 60,000 Greek citizens were protesting against the North Macedonian solution a few days before the approval of the solution by the Greek government. What begun as a peaceful protest turned into violence between the protestors and the police, leaving dozens injured including 25 policemen and 2 photojournalists.  This violence is likely to increase: I anticipate further crimes against both the Greek government and residents of Skopje travelling in Greece.

External threats to Greek borders could be exacerbated too. Greece and Albania already disagree over the extent of each’s territorial sea claims. The Greek and Albanian governments have held talks to clarify their sea borders, and the Diapontia Islands may be handed over to Albania. Dr. Chalkiadakis, a Greek historian, argues that the idea of a ‘Greater Albania’ could be reborn if Skopje were to enter supranational organizations like the EU and NATO and Albania followed. The ‘Greater Albania’ plan is an idea of unification of lands under Albanian authority based on claims of historical presence of Albanian population in the regions. One of these areas is part of Greece.

Turkey also poses a threat to Greek borders – a threat that would be exacerbated now that North Macedonia is recognised. Turkish fighter jets often violate Greek airspace, especially over Imia and Thrace. If Turkey were to form an alliance with an empowered Albania and fledgling North Macedonia, airspace violations would likely increase, and could even lead to an actual military attack similar to the one that almost occurred in 1995 between Greece and Turkey.

I have outlined several possible threats to Greece should Skopje enter NATO and the EU now that is officially recognised as ‘North Macedonia.’ The chief domestic threat is a new wave of far-right nationalism in Greece. Externally, recognising Skopje as ‘North Macedonia’ would worsen territorial disputes with Albania and Turkey. It is not easy for Greek people to accept the ‘North Macedonia’ solution, as seen from the recent protests. Still, a solution was necessary: in my opinion, a better solution would be for the FYROM to be officially named Skopje, after its capital. (Other countries follow the same naming convention, like Luxembourg.)  If the Greek Prime Minister wants the ‘North Macedonia’ solution to have positive results for Greece in the future, he must tackle right-wing extremism, the Albanian-Greek border issue, and tensions with Turkey lest he put his country in danger. The North Macedonian solution did not come without a cost for the Greek Prime Minister; the majority of the Greek citizens do not support the current government and ANEL, the Party of the former Defence Minister, Panos Kamenos, left the Greek Government after the former Minister quit due to his opposition to the Prespes Agreement. By supporting the North Macedonian solution, Tsipras might have ended a 20-year dispute – but he has likely lost his chance at getting re-elected this year.

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