Macedonia's dispute with Greece

Macedonian Greeks protest in a rally in Melbourne in April 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Macedonian Greeks protest in a rally in Melbourne in April 2007. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

ESI proposal on Macedonia's name dispute with Greece: Breaking the Macedonian deadlock before the end of 2012 (November 2012)

The dispute over Macedonia's constitutional name goes back to the Republic of Macedonia's declaration of independence in 1991.

Greece claims that the term Macedonia refers to the historical Kingdom of Macedon and that its use in a neighbouring country's name would usurp an essential part of exclusively "Greek" culture and heritage. It also contends that the use of the name Macedonia implies territorial ambitions on a northern Greek province that bears the same name.

Following the Republic of Macedonia's declaration of independence in 1991, Greece's vigorous objections to the inclusion of the word "Macedonia" in the country's name delayed its recognition by the international community and its accession to the UN. A compromise formula, "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), was devised as a provisional reference rather than an official name for the country. In April 1993, Macedonia joined the UN under this name. Other international organisations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, adopted the UN terminology, and many countries recognised the country as the FYR of Macedonia. Greece initially did not recognise the country at all, and imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia. The embargo, which lasted until 1995, was particularly damaging for the Macedonian economy; as a landlocked country, it is dependent on access to Greek ports.

A 1995 Interim Accord, in which neither country is mentioned by name, led to a relative normalisation of relations. The Republic of Macedonia agreed to alter its flag, dropping the Vergina Sun, a symbol found among the tombs of the ancient kings of Macedon (and designated by the Greek Parliament in 1993 as an official national symbol). Macedonia also made amendments to its constitution, expressly denying any claims on Greek territory. Greece agreed not to block Macedonian accession to international organisations of which Greece was itself a member, provided that Macedonia would accede under the name of "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." Greece has since become a close economic partner and one of the largest foreign investors in Macedonia.

However, the name issue has not been resolved, despite UN mediation. Over 100 countries, including all permanent UN Security Council members except France, have recognised Macedonia under its constitutional name. But this is of little help to Macedonia to achieve its most important foreign policy aims.

In April 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Greece rejected all proposals by the Macedonian government and UN mediator Matthew Nimetz – including the name "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" – and vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO. As Macedonia would have also agreed to accede as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", the Greek veto was nothing but a clear breach of the 1995 Interim Agreement.

In December 2009, Greece vetoed the start of Macedonia's EU membership negotiations.

The core of the problem is a complete lack of trust. Greece realises that its only leverage to get the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name is to use its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia's path to EU membership.

People and leaders in Skopje might be prepared to make a concession on the name of the country, but only under one condition: that it ensures the country's EU accession. Politicians are unlikely to accept to change the name for the mere promise of starting talks with an uncertain outcome. No Greek government can guarantee Skopje that any concession made today – to unlock the door to EU accession talks – will actually stick once a new Greek government comes to power. In addition, Greek leaders fear that if they allow the EU accession talks of Macedonia to proceed without a deal on the name, Greece will lose leverage, no longer being assured of a favourable compromise at a later stage.

Greece is adamant that any change of name must be erga omnes, i.e. must be part of the Macedonian constitution and used in relations with the entire world, not just with Greece or international institutions. Some in Greece want to go further and also change the name of the people ("Macedonians") and the language ("Macedonian"), something that any government in Skopje is very unlikely to ever accept. In fact, the fear that a concession on the name of the country will only be a prelude to further Greek demands is what keeps leaders in Skopje from making any concession whatsoever.

This is the challenge: Both Greece and Macedonia have a vital interest in ensuring that other enlargement-sceptical countries in Europe not hide behind them and their dispute to undermine the whole Western Balkans accession agenda. Yet Macedonians will only change the name erga omnes if they know that they will then actually join the EU – and this is the final word. And Greece will only open the road to EU accession (starting with the opening of accession talks) if Macedonia changes the constitution.

How can this conundrum be resolved?


Breaking the Macedonian deadlock

What is needed is a way forward that accepts the bottom lines for Athens and Skopje. This can be achieved through a constitutional amendment in Skopje that changes the name of the country with a geographic qualifier today: to replace "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" where it is currently in use, allowing Athens to support the start of EU accession talks and to send an invitation to join NATO later this year or early next year, but which foresees that the change will enter into force permanently and erga omnes on the day Macedonia actually joins the EU.

Such a solution is possible if the following happens:

1. There is active mediation between both sides, which focuses solely on finding a compromise name for the country with a geographical modifier, addressing the issues of NATO accession and the opening of EU accession talks.

2. Greece and the Republic of Macedonia (RM) agree on a compromise name, XYZ, with a geographical modifier. This will immediately replace F.Y.R.O.M. wherever that is currently in use in international relations.

3. Greece commits to allow RM to join NATO under this new provisional name XYZ and an invitation to join NATO is extended.

4. RM changes its constitution to say something like this: "From the day the Republic of Macedonia joins the European Union, the international name of the country will be XYZ, used erga omnes in all languages other than the official languages of the country."

The promised referendum on EU accession at the end of the negotiation process becomes the de facto referendum on the name issue (there was no referendum for F.Y.R.O.M., and until accession the new name is used only in place of F.Y.R.O.M.).

Leaders in RM replace one name their citizens do not like (referring to a state that has disappeared decades ago, Yugoslavia) with another name they do not like, both used in the same way.

Neither side loses leverage in the future. If future Greek governments block EU accession of RM or make additional demands judged unacceptable in Skopje this would also delay the entering into force of the core provision of this compromise. Greece shows its EU partners that it remains actively in favour of Balkan enlargement. Greece also keeps its leverage until the very end of the accession process.

ESI proposal on Macedonia's name dispute with Greece: Breaking the Macedonian deadlock before the end of 2012 (November 2012)