Name game over Macedonia

Name game over Macedonia

While our attention is focused on developments in Syria, let us not miss some interesting developments that are taking place in Turkey’s closest western neighbor, Greece.

Diplomatic developments over the last few months may finally resolve a festering bilateral issue after decades of delays and a lack of progressive policies.

“Kotzias has turned the world of the foreign ministry upside down,” a senior Greek diplomat told me during a casual conversation at the beginning of this month. Known for his close relations with the current Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, this experienced diplomat with a long career in difficult posts was very hopeful about the prospects of Greek foreign policy.

“He is determined to solve age-old issues, which have been gathering dust in the ministry for decades. Nobody wanted to touch them,” he said.

The words of this diplomat came to my mind while following recent diplomatic efforts between Greece and FYROM over the official and final name to be given to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, now that this small Balkan country is close to becoming a member of NATO and probably the EU.

The dispute between Athens and Skopje on how to call the formerly autonomous province of former Yugoslavia is one of the least understood puzzles in the world of diplomacy. It emerged in 1991, immediately after the then Socialist Republic of Macedonia decided through referendum to declare its independence from the disintegrating Yugoslavia.

Greece objected to the fledging state adopting the name Macedonia, as Macedonia refers to a region within the borders of the modern Greek state. No other region outside its national border could claim the Greek origins of that name, least of all the Slavic region of Skopje. The refusal to recognize the new republic resulted in a diplomatic dispute that has lasted for twenty-seven years.

I do not know if recent NATO plans to incorporate Skopje into the alliance to form a pro-NATO Balkan belt against the Russian “threat” was the main reason for the conditions to suddenly change. Probably, yes. But the election last May of a new leader in Skopje with a more conciliatory approach to the “name” problem brought Mathew Nimetz into a frantic shuttle diplomatic mission between Athens and Skopje. The 78-year-old special envoy of former President Bill Clinton, who was appointed to solve the Macedonia issue in 1994, now seems determined to close the problem.

After almost three years in government, Alexis Tsipras has been criticized relentlessly by the opposition for a lack of honesty and experience. Yet his foreign minister has managed to build up a profile of a new-style diplomacy that could scare other, more senior diplomats who would prefer Greece not to touch “hot issues” in case they got burnt.

Kotzias never hid his views on diplomacy. As an academic, he has always insisted that an independent “multidimensional, multifocal foreign policy could be conducted even by a small state like Greece as long as it takes advantage of the global circumstances.”

The Macedonian issue is his latest challenge. Nationalist sentiments still run high over the propriety of the name. Greeks from all over Greece gathered again yesterday in their thousands in Thessaloniki to protest against any agreement with “Skopje” that would allow the use of “Macedonia” as a mutually acceptable name.

It is obvious that there is considerable pressure by Greece’s allies to “conclude” the issue. Being almost certain that some solution will be eventually found “over the name,” it would be interesting to see what Greece would gain from “taking advantage of current circumstances in a multifocal diplomatic environment,” as per the words of the Greek Foreign Minister.

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