The consequences of recognizing “North Macedonia” and a “Macedonian” language and ethnicity may be disastrous for Greece. But might the deal collapse before it is ratified by both countries?
June 16, 2018
Could it be the case that the long-standing dispute between Greece and the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) over the name “Macedonia” is headed towards a resolution?
At face value, that is what recent developments are indicating. Following a series of announcements and statements in recent weeks by Greece’s prime minister Alexis Tsipras and foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, and by “FYROM’s” prime minister Zoran Zaev that a deal was imminent and would be reached within days, Tsipras and Zaev came to an agreement in a pair of phone calls between the two on Monday and Tuesday of this week.
Is this a done deal, however? As will be explained below, the obstacles towards the final realization of this agreement are great, and indeed it may be “FYROM” – and not Greece – where this deal may ultimately collapse. If, however, the deal is finalized and becomes official, the dangers and potential consequences and pitfalls for Greece, based on the full text of the agreement, will be analyzed.
As has been reported, Zaev himself selected the name “Republic of North Macedonia” (Severna Makedonija) out of a list of three options which also included “Republic of Upper Macedonia” and “Republic of New Macedonia.” Other names that had previously been rejected include “Macedonia-Skopje,” “Vardar Macedonia,” and “Ilinden Macedonia.”
The agreement recognizes that the language of the country to be named “North Macedonia” is “Macedonian” – but that it is a language of Slavic origin with no relation to the Greek language – while the citizens of this country will be “Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia, again with a clear reference in the text of the agreement that the people of this country are unrelated to the people of the Ancient Greek civilization of Macedonia.
The new constitutional name will be acceptable for all uses and purposes, both domestic and international (erga omnes) and “North Macedonia” will be required to change all domestic references of the name of the country to this new name, with international documents to be changed within a period of five years, but domestic political documents to be changed within five years of each relevant step in the EU ascension process (which itself might drag on for a very long time).
Significantly, this deal also unlocks “FYROM”/“North Macedonia’s” NATO and European Union candidacy. This will be part of the next series of steps which are to follow before this agreement is finalized and becomes official in both countries. These steps encompass:
- Tsipras will officially inform the Greek Parliament of the agreement on Friday.
- Tsipras and Zaev signing the agreement this weekend on the shores of Lake Prespa, which straddles the border of the two countries.
- Ratification of the agreement in the parliament of “FYROM.”
- The parliamentary bill will then go to the desk of “FYROM” president Gjorge Ivanov. As will be explained further below, Ivanov is likely not to sign off on this agreement. This would mean that the bill will return to parliament to override Ivanov’s veto.
- Assuming this process has been completed, Greece will send letters to NATO and to the European Union, formally unlocking ascension talks for “North Macedonia,” with the precondition that agreed-upon constitutional changes have been completed.
- FYROM will be obliged to ratify all necessary constitutional amendments by December 2018, and will have the option of holding a referendum regarding the agreement if it chooses.
- These ascension talks would likely be ratified at the meeting of EU foreign ministers (June 25-26) and the high-level EU summit (June 28-29), as well as the NATO summit (July 11), when a provisional invitation is expected to be extended to “North Macedonia,” pending completion of constitutional revisions.
- The government of “FYROM” will then inform, in writing, all countries which have recognized the “Republic of Macedonia” that the country’s new name in all international venues and for all matters of international relations is “North Macedonia.”
- “FYROM” may also hold, if it chooses, a referendum no later than December of this year regarding this agreement. In the event the referendum fails, snap parliamentary elections may be called.
- Should the agreement pass these final electoral roadblocks in “FYROM,” the Greek parliament will convene to ratify the agreement and its acceptance of the NATO ascension talks of its northern neighbor.
If and only if these steps are all successfully completed will the Tsipras-Zaev deal regarding the “North Macedonia” name become fully official. And that is easier said than done.
Tsipras, in a televised address on Tuesday evening following the conclusion of his second call with Zaev, hailed the deal, calling it “a great diplomatic victory” and “a great historic opportunity,” which occurred within the framework of Greece’s longstanding position regarding the inclusion of a geographical qualifier before the name “Macedonia” for its northern neighbor.
Tsipras added that the agreement “achieves a clear separation between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors and puts a definite end to the irredentist claims implied by their current constitutional name.” Following this, Tsipras asserted in a softball interview broadcast on state mouthpiece ERT that the agreement is “beneficial for Greece” and that he does not see Greece “losing anything, only gaining.” Tsipras, reflecting the allergic reaction with which the “left” — or to be more precise, neoliberals and globalists — view patriotism, also stated that the deal strikes a blow to “merchants of patriotism.”
Previously, while talks between the two governments were still ongoing, Tsipras had called the inclusion of a geographical designation before the “Macedonia” name “a great victory.” And in a press conference in March, Tsipras had expressed his hope to a journalist from “FYROM” that soon he would be addressing her as a representative of “Gorna Makedonija” or some similar name.
In turn, Zaev, in a televised speech to his country’s citizens, hailed the “historic” agreement, stating that “there is no way back.”
