One of the longest-running and also seemingly silliest disputes in the Balkans may have finally been resolved after weeks of several near breakthroughs. Macedonia agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia so that it no longer shares a name with a region in Greece. But the agreement is merely the first step to ending the decades-old dispute. Translating it into reality will require much more, as there are important actors within Greece, Macedonia, and beyond who would like to see the agreement fail. If the deal succeeds, however, it will likely provide a series of positive knock-on-effects and reap benefits not just for the two countries in question but also for the Balkans at large.
LONG ROAD AHEAD
To many Greeks, the name Macedonia insinuated a claim to the eponymous northern region of Greece. From the Macedonians’ perspective, Athens’ refusal to accept the name they had chosen for their country was a denial of their national identity. The conflict was never substantive in nature, but there was still a lot at stake. Nationalists in both countries built their political careers on the issue, from former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Gruevski, who was recently sentenced to two years of jail for corruption but remains protected by parliamentary immunity. What stalled a resolution was the asymmetry of the conflict. Greece held the trump cards by being in the European Union and NATO and had little incentive to compromise, and Macedonia often felt that it was being blackmailed into making a concession.
In the end, Macedonia relented. It will be referred to as the Republic of North Macedonia not only internationally but domestically—a major compromise. But as outlined in the text of the agreement leaked by the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, citizens of Macedonia will still be called Macedonians in international documents and their language will continue to be Macedonian.
This elaborate compromise became possible after the nationalist government in Macedonia was forced out following extensive protests over major abuses of power last year. The new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, and the foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, realized that to change the country’s dynamics they needed to unlock EU and NATO membership, which was possible only by placating Athens. In Greece, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias saw in the agreement the opportunity to improve their international reputation and secure their own personal legacies. They seized the opportunity, although it helped that the EU prodded them along, realizing that the Balkan countries were heading in the wrong direction with their backsliding democracies and Russia’s growing influence over them.
If the deal succeeds, it will likely provide a series of positive knock-on-effects and reap benefits not just for the two countries in question but also for the Balkans at large.
This combination of circumstances helped propel the agreement forward. But the path to implementing the deal remains long. First, the EU will invite Macedonia to begin accession talks in late June or early July. Afterward, Skopje will ratify the agreement but without the normal two-thirds of Parliament that is required for constitutional changes, thus paving the way for a referendum on the name change in the fall. If voters agree to the new name, the constitutional reform that would follow would be much easier to pass. Only after Macedonia takes these steps does Greece then ratify the agreement. If Skopje fails to pass the legislation domestically, Greece can refuse to ratify NATO membership or block Macedonia from EU accession.
There are thus formidable obstacles to the agreement’s acceptance at home. In Greece, the junior coalition party, the far-right Independent Greeks, previously rejected any agreement that would even mention Macedonia. This means that the ruling Syriza party will have to gather support from opposition parties or persuade its coalition partner to back a deal. The largest opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, which is expected to win the next election, is divided over the issue, but will use the agreement to exploit the difference between the coalition parties and push for early elections. The mass rallies against a compromise in the name dispute that recently hit Athens and Thessaloniki indicate that it will be a politically hot summer.
In Macedonia, the obstacles are potentially more formidable. While the government has a firmer majority, President Gjorge Ivanov has threatened to torpedo a deal. He had already sought to obstruct the formation of the current government and supported the previous ruling party, which was implicated in serious crimes, including electoral fraud and corruption. The nationalist opposition party is trying to gain traction for its resistance to the deal. To pass, the agreement will eventually require a wide parliamentary majority, including votes from the opposition. Possibly the largest challenge to the agreement’s survival is a promised referendum on its new name that is planned for the fall when—so it is hoped—Macedonia receives an invitation to join NATO and begins EU accession talks. Thus, the vote would not simply be on ratifying the agreement but also on Euro-Atlantic integration. A referendum could fail, given that there is a 50 percent voter turnout requirement and that the government must energize its supporters to vote, including the large Albanian minority, which makes up around 20–25 percent of the populace.
If the agreement fails, there will be limited damage in Greece, but the Macedonian government will be seriously weakened, and with it the favorable momentum that has been building for European integration in the western Balkans.
