Last Sunday, June 17, became a new “icebreaker” day for the EU enlargement towards the Balkans. For many Europeans it seemed that a dispute that lasted for almost three decades between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia (officially recognized by the international community as FYROM) would never come to an end. Nevertheless, the parties finally signed an accord, which allows the country for a name change to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Where did it start?
Conflicts over countries’ names is nothing new for the Southern part of Europe. However, the one over Macedonia has been actively highlighted in the news since the 1990s, when the country announced its independence as the Republic of Macedonia and started to join different international organizations. An immediate response came from Greece, which staged a protest at the United Nations Security Council and claimed that its historic and cultural identity were humiliated. An explanation of this claim can be dated back to the times of the Second World War, when Josip Broz Tito proclaimed the “People’s Republic of Macedonia” as one of the six Yugoslav republics in 1944. By doing so, he evoked the genuine feeling of Greek cultural humiliation and created a hitch for a front for aggression.
“Silly talks” or a real power of negotiation?
2008 was a real culmination of the conflict between these countries. FYROM faced an opposition from Greece resulting in vetoes on entering the European Union and NATO. From this time until recently, the Greek official stand was to oppose the use of the name “Macedonia” without a qualifier.
Nevertheless, FYROM also made some defensive moves. It sued Greece in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), a case which it won with certain limitations. The Macedonian government requested the court to recognize the violation of obligations under the provisions of the Interim Accord, Article 11, and to forego Greece from objecting the membership in NATO and/or any other organizations of a different level (e.g. international, multilateral etc.).
Meanwhile, the ICJ recognized only the first Macedonian claim in December 2011, which pushed countries towards active negotiations. This decision, in reality, transformed “silly talks” to a real power of negotiation, when both disputing parties came to the conclusion that the international community would not take sides in the matter.
When the real power of negotiations was activated, the number of talks between Macedonia and Greece hugely increased. Both parties introduced different proposals on how to resolve the name dispute. However, the most intensified period started in January 2018 with sponsorship from the UN. Alexis Tsipras, the Greek Prime Minister, and Zoran Zaev, the Macedonian Prime Minister, made a list of proposed names, which initiated a lot of workaround. Finally, during the high representatives’ meeting in Prespa, a Greek border village, the agreement was signed and a new name was declared: the Republic of North Macedonia.
Moreover, on June 20, the Prespa accord was ratified by the Parliament in Macedonia, which means all that is left now is ratification in the Greek parliament and official ratification through a Macedonian referendum.
The pathway to EU membership
With a new name and the conflict with Greece settled, Macedonia is getting a real chance to kick-off the negotiation process with the European Union and to sign the association agreement. In a previous opinion piece, one of the biggest Western Balkan Summit shortcomings is identified as that it has no real effect on territorial disputes in the region. Although this is correct, the UN mediation deserves acknowledgment, as it helped to resolve this conflict in such a swift manner.
Disappointingly, the European Union was not a main mediator in the talks between Macedonia and Greece, although it does identify itself as a power for dispute resolution. Therefore, from now on, an active engagement of the EU in a region will add to its stability and growth. This development will definitely have an impact on the speed of the EU Western Balkans’ enlargement process.
Author: Irina Kruhmalova