The states of the Western Balkans are confronting a multiplicity of challenges and problems within the context of an acute international economic crisis. Bosnia faces significant internal challenges and is far from functioning as an effective unitary state. Kosovo remains unrecognized by most states, including several European Union members and is in a perilous economic situation. Montenegro is being hit hard by the global crisis, as is Serbia, which is still ostracized by some in the international community. Croatia’s border dispute with Slovenia threatens its EU future, while Albania seems to lack an adequate administrative capacity and remains poor overall.
Within this worrisome context, the ongoing Macedonian name dispute, centering on what the new republic in the Western Balkans should be called, has the potential to further destabilize the region.
Because of Greek concerns and objections first to the use and currently to the monopolization of the term Macedonia by their neighbors (as well as various cases of irredentist propaganda), “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) remains the country’s provisional, international United Nations name, though many states (including the United States, Russia and China) have extended recognition for bilateral purposes under its constitutional name, “Republic of Macedonia.”
During almost two decades, several international diplomatic efforts have come up with various proposals, all of which proved unsuccessful. In April 2008, Greece effectively blocked FYROM from acceding to NATO due to the name dispute and other bilateral matters (the Alliance’s decision was unanimous). In July, the UN’s special mediator Matthew Nimetz suggested that a deal “could be done in a period of months.” However, the issue’s past history only allows for (at best) guarded optimism.
Following a series of interviews and discussions with decision-makers dealing directly with this issue, this author sees three possible scenarios. They could be labeled “best,” “worst” and “interim.”
The “best” scenario (from the viewpoint of the international community and not necessarily historically just), consists of a final and comprehensive agreement between Greece and FYROM. Such an outcome would almost certainly involve a compromise compound name with a geographical connotation (e.g. “Northern Macedonia”). If an agreement among these lines is achieved, FYROM would automatically join NATO under the new name, its accession path toward the EU would accelerate and the concerns of the country’s Albanian population (about a quarter of the total) assuaged in a manner that would be conducive to regional stability (65 percent of FYROM’s Albanians support a compromise on the name issue to facilitate NATO and EU membership, though 95 percent of Slav-Macedonians are opposed). It should be stressed that any such agreement would also have to address a series of legitimate Greek concerns (including the recent manifestations of Slav-Macedonian nationalism that have included the renaming of airports and highways, commissioning of giant statues as well as other actions often connected to a fixation with Alexander the Great). Solving outright the Macedonian name dispute would undoubtedly represent a major diplomatic accomplishment.
The most likely scenario, however, probably remains the “worst” and involves the issue’s non-resolution despite continuous diplomatic meetings and negotiations. As a top Slav-Macedonian politician, striking a note of realistic pessimism, recently told this author: “Almost every conceivable settlement has already been proposed at some time or another but rejected by one of the two sides.”
If this scenario prevails, FYROM’s ruling party will probably continue the campaign to link Slav-Macedonian identity and history to antiquity. Furthermore, NATO and EU accession prospects will remain stalled. The country’s Albanians would be particularly disappointed by such an outcome and it is not alarmist to imagine that the Ohrid framework agreements (that ended the republic’s 2001 ethnic strife) could be challenged. As State Department officials warn, this could produce perilous regional implications. (FYROM neighbors Kosovo and during periods of crisis the influx of refugees, armed Albanian guerilla fighting and illicit activities have linked the two places).
At the same time, it should be kept in mind that the political “space” for a compromise in Athens is decreasing, given the government’s slim parliamentary majority, early elections and continuous majority popular disapproval of a compound name. In addition, FYROM’s Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski appears to many in Greece as untrustworthy because of his intense nationalism and continuous provocations and there is understandably little enthusiasm to reach an agreement with him in particular.
A third scenario can be labeled “interim.” It is based on the realization that the only substantial agreement reached between FYROM and Greece was the 1995 New York Interim Accord that normalized bilateral relations but (significantly) did not resolve the name dispute. (However, Athens did recognize the young republic and Skopje changed the country’s flag which had featured the ancient Macedonian “Star of Vergina” symbol).
According to this “interim” scenario, FYROM would enter NATO under its provisional UN name, after having addressed all the recent actions deemed provocative by Greece (renaming airports and highways anew, dropping the case against Greece at the International Court of Justice at the Hague etc.), thus proving in practice good neighborly relations. The signing of a Treaty of Friendship could further codify the types of actions that would be unacceptable in the future.
Nevertheless, since there can be no firm guarantee against Skopje returning to nationalist or other provocations (whereas NATO membership, once achieved, is effectively irreversible), Athens could publicly link any new nationalistic turn to a democratic referendum on the neighboring republic’s EU accession, with rather predictable results. (It should be kept in mind that for FYROM, EU membership is ultimately even more significant than NATO membership). Negotiations on the resolution of the name dispute would, of course, continue to be conducted, possibly within an improved bilateral climate.
If this scenario is actualized, regional stability might be enhanced. However, the resolution of the name dispute will be pushed even further into the future, while Athens will have lost an important source of diplomatic leverage.
At this point, it is not clear which scenario might prevail. What is certain is that considerable statesmanship and diplomatic skills will have to be exhibited in order to resolve an urgent and important diplomatic problem that influences domestic politics in both Greece and FYROM and has very real consequences for the Western Balkans.
(1) Aristotle Tziampiris is assistant professor of International Relations at the University of Piraeus and visiting scholar at Columbia University (The Harriman Institute). His views are personal.