A last chance to resolve the issue of the name of the FYROM

by Dimitris Konstantakopoulos

(“Ependytis”, August 25-26, 2001)

Just a decade ago the Greek political establishment was busy playing the role of the latter-day Macedonian freedom-fighter, committing (with the exception of the Greek Communist Party) in the most official and categorical manner both the country and its authority to a policy of refusing to accept the word Macedonia or any of its derivatives as the name of what is currently known as the FYROM. Ten years on, the same establishment has adopted a stance diametrically opposed to its earlier position, blithely indifferent to the abandonment of the ‘battle’ over the name of our northern neighbour and the consequences issuing therefrom. As for the Minister of Foreign Affairs, George Papandreou, while in no way responsible for the genesis of the issue, he has nevertheless yet to show that he can move beyond the usual opportunism and doublespeak which have characterized foreign policy in this area.

The significance of the Macedonian issue goes far beyond the simple question of the name: it involves the credibility (both domestic and international) of Greek foreign policy, and the way in which it is framed and implemented. Greece is a country which obliges its young men to do two years of military service and spends half its annual budget on arms, a country situated in a region fraught with dangers. It simply cannot afford the luxury of treating its foreign and defense policies, its international relations, and its domestic discourse on these policies, with the same irresponsibility that it tends to show in dealing with domestic affairs.

One argument we have been hearing lately from officials at the Foreign Ministry, anxious not to stir up renewed feeling over the choice of name and acceptance of the endorsement of the text by Mr. Leotard, is that the vital thing for Greece at present is that ‘the FYROM should remain united, one undivided country, with no changes to its borders’, enjoying the prospect of a ‘European’ future, with a ‘multicultural society’ and in a region which has succeeded in avoiding the creation of ‘ethnically pure states’ – to borrow an expression used by Mr. Papandreou. However, the same officials express (and rightly so) profound pessimism over the long-term survival of the peace agreement which has been signed and its chances of bringing about those ‘European’ and ‘multicultural’ visions.

For these visions to have had some chance of materializing, NATO and the EU would need to have followed an entirely different policy, putting a halt to the bullying activities of the UCK, which is operating from bases in Kosovo, i.e. under the protection of NATO and EU forces. The agreement, the implementation of which aims to guarantee the presence of the NATO forces in FYROM, does no more than confirm the political recognition of the results of a six-month armed guerilla campaign – a recognition which almost all maintain will not solve but instead worsen the crisis in the FYROM.

Of course it would be graceless, to say the least, if Greece were to announce at the last minute that ‘The agreement will not be signed if we are not given satisfaction on the issue of the name’. But the only cause of this is the failure to anticipate that things would come to this pass, as well as the fact that Greek diplomatic efforts have essentially abandoned what they regard as the thankless task of continually reminding the international community of the differences dividing Athens and Skopje, and of exerting the necessary pressure on Skopje and on our partners.

And the reason our diplomats have abandoned this task is that they do not believe in the rightness and usefulness of this policy. But this means we have lost the opportunity of a mutually satisfactory and dignified issue to the problem. When Athens itself does not insist that its relations with Skopje should depend on the attitude of the latter to the question of the name, and does not exploit the golden opportunity offered by the crisis and the revision of the constitution to raise the issue – then it is difficult to imagine any reason why Skopje should retreat one inch from its present position. And the consequence for Greece is that we incur the ongoing cost of a dispute which we are no longer even seeking to win, and of a policy which our political leaders do not have the courage to proclaim openly, following the example set years ago now by Andreas Papandreou in the mea culpa he delivered before Parliament.

It is a fact that before the crisis erupted negotiations with Mr. Georgievski on finding a compromise formula had advanced to an encouraging point, although there are those who believe that this was no more than a maneuver on the part of Georgievski, who did not actually possess the political authority to secure approval of such a solution at home. Yet why was the crisis seen by Greece’s diplomats as a problem rather than an opportunity to resolve the issue? Why did Athens not demand a resolution of the problem from Skopje in exchange for its support in the crisis? Instead of throwing Greece’s diplomatic weight (Mallias-Rontos proposals) into persuading Skopje to accept terms unfavorable to the Macedonian Slavs?

In any case, the last chance has now presented itself. The constitutional reform which is about to begin in the FYROM may well be the final opportunity to raise and to resolve the issue, which otherwise threatens to remain a permanent millstone around the neck of Greek foreign policy, while the outcome will also serve as a verdict on the efficacy of Greek diplomacy.


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