A name compromise now. Or perhaps never? (Interview in Dnevnik)

Here is the most recent interview on the ESI proposal on the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece which I just gave to the Macedonian daily Paper Dnevnik. The Macedonian version is online as well.

Previous press coverage and reactions to the proposal you find here.

Your proposal was discussed in Macedonia but not in Greece. Do you think that Greece could accept such an arrangement?

Yes, I do. There is a simple reason why both Macedonia and Greece could accept this: it is better than the status quo for both. At this moment EU Balkan enlargement is completely blocked. Serbia is blocked because of Kosovo; it is simply inconceivable that the EU will admit another country with an unsolved territorial dispute, as it has done in the case of Cyprus, and this is slowly becoming clear to Belgrade. Bosnia and Kosovo are blocked because they are still protectorates. Turkey is negotiating but moving at snail’s pace because of the Cyprus issue. And Macedonia, the frontrunner among the Balkan states so often in the past, is blocked because of the name. Some EU member states, eager to postpone the next wave of accession for another generation, hide behind these unresolved issues. The current government in Athens does not like this. Remember, Papandreou has taken political risks before to promote the EU integration of the region: in 1999 he changed decades of Greek foreign policy to support, rather than to oppose, Turkey becoming a candidate for EU accession. He put a lot of energy behind the Thessaloniki summit in 2003 to persuade a skeptical EU to give the Balkans a clear perspective.  The same team in Athens is now trying to create new momentum in favour of Balkan enlargement again, which they see as a matter of Greek national interest.

Why would your proposal be acceptable for Greece?

Here is what could happen.  First Macedonia and Greece agree on a name, such as “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”, or something similar, to replace Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia wherever FYROM is used now: in the EU, in the UN and in other international organizations. Macedonia changes its constitution to say that from the moment it becomes an EU member its international name will be, for instance, “Republic of Macedonia Vardar”. In the Macedonian language the country would remain “Republika Makedonija”. Next, Macedonia joins Nato and EU accession talks begin still in 2010. So what would happen in Athens? The Greek government would be attacked, of course. That is what oppositions do, and Samaras is not famous for his moderation in this particular matter. They could complain: “You allow Macedonia to join NATO and unblock the EU accession talks without a solution of the name entering into force now.” But Papandreou could say that this compromise is still better than what any other Greek government, including those in which Samaras served, have achieved in two decades. First, to have Macedonia join Nato and to see EU enlargement continue is in Athen’s vital interest. Second, he can point to the constitutional amendment and he could warn that those in Greece who want to press for further concessions from Skopje would risk losing everything. And third, he can ask what the policy of the past two decades has really achieved even for the most radical Greek nationalist? This compromise makes it unattractive for any future Greek government to use its veto at any stage in the accession process. Objectively it then becomes a Greek interest to see Macedonia join the EU rather sooner, whoever is in power in Athens.

Diplomatic sources in Athens say that the last deadline for Papandreou to find a solution for the name issue is end of August or mid September because the autumn will be difficult for the Greek government. How credible is this in your opinion?

I think it is credible. Papandreou is still popular in Greece, but the hardest economic and social reforms are yet to come. No unpopular Greek government would be able to make any compromise, which still has to be sold to the public. This promises to be a hot autumn in Greece, and managing the economic reforms and likely protests will absorb all the government’s attention. At this moment there are two strong governments, both in Skopje and in Athens.  There will not be a better opportunity to resolve this than exists in the next few weeks. Perhaps not for another decade or more. Perhaps never.

How much the Greek crisis influences the search for the name solution?

I believe that this government in Athens would have wanted to solve the problem even without a crisis, but the economic crisis has given it additional arguments. First, it can argue that Greece needs to have good relations with all of its neighbours for economic reasons. It cannot afford to alienate either potential tourists or potential markets if it wants to get out of its economic hole. If South East Europe develops, it will also help Greek companies. Second, Greece has seen its European reputation undermined due to economic mismanagement. Any success in foreign policy would restore it as a credible actor in Brussels.

Have you had some contacts in the Macedonian government and do you believe that they could accept your proposal?

Yes and yes. Of course, some will say that there should never ever be a compromise. Some still believe – ignoring what the European Council hast now stated repeatedly – that perhaps the EU will not demand a compromise before opening accession talks. But even if you are opposed to ever changing to name you might like this particular proposal! Here is what the government could tell those who want no concession at all, ever: “First, we get Macedonia into Nato.  At a moment when there is growing uncertainty again about the future of the Balkans this is good for investors, for interethnic relations and for Macedonia’s position in the world. Second, we start EU accession talks. This is also good in itself, even if in the end we decide that we do not want to join. Since Turkey started accession talks, it has seen its economy grow faster than ever before. The same has been the experience of other countries. Third, when our EU accession talks are completed the Macedonian public can decide in a referendum whether it actually wants to join the EU and change its international name or whether it does not want to join and keep the current name. This is a decision that will be taken then, and it is one that the people will make directly once they have a real choice. In the meantime, Macedonia reasserts its position as a frontrunner in the Balkans. In the very worst case, if a future Greek government or another EU government blocks Macedonia’s EU accession, nothing is lost. It is a win-win situation. So, even if you live in Australia and do not care much about Macedonia joining the EU, you might think that this is, at least, a tactical gain. If you live in Stip or Kumanovo or Ohrid or Skopje, you certainly do.”

