Fighting over a name

Fighting over a name

After months of negotiations, Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart Zoran Zaev, were able to sign a deal to end up a bitter dispute on the name of Greece’s northern neighbor: The deal was signed on June 17 on the shores of Lake Prespa by the two prime ministers and the foreign ministers of these two countries, thus putting an end to a dispute that has marred their relations for almost three decades. They agreed on a new and finite name for the republic which is now going to be called “Republic of Northern Macedonia.”

A region of Macedonia was part of the former Yugoslavia. But Greece resisted strongly to the use of the name Macedonia by the new republic which declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. For Greece there was “only one Macedonia,” and that was the region with the same name in the northern part of modern Greece. But it was not just a matter of a name. Athens also feared that Skopje governments might at some stage put forward territorial claims over the Greek Macedonia.

The “Macedonia” issue, still a highly sensitive subject especially in northern Greece, brought huge crowds to the streets who refused to accept that any other region could bear the same name or that any other country could claim a historical tradition that goes back to the Macedonian kingdom of Philip and Alexander the Great. Yet, this tiny northern neighbor went through phases of extreme nationalism where under previous leaders they did claim they were the only genuine successors of Alexander.

There were several attempts by various governments in Athens and Skopje to solve the issue under the auspices of the UN. They all failed. And since Greece vetoed the use of the name Macedonia in the mid-90s, the country was given the strange temporary name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia pending a final settlement. In the meantime, a great number of countries recognized the name Macedonia, but not Greece, still insisting on its objection.

The matter was somehow “left to rot” in the cupboards of the Greek foreign ministry, I was told by a Greek diplomat, until Tsipras’s government, decided to give it a try. The renewed negotiations between Athens and Skopje started on a low-key level at the end of last year. In the beginning, the issue did not attract attention either by domestic or international media. According to the Greek prime minister, the idea was worked out between himself and his Macedonian counterpart; they, alone, he said, decided to take up the matter again with a pro-solution approach for the sake of peace and cooperation and with a vision of the future.

The new talks were conducted mostly between the foreign ministries of the two countries, under the auspices of the UN. The American veteran diplomat Matthew Nimitz, the man who in the mid-90s was originally assigned to mediate between Athens and Skopje but failed in his effort, was again called in to bring the two sides together.

Eventually the renewed process of the Macedonia issue brought back the matter into the political agenda in Greece. Consequently it developed into a major confrontation between the government and the opposition. The main opposition New Democracy Party as well as other parties, plus ultra-conservative circles and part of the church, decided to fight a fierce campaign against the use of the word “Macedonia” in any form in the planned deal refueling a wave of nationalist fervor not seen in Greece since the 90s.

When the two sides indicated that the deal was almost ready, the main opposition party of New Democracy made a last attempt to block it. It called for an emergency no-confidence motion in the Greek Parliament against the Tsipras government which resulted in a three-day highly tense debate with most of the 300 deputies given time to voice their opinions.

For the main conservative opposition, which initiated the motion it was a chance to use a “national” issue to expand its appeal to a wider conservative audience. The new leader of the party, Kyriacos Mitsotakis, accused by some as being a “hostage” of the ultra-conservative wing of his party, used the debate to attack the government as “unpatriotic and treacherous”. But it was the speech by a deputy of the extreme-right party of Golden Dawn (GD) that will stay in the collective memory. Constantinos Barbaroussis, speaking from the podium, called on the army to arrest the president, the prime minister and the defense minister for “high treason” for betraying Greek Macedonia. In turn Barbaroussis himself was accused for high treason, immediately by Greek judges on charges of inciting the army to stage a coup. Some thought, that Barbaroussis move was planned to polarize the public even further and help the conservative circles.

The motion was eventually defeated and Alexis Tsipras accompanied by his team, EU and UN representatives signed a historic agreement with Zoran Zaev on June 17.

The deal has to be approved by Macedonia’s parliament and confirmed in a Macedonian referendum in September, followed by the ratification by the Greek Parliament.

It will be interesting to see how the Greek opposition will use their time until the deal is finalized. Will the deal help Tsipras party? There are rumors that we may witness a reshuffling and merging of parties which may widen the gap between right and left, while Greece in a few months is entering a crucial period of elections.