The name dispute which has hampered Skopje’s path towards NATO and the EU receives fresh optimism. Both the new Macedonian government and the Greek Foreign Minister have signaled unusual goodwill for a soon-to-reach compromise. While some analysts assert that the ‘China factor’ may tone down Skopje’s thrust to the West, such a view is overly simplistic and should not pollute the hopes for a political reconciliation.
Skopje and Athens have signaled unprecedented goodwill to find a compromise in the long-standing name issue, but some are wondering whether this is prompted more by the ‘EU factor’ or rather by the ‘China factor’. China has a growing presence in Southeast Europe where it entices regional governments with promising infrastructure projects of unrivaled immensity.
There are certainly many more factors at play. The Macedonian government under Zoran Zaev – appointed in mid-May 2017 – consists of former opposition parties that have traditionally exhibited a flexible stance regarding the country name. The new foreign ministry is strongly committed to pursue the achievement of EU and NATO membership as its priority. This had not been the case with VMRO-DPMNE, the nationalist party which had ruled the country from 1998-2002 and 2006-2016. Its policy of “Antikvizacija” (antiquisation) had claimed historical personalities such as Alexander the Great or Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria as forefathers of an alleged Macedonian ‘nation’, often at the brink of perceived irredentism.
Thus, in the past, Skopje’s hopeful ambitions to join the NATO and the EU have been repeatedly hindered by Greece’s threat to veto any such moves. Athens asserts that Skopje has no right in the country name they use – ‘Republic of Macedonia’ – which forced the small Western Balkan republic to internationally acts as FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia).
Now Macedonia’s new Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, expressed his will to compromise on the name issue (though concrete proposals for a new country name have not been made public yet). He is resolved to fulfil his promise of embarking to Greece as his first official visit at the end of June. His Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias, responded with a positive pledge to find a joint solution. Such unusually benevolent utterances path the way for positive negotiations.
Failed Mediation Attempts and Traumatic Blockings
Ever since Skopje’s declaration of independence in 1991, there have been at least eight unsuccessful attempts to internationally mediate between the two countries. Prompted by dramatic nationalist protests in Thessaloniki in which a tenth of the Greek population participated, all major Greek parties unanimously agreed in April 1992 that they would never accept the inclusion of the term ‘Macedonia’ in the new republic’s name.
This maximalist stance proved untenable, and became informally softened as a consequence. In 2005, for example, Greece’s threat of a veto transformed into a threat of a referendum, and in 2007, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis declared that a compound name may be an acceptable solution. This tacitly acknowledged the use of the term ‘Macedonia’, albeit in combination with another attribute. However, with Skopje’s resolve to keep the official name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ at all costs, the two contradicting positions entered a deadlock which has been dragged forth until today.
Russia, China, Macedonia
With a new government consisting of the Social Democrats and their ethnic Albanian partners which have traditionally been more lenient towards the name issue, optimistic signs point toward a possible compromise. However, commentators question whether the current thrust to the West may be dampened down by ‘external’ factors. On the one hand, the Russian state-led media outlet Sputnik stated that “it is time to trust Russia, not Trump”, and apprehended another color revolution in its ‘near abroad’. But, as Radio Free Europe reports, “[the new Prime Minister Zoran] Zaev does not seem to be looking for sponsors in Moscow or Washington, and appears above all to want good relations with his Balkan neighbors.” The pursuit of good neighbourly relations is nothing new, and has also been sought for by the VMRO-DPMNE government, such as in terms of visa policies. However, the cautious but expectation-laden amity between Athens and Skopje regarding the name dispute signals a clear break from the past.
Other analysts stress the ‘China factor’ and contend that it was the joint inclusion of Greece and Macedonia in ambitious China-led infrastructure plans that suddenly sparked a cordial relationship. They point toward a grand project under the framework of the Silk Road Economic Belt, which would bring birth to an artificial canal from the Aegean Sea to the Danube. Such an immense enterprise would generate wishful revenues for all the participating Western Balkan countries.
It pertains to the old idea – first devised in 1841 – of creating a 650km fairway from the Danube river to the Morava, the Vardar (or Axios in Greek), and the Aegean Sea. Serbian officials and scholars assert that this canal would help to create the “shortest link between the Northern and Western Europe with the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and the Suez Canal. Compared to the existing waterway through the Black Sea and the Bosphorus, it would be shorter by 1,200 km, which would mean 3 days less at the sea.” It is thus, according to one perspective, this ‘China factor’ with its promising 16+1 fund and New Silk Road plans that sparks the revival of long-buried infrastructural dreams, which in turn prompts the Balkan countries to reorient their foreign policies towards jointly achieving common goals.
Multiple (and Complementary?) Spheres of Influence
There is no mono-causal explanation for political happenings in a region that has been filled with boisterous noise from so many overlapping ‘spheres of interests’. It is neither the ‘EU factor’ alone nor the ‘China factor’ nor the genuine attitudes of newly-ruling parties that create this reconciling will. It is most likely a combination of all these, and of many more – such as a feeling of emboldenment by Montenegro’s formal NATO accession on June 5th 2017. And there is thus far no evidence to assume that a weightier ‘China factor’ leads to a weaker ‘EU factor’. Both considerations can simultaneously be important without damaging the other, and such a positive, complementary symbiosis is the best one can wish for in a region that has been so overburdened by too many crises in recent years. As Dragan Pavlićević wrote in The Diplomat, the “doom-and-gloom perception” that “China will overshadow the [CEE] countries’ relationship with the EU” is merely a “reflection of the China Threat mentality that perceives danger in anything Beijing does.”
Projects which potentially connect the crisis-ridden Balkan region together in co-operative amity must be most welcome to all affected parties – be it the EU, China, or the local inhabitants and governments. Optimistic signs are mounting, and a solution in the deep-seated name issue would be a rare cause for international celebration.
The new government which was appointed a few weeks ago has led to “high expectations, cautious optimism” in the West. The recent signs of goodwill from both the Macedonian and the Greek Foreign Ministers steer their difficult bilateral relations towards a conciliatory path. A resolution of the name dispute, which is a prerequisite for Skopje’s membership in numerous international organizations, can only be peacefully achieved with the help of various actors, and if both the EU and China are not hostile towards such a goal, then there is no ground to apprehend either of them.
(Picture: Vardar river in Skopje. Photo by Osman Bedel, Flickr).
Pour aller plus loin…
- Republic of Macedonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Goals and Priorities.
- TZIAMPIRIS, Aristotle, “The Macedonian Name Dispute and European Union Accession”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies (2012), pp. 153-173, doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/14683857.2012.661225
- NIKOLIC, Milena & DUNCIC, Dragan, The Danube-Morava-Vardar/Axios-Aegean Sea waterway and the Silk Road Economic Belt, International Schiller Institute.
- PAVLICEVIC, Dragan, China in Central and Eastern Europe: 4 Myths, The Diplomat, 16 June 2016.
- “Macedonia And Its Neighbors -- Who's Afraid Of Zoran Zaev?”, RadioFreeEurope, 31 May 2017.
- “Macedonia president backs down, hands opposition mandate to form cabinet”, Euractiv, 17 May 2017.
- “Димитров оди во Атина”, Telma, 4 June 2017.
- “Димитров: Владата сериозно подготвена да ја внесе Македонија во ЕУ и НАТО”, Sitel, 4 June 2017.
- “The new government in Macedonia: High expectations, cautious optimism”, European Western Balkans, 2 June 2017.