If you have to say who is more credible saying that they want a compromise on the name issue, who would you choose between Skopje and Athens?

Both say that they want a compromise. What I do not know is whether the leaders will have the courage to take any decision, because clearly previous generations of leaders did not on this matter.  As I said before, Papandreou has proven in the past, most spectacularly with Turkey, that he is capable of taking unpopular decisions if he believes they are in Greece’s long-term interest. In the context of implementing the Ohrid Agreement leaders in Macedonia have also shown courage and determination, which is why Skopje is now quite far ahead of Belgrade. At the same time both countries have red lines. No Macedonian leader will be able to change the name simply in return for the opening of talks, with no guarantee that there will not be more demands later, once a concession is made. And no Greek leader can give up totally on the idea of a change in the name. This means simply that both Skopje and Athens need a compromise they can defend, because in both countries, whatever is agreed, it will be attacked by some.

Do you believe in fast solution that would allow Macedonia to get into NATO and start EU talks?

If a solution is found in the next weeks, both NATO and the start of EU talks will happen very soon. This would be a very encouraging signal, benefiting Athens, Skopje and the whole Balkans. What makes me nervous is the alternative. If there is no solution now, when circumstances are better than they have ever been before, then there might not be another breakthrough for the next two decades. The name issue would become a truly frozen bilateral conflict, like Spain and the UK’s disagreement over Gibraltar, which nobody believes will ever be resolved. This is a very realistic danger.

You were recently in Brussels. How would you qualify the mood concerning the name issue? Are people there impatient or become more and more indifferent?

You have both. Those who work on enlargement are cautiously hopeful, but in a sense they have to be: the future of their job depends in part on finding a solution.  People who work on enlargement believe that a solution has never been closer: this is what they have been told by the parties involved as well.  As a result there would be tremendous disappointment if this fails. On the other hand there are people less keen on enlargement, which is a large number.  They have become indifferent a long time ago. They think that this is simply another irrational Balkan dispute, which shows why it was a mistake to admit any Balkan countries to the EU in the first place. They fear the day when even more Balkan countries might join and welcome any reason for delay. They read the German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine a few weeks ago, which wrote that our proposal has only one problem: “it is too reasonable.” They do not believe that reasonable solutions ever work in the Balkans.

Does Brussels still believe that the name issue could be solved rapidly?

Few people believe in a rapid solution after 19 years without one, but some people certainly hope that it will be solved soon.  This is particularly true for those who work in DG enlargement. They know that the credibility of an EU perspective cannot be stretched out forever. They want an end to this conflict almost as badly as people in the region.  But I did not find many people in Brussels willing to put their own money on a breakthrough. When it will happen, it will still be a tremendous surprise to everyone. As one of the most optimistic officials told me: “While I believe that this time a breakthrough could happen, and ought to happen, and would be in everybody’s objective interest to happen, I still cannot believe that it will happen.”

EC is not satisfied with the reform process in Macedonia. Can Macedonia expect more critical remarks from Brussels in the following months?

Yes. The problem is, however, that without a credible enlargement perspective any critical remarks from Brussels, however justified, are unlikely to achieve much. If a country does not believe it will ever join, whatever the state of reforms, why worry about a critical report from Brussels? The next weeks will also decide about the future of the EU’s leverage and influence, not only in Skopje but in the whole Western Balkans.

Dnevnik, Monday 16 August 2010

One Reply to “A name compromise now. Or perhaps never? (Interview in Dnevnik)”

  1. Hi Gerald (and all other hard working people in ESI),

    I know this is an “old” article, but I only came across it now (just before Christmas 2010 🙂 and since this is still hot issue (and I believe it will be for a few more years) I dare make a comment, since you have none so far here.

    And please take it one sided if you wish (I am an Australian of Macedonian origin, or “Ethnic Macedonian” as they would say in democratic Australia), I will make comment as seen from my position – physically far from my motherland, but with my heart still in Macedonia.

    Firstly, let me congratulate Gerald for his constructive thinking. I do really try to put myself into his shoes and do understand that he’s got a genuine desire to do something positive in resolving this dispute over a name.