At the same time, there are regional forces—just as there are national ones within Greece and Macedonia—that would prefer the deal to fall through. Just a few days before Athens and Skopje reached an agreement, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban openly encouraged the obstructionist Macedonian opposition to reject a deal and praised the group for resisting foreign pressure. This open intervention by an EU government not only highlights the brittle nature of the EU but also demonstrates how the agreement runs counter to the interests of far-right populists in Europe, many of whom favor scrapping the EU altogether and would most certainly be against expanding membership.
The agreement is not only about an overdue resolution to the name dispute. It also constitutes a breaking point for the region. If it succeeds, it can revitalize EU integration and the overall reform dynamics across the other countries awaiting membership...But a failure would chill reform efforts across the western Balkans.
It is no surprise that Russia has taken a similar line. Historically, Russia has shown little interest in Macedonia and vice versa, unlike with neighboring Serbia. But two years ago, when the name dispute hit its peak, Russia began supporting the nationalist ruling VMRO-DPMNE. Russian media outlets started talking about the threat of color revolutions, echoing the narrative of right-wing populists and warning about the noxious foreign influence of billionaire philanthropist George Soros. Recently, the Russian ideologue Alexander Dugin, whose anti-Western thought underpins official Russian positions and who had close ties to the Kremlin, paid a visit to Macedonia to lend his support for a minor pro-Russian party. Still, most Macedonians want to join the EU. Yet, they have been divided in the polls over whether they are willing to change the name as a price. Thus, the government will have to do a lot of persuading to convince them that the agreement is a price worth paying.
For Russia, its interest in the naming dispute is to prevent EU and NATO enlargement and keep the conflict in the western Balkans unresolved, which enables it to feed tensions and generate hostility among EU members. The Greek government, for example, is generally seen as pro-Russian, while the Macedonian government is not and is eager to diminish Russian influence by joining NATO and the EU. This has not affected the agreement or relations between Greece and Macedonia, but it pulls Russia in different directions. That is why going forward Moscow may continue fanning the anger of the deal’s opponents even if it would most likely refrain from openly sabotaging the agreement. Russia launched a virulent campaign against Montenegrin NATO membership, for example, attacking the government and possibly providing support for a murky armed antigovernment plot during the 2016 elections. Then in March 2018, Russia threatened negative consequences for bilateral relations if Macedonia were to join NATO. Indeed, if Macedonia were to become a member, the security vacuum in the Balkans would shrink, leaving only Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia out of the alliance.
With all this said, the positive effects of this agreement are substantial. First, the EU implicitly linked Albania and Macedonia by recommending six weeks ago candidate status for both countries. This means that the EU is in the process of negotiating with four countries to join the union, the other two being Serbia and Montenegro. This is a positive move forward, as it will likely unlock competition among the countries about which of them “gets in” first, meaning, they would be incentivized to more quickly enact the needed reforms. This is what happened during the 2004 enlargement when none of the central European countries being admitted wanted to be left behind or beaten by the others. Back then, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were front-runners and encouraged citizens of Slovakia to dump the local strongman Vladimir Meciar. Each of them stepped up their efforts to beat the other at fulfilling EU requirements. If Macedonia joins the group, it will put greater pressure on the other candidates to deliver reforms. When it comes to rule of law, Macedonia and Albania have both engaged in more substantive reforms than Serbia and Montenegro. Macedonia is also moving toward greater media freedom and reducing the clientalism that has long shaped the influence of the ruling parties over the state. Montenegro is stagnating at best and Serbia is moving backward.
In this regard, the agreement is not only about an overdue resolution to the name dispute. It also constitutes a breaking point for the region. If it succeeds, it can revitalize EU integration and the overall reform dynamics across the other countries awaiting membership, as well as increase pressure on Serbia and Kosovo to resolve their differences, so as not to be left behind. If the agreement fails, it might take years for another opportunity like this one to appear—with two pragmatic governments in Macedonia and Greece that are able to negotiate with each other and willing to take risks. A failure would also chill reform efforts across the western Balkans in the interim. While outsiders have largely taken a backseat during the negotiations, it would help for the United States, Brussels, and the major European powers to shore up the deal and ensure it is a success.