Crucial phase opens in wrangling over a name

by Stavros Lygeros

(Kathimerini newspaper, English edition: February 12, 2001)

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and FYROM Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski. FYROM refuses to entertain Athens’s proposal for a clear-cut solution. The two governments have signed 35 agreements, which in general are extremely favorable to FYROM, but the Greek Parliament cannot ratify the agreements until the issue of the name is resolved.

The Greek side wants to bring the issue to an end with the offer of an attractive package, but domestic problems in FYROM hinder resolution.

Diplomatic efforts to reach a lasting agreement between Athens and Skopje over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are at a delicate stage. The agreement will lead to a generous package of political, military and economic aid for the newly established state. Sources say the Greek side has made it clear that it will not discuss any kind of double name, nor the absurd formula whereby the country would be called Macedonia but some other name acceptable to Greece would be used in bilateral relations. Equally the name “Republic of Macedonia-Skopje” will not be on the agenda.

Athens is seeking a clear-cut solution which will not harm the good interests or dignity of either side. It believes that such solutions exist and that making them acceptable is simply a matter of political will. The Greek Foreign Ministry has not yet submitted its complete proposal, but some suggested names have been discreetly brought to the attention of the government of Ljubco Georgievski. The crucial negotiations are expected to take place on the sidelines of the Balkan summit on February 22-23 in Skopje, which Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis will attend.

Hopes belied

Everything will depend on the stance of the Slav-Macedonians. The experience of recent years has belied the theory that political overtures and the rapid development in economic relations would convince them of Greece’s good intentions and persuade them to accept a change of name. Similarly belied were the vague hopes that Slav-Macedonians raised during private meetings with Greek representatives, only to dash them when their political goals of the moment were realized.

In the years since the interim agreement was signed, bilateral relations have been normalized, with considerable development being made in the economic sector, where the Greek entrepreneurial presence is significant. Nevertheless, the obstacle of the name remains. The two governments have signed 35 agreements, which in general are extremely favorable to FYROM, but the Greek Parliament cannot ratify the agreements until the issue of the name is resolved.

Problem

For some time the Slav-Macedonians have refused to refer to their country by the name of FYROM, as stipulated by the interim agreement, and which they had been doing for years. They are demanding to use the name of Macedonia. Furthermore, the interim agreement is due to expire, leaving a lacuna. The same problem has arisen with FYROM’s signing of the Stability and Association and Agreement with the European Union.

If this agreement is downgraded by comparison with the agreements the EU has signed with Bulgaria and other candidate countries, it will have tremendous political importance for FYROM. The Slav-Macedonians, however, refuse to budge. But if this agreement is to enter into force, it must be ratified by the Greek Parliament. FYROM’s refusal to budge is perplexing, given the difficult position it is in because of the secessionist tendencies of the Albanian community, which may outnumber Slavs in a decade’s time due to a higher birth rate. The behavior of the Slav-Macedonians is, to a large extent, still conditioned by the policy of former premier Kiro Gligorov, who had transformed the innate instability of the newly founded state into a diplomatic weapon. But the geopolitical environment is qualitatively different now. The West does not want to see FYROM disintegrate, but it would not use military force against the Albanians to prevent such an outcome.

Western officials are already drawing up plans for the cantonization of FYROM.

When tension grows and the threat of an uncontrollable upheaval emerges, it will be NATO itself that will intervene and propose the formation of a federal regime, leaving the Slav-Macedonians out in the cold.

In the early 1990s, Athens suffered a diplomatic defeat over this issue, which it has since absorbed and overcome. Although it is no longer under any pressure, it aims to deal with this unfinished business and get bilateral relations back to normal. For some time now, sources say, Athens has moved the center of gravity away from the contacts between the two countries’ permanent representatives at the United Nations, mediated by Matthew Nimetz, to a higher political level.

Last week FYROM Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim denied local press reports that Athens had offered a package of benefits in exchange for a name change. This package has not yet been offered, but it will be. It will include generous economic assistance, unstinting support in its path toward EU and NATO accession, and support for national security.

This is a tremendous lure for the Slav-Macedonians and Georgievski appears to realize this, but the internal political situation does not allow much hope that reason will prevail.

His government has suffered a serious blow from the telephone-tapping scandal, and is unstable in Parliament following the dissolution of his alliance with Vasil Tupurkovski and the secession of eight politicians that had supported the government.

Opposition leader Branco Crvenkovski is furious with the premier, and is unlikely to offer him support, even in a matter he perceives to be in the national interest.

An indication of the prevailing climate is the fact that FYROM President Boris Trajkovski hastened to torpedo the diplomatic procedures, stating that not changing the country’s name “was not only a matter of supreme national interest, but also of dignity. It is important for the stability of our state.” He also expressed the hope that Athens would accept the existing name of “Macedonia.”

What the Slav-Macedonians - both the political elite and the general public - do not seem to grasp is that the price of their nationalism may eventually be their very existence as a state, at least in its present form.

 

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