    The difficulty is Gerald, and I do mean this with the highest respect for your work, that you and all EU politicians cannot even imagine what it feels like when somebody is denying your own identity, your culture, history and language. You cannot imagine how it feels to be alive, and yet others are telling you that you do not exist.

    No matter how convincing Greek arguments sound like, they have nothing they are loosing in this “compromise” discussions, as the definition of a compromise is when both sides have to give up something to achieve an agreement where the two sides can be at least partially satisfied.

    Most Macedonians, including myself, fail to understand what is that Greece is giving up or loosing in such discussions for a “compromise”? They do not loose anything, on the contrary they intend to cover up their old crime in genocide towards Aegean Macedonians from the time of Metaxas and all other little Hitlers from Greece’s recent past.

    So, the proposals and ideas put forward by Gerald (and many other politician and mediators) are, to put it bluntly, efforts to solve a mathematical equation where there are no variables.
    This is impossible. If 2+2 = 4, you can not try and find a solution for something that is not a problem, but a simple and obvious logical statement.

    It is a childish argument by Greece when they say Skopje has territorial claims over Greece.
    The Macedonian constitution even has clear statement where it is explicitly said that Republic of Macedonia has no territorial claims on any of the neighbouring countries (despite Macedonian minorities living their).
    This constitutional amendment was done back in the very early days of the Macedonian independence from Yugoslavia in early 1990-es. It was then when also under the Greek pressure – the first Macedonian official flag was also changed (not that Greece ever had such or similar flag, with yellow sun-star on red background – mind you even the Socialistic Republic of Macedonia as part of Yugoslavia, since 1943 had red flag with yellow five-star).

    Now, for any reasonable Greek or EU politician this willingness to change the flag and also the constitution would have been clear and sufficient signs that Macedonia doesn’t want trouble, but wants peaceful coexistence in the present day borders.

    Of course, this was not understood as a gesture of good will.

    Unfortunately, like with their today’s economy and 14-salaries a year, Greek greediness doesn’t stop there. They saw Macedonians are “stupid” and “have no spine”, so why not ask for everything – let’s erase these people completely. Let’s deny their language (which is by the way internationally recognised for decades, and taught in Universities all over the world), let’s deny their identity – they are invented people, created by Tito’s politics…

    Well, if one thing is certain, it is that Macedonian people are probably the most tolerant and most hospitable people on the planet, and the ones least interested in fights. I am proud of it.

    But don’t assume even for one second that these attributes have no limit.

    What is happening today to my Macedonian people is nothing short of pure fascism and genocide in a blue wrapping with yellow stars (yes – you recognised the EU flag).

    I blame EU more than the Greek xenophobic government, because EU hasn’t got the guts to tell one of her ill-behaved members that what they are asking is nonsense of the highest order.

    I blame the creators of divided Macedonia who have the key when and how this division happened back in 1913 – without consensus of the people living their. They know who they are, but certainly England, France, Austria would be some of the main-players from 1913.

    What good is for Macedonia to be accepted in EU if it changes its name and identity?

    “We want you in EU, but we don’t really want you as you are, but we will accept you in our “priviledged-club” if you change your identity.”

    Can’t you see the stupidity of such a “Democracy of Nations club” ?

    Despite all the bitterness I have spelled above, I am optimistic, and I DO know what is the real possible solution Gerald.

    Like in Mathematics again, you can solve the problem not by asking the side that has no issue with it’s own name, but by suggesting a solution to the side that created the problem/dispute.

    Greece only renamed their Northern Greece province to Macedonia around 20 years ago.
    Contrary to that, Republic of Macedonia was Socialistic Republic of Macedonia, since 1943.

    Nobody asks Greece why did they rename their Northern province to Macedonia only recently? Isn’t it very obvious that there were some politically manipulating intentions there?
    Even Macedonian people and government never really objected to such a change.
    We do respect the freedom of choice, even if somebody uses our own name.
    Maybe, we are all too well used to have Greeks changing Macedonian names in the Northern Greece for the last 100 years (since 913).

    So the solution, as I hinted above, is very clear and just, and should be welcomed by EU: Macedonian people from Republic of Macedonia, but I am also certain Macedonian people from Greece would agree to have this province renamed (again) to Greek Macedonia !

    This is an elegant solution as it defines the “Greekness” of that part of Macedonia (which Greeks insist on so much to be recognised as Greek), and it clearly indicates the Geographical difference between “Greek Macedonia” and the Republic of Macedonia.

    If Greeks do not like nor accept such a proposal/solution – than there is something really mean and hidden in their propaganda that they are “interested in a compromised solution”, where, again, only the Macedonian side gives up and looses everything and the Greek absolutely nothing. This is why this will never work out.

    At the end, please allow me to wish everybody a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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