When one of those states put forward an exclusive claim to the name “Macedonia” in the early 1990s, barely veiling its underlying revisionist and irredentist ideology that claims the entire region of Macedonia for itself, there was naturally a reaction; a reaction that was brought before the UN Security Council. This resolved:
a. UN membership would be granted to the new state under the provisional name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia;
b. negotiations would be initiated to resolve the name issue;
c. unresolved, the dispute constitutes a threat to the stability of Southeast Europe.
These initial negotiations culminated in 1995 in an interim accord between Greece and FYROM. Based on this agreement, the two countries established diplomatic relations and agreed to work within the framework of UN-mediated negotiations to quickly resolve the name issue.
Some 14 years have passed since then; 14 years during which Greece – in sincere pursuit of an equitable compromise – has sought a middle ground in which the two sides might realistically discuss a mutually acceptable solution. Meanwhile, a succession of FYROM governments has paid scant heed to the Interim Accord, thus undermining the intent of the relevant UN resolutions. Their strategy, as the country’s current leaders – both the President and the Prime Minister – have stated, has been to prolong the negotiations and gain time in which to achieve their country’s accession to NATO and the EU, at which point they will be able to force their position on Greece.
Late in 2007, in the light of FYROM’s candidacy for NATO membership, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to the Greece-FYROM talks, Matthew Nimetz, attempted to accelerate the process through more frequent meetings. But when a mutually acceptable solution had still not been found in April 2008, the NATO Summit held that month decided unanimously not to extend a membership invitation to FYROM, given the non-resolution of the issue – ie FYROM’s failure to satisfy the criterion of good neighbourly relations with a NATO member state.
In June 2008, Nimetz put forward a detailed proposal that FYROM rejected out of hand. Nimetz has since drawn up three additional proposals and the FYROM side has rejected all three. Greece responded to all of these proposals with constructive observations and a willingness to engage in dialogue.
FYROM has opted for propaganda over dialogue, mounting a well-prepared, calculated smear campaign against Greece, while also trying to insinuate various non-issues into the negotiations, attempting to turn the talks into a platform for grievances, demands and claims against Greece. FYROM has even tried to reopen World War II issues that European countries have put behind them for good; issues that have no place in our common journey towards ever closer union.
Then, in November 2008, FYROM took its delay tactics to a new level by instituting proceedings against Greece at the International Court of Justice, opting for litigation over dialogue and laying bare its lack of will to pursue a mutually acceptable solution.
Athens was neither surprised nor concerned at this last move. It was to be expected from a government that – with its 19th-century mindset – sees a mutually acceptable solution as defeat. A government that prefers the closed doors of nationalism to the open door of European integration: a door opened by Greece itself at the 2003 Thessaloniki European Council, offering FYROM candidate status.
Greece was expecting this move, and in short order we appointed our ad hoc judge and our legal advisors, setting up support teams and formulating our legal and political strategy. We will neither rush nor dally. We will choose when to move with great care and careful planning. Since FYROM has chosen the judicial route, we will make full use of the ICJ procedures.
Nevertheless, we cannot but note the paradox of these proceedings. After almost two decades of systematically violating UN resolutions and the Interim Accord, while stubbornly persisting in using its constitutional name – which is what the dispute is all about – FYROM has instituted proceedings at the ICJ under its constitutional name in order to keep its provisional name from being sullied in the proceedings – a provisional name it has never accepted and never had any intention of using.
Words are of singular importance in the Balkans, but – unfortunately – they may also be understood differently by different people. Greece believes that problems can be resolved through dialogue, and we have shown this. We believe that all the countries of the Balkans belong to the European family, and we have worked to realise this vision. But in the case of the name issue, we feel we have hit a wall. The other side has abandoned dialogue in favour of propaganda, delay tactics and the cultivation of intolerance. We will have the opportunity to discuss all of this in court.
George Koumoutsakos is the Greek foreign ministry spokesman. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.