On 5 June, the centre-right coalition of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was re-elected for a second term in office.
As predicted, Gruevski’s cumbersomely-named Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization and Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) formed a governing coalition with the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration. Aside from a handful of complaints about ballot-rigging in ethnic Albanian areas close to the country’s northern border with the disputed province of Kosovo, the election was an uneventful one – just as one might expect it would be in a South Balkan republic with little more than two million citizens. Gruevski’s coalition, while struggling to deal with the realities of the country’s crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment rate, has two clear priorities: achieving Macedonian membership of both NATO and the EU.
Both of these objectives, however, appear to be little more than a pipe-dream as a result of a debilitating name dispute with its southern neighbour, Greece, which has hampered its ability to operate on the international stage.
Since a referendum sealed Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country’s constitution has referred to the state as the ‘Republic of Macedonia’. Opposition from Greece to this name, however, meant it took until April 1993 for the country to be recognised by the United Nations, yet under the rather clumsy title of the ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM).
The opposition to official recognition of the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ stems from rather paranoid concerns on the part of Greece that Skopje is seeking to make irredentist territorial claims on the historic Kingdom of Macedonia which includes the northern Greek province of ‘Makedonia’.
Perplexingly, Athens also cites the country’s predilection for erecting statues of Alexander the Great - the most recent being a $13 million gold-cast in Skopje’s main square - as rather tenuous evidence that Macedonia is seeking to claim Greece’s cultural heritage as its own.
This is, at the very best, a shrill over-reaction on the part of the Greek government.
Even the briefest of visits to Skopje would demonstrate the efforts of the Macedonian government to regenerate the city; from the ongoing repairs to the imposing Kale Fortress which dominates the city’s skyline to the aesthetically-sympathetic buildings springing up along the banks of the Vardar River. In reality, both Greece and the Republic of Macedonia are in agreement with the historical fact that both contained land within the then-Kingdom of Macedonia. As a result, basic logic dictates that the two nations will share some historical similarities – including national figureheads.
Aside from containing portions of the former Kingdom of Macedonia, the modern-day Republic also encompasses portions of ancient Bulgaria. Indeed, while many Macedonians adhere to the Eastern Orthodox religion, the minutiae of the traditions to which its practitioners adhere are closer to those of the Bulgarian wing of the church than Hellenic customs. As with the remainder of the Balkans, the modern-day Republic of Macedonia is a cultural and ethnic melting pot – just as Greece itself is.
Greece’s fears in respect of Macedonia are made all the more curious by the Greek government’s relative silence on the issue of the independence of Kosovo. While technically opposed to Kosovan independence from Serbia, the Greek government accepts the legality of passports and other formal documents issued by the authorities in Pristina.
If Greece was truly concerned about territorial expansionism, it would offer more fulsome opposition to the creation of an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian state in South East Europe – particularly given that the realisation of a ‘Greater Albania’ includes the annexation of the Epirus and Yiannitsa regions of modern-day Greece.
As far as acting on irrational fears about irredentism are concerned, the Papandreou administration and Karamanlis government before it are highly selective. It would be foolish to deny that the country continues to face significant and political challenges, yet Macedonia should undoubtedly be offered a path to European Union accession. Indeed, European Union leaders have made a clear undertaking to continue the process of EU expansion to include all Western Balkan nations.
While Macedonia first submitted its application for EU membership in 2004, the Greek government has insisted the country be referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at all times. Upon receipt of the application, Macedonia’s decision to name Skopje airport ‘Alexander the Great International’ was almost immediately cited by the Greek government as an explicit act of “aggression” towards its southern neighbour. Since 2008, the resolution of the naming dispute has been a formally-codified pre-condition of Macedonian accession.
Just as the country’s EU aspirations have been stalled, Macedonia’s aspiration to join NATO has similarly been rejected by Greek opposition. Despite sending troops to Afghanistan, proposals to invite the country to join the organisation were vetoed by Greece at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest – again, subject to resolving the naming dispute. Greece did, however, vote in favour of opening membership negotiations with Albania and Croatia, both of which acceded to membership a year later.
Greece’s policy of paranoia towards Macedonia does nothing to inspire confidence in Greece as a responsible actor in either regional or global policy. Indeed, rather than view the naming dispute as a bilateral disagreement between two governments, it has sought to ‘Europeanise’ the issue and thus deny a democratic country in South East Europe a chance to engage fully with supranational bodies. Such a chance was not denied to Greece when it joined the then-EEC in 1981, despite its numerous diplomatic entanglements in respect of Cyprus and Turkey.
Greece is a country with not inconsiderable problems. The failure of the Hellenic social model to provide an economically viable future for the country’s citizens has been made painfully clear to people across the world. Elevating this dispute to an EU level and sustaining it in the corridors of NATO and the United Nations for almost two decades is at best laughable and, at worst, pathetic.
Grow up, Greece.
Daniel Hamilton is Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. He writes in a personal capacity.