In a televised interview following the first of the two telephone conversations between Tsipras and Zaev, Kotzias revealed that it was Zaev who made the final selection of the name from the final options which were on the table, and repeated statements made in a recent televised appearance on the servile, pro-government state broadcaster ERT that Greece recognized the “Macedonian” language in 1977, adding that “FYROM” is “a country of Macedonia”. Kotzias added that Greece’s northern neighbor “must come close to us,” adding that “now that we are emerging out of the crisis, we need to share our growth with the entire region…we want to create a country that will be our friend. We do not want to treat a smaller country in the same manner which others treated us.”
Addressing the leader of the main opposition party of “FYROM” Nikola Gruevski, Kotzias stated that he belongs to the same political grouping as Greece’s main opposition party, the center-right New Democracy – therefore not missing the opportunity to again turn a national issue into a partisan, “us versus them” matter.
Indeed, this statements from Kotzias reflect a strategy continuously utilized by SYRIZA since it climbed to power: everything is the fault of previous governments, the “left” is good, and the “right” is bad and the enemy of all progress. With such rhetoric, SYRIZA continuously fans the flames of the longstanding societal division between the “left” and the “right” in Greece which dates back to the Greek civil war of 1947-49 and which many parties (on both sides) have yet to overcome, decades later.
Consider other recent statements made by Tsipras and other members of the SYRIZA government. Tsipras, referring to large-scale rallies earlier this year in Athens and Thessaloniki which each attracted hundreds of thousands of Greeks opposing any compromise on the “Macedonia” name, and more recent rallies held in a number of regional Greek cities and towns – called such demonstrations as “irregular mobs,” while several other government ministers characterizedparticipants as “junta nostalgists” and “crazy far-right wingers.” Kotzias recently described FYROM as “a beautiful lady named Macedonia which is headed towards marriage.”
Continuing the chorus, a Facebook posting by Nikos Karanikas, an adviser to Tsipras, characterized all those opposed to a Macedonia deal as “ignorant nationalists,” while government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakpopoulos, in turn, called the Pan-Macedonian federations which have organized the recent rallies “extremist formations which I am wholly indifferent towards.”
Alternate minister of agriculture Giannis Tsironis, in an interview on Skai TV, claimed that national hero Pavlos Melas was “allied with the Slav-Macedonians” and fought together with them from 1890 until 1913. Never mind that Melas was killed in 1904 by Ottoman Turkish forces. Continuing his historical lessons towards the Greek public, Tsironis also claimed that no European nation has a history spanning a thousand years, including Brazil in his list.
Setting the stage for the agreement which was to follow, SYRIZA MP Triantafyllos Mitafides stated in a radio interview in late May: “of course I accept the existence of a Macedonian language and minority.” And Ria Kalfakakou, a member of the Thessaloniki city council, blamed a recent attack against the city’s mayor Yiannis Boutaris, on “those who supported the [Macedonia] rallies.”
With such statements by Greece’s elected officials – and in particular the prime minister and high-ranking government ministers, one has to wonder whether they were negotiating in earnest on behalf of Greece or on behalf of “FYROM.”
The agreement between Tsipras and Zaev was also applauded by the U.S. State Department, by the UN special mediator on the Macedonian Issue Matthew Nimetz– whose actual impartiality is questionable, to say the least – by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, and by Albanian prime minister Edi Rama. It should be noted that Albanians are the largest ethnic minority in “FYROM” and Albanian was recently recognized as the country’s second official language, despite nationalist opposition. The neoliberal, globalist Brookings Institution, where the “radical leftist” Tsipras has spoken in the past, characterized the deal as “a triumph of diplomacy.”
Following suit, the overwhelming majority of Greece’s foreign correspondents, via their Twitter accounts, could barely conceal their glee at the news of the Tsipras-Zaev agreement, praising Tsipras as a “statesman” while openly mocking any opposition to the agreement. This same press corps has, of course, neglected to address the new round of austerity measures set to be approved by SYRIZA, preferring instead to inform their audience that the now-convicted former Greek statistics chief who fraudulently augmented Greece’s deficit and debt figures, providing the impetus to drag Greece into the troika-led austerity regime in the first place, is being “persecuted” by the Greek justice system.
It’s ironic, of course, to see such self-styled “leftist” and “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist” correspondents openly adopting and celebrating what is, in effect, a nationalist position…of “FYROM,” as well as openly supporting the imperialist, expansionist aims of NATO in the Balkan region. I suppose nationalism is good, as long as it’s NATO-approved.
To provide a sense of NATO’s view of the Macedonia issue, it was in February 2013 that I had the opportunity to visit NATO headquarters in Brussels as part of an academic program I was participating in at the time as a Ph.D. student. In a meeting with the then-U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO Ivo Daalder, another student asked Daalder which countries were candidates for NATO membership at the present time. Daalder asked us if there were any Greeks in the room. When I raised my hand, Daalder sarcastically retorted that because I was in the room, “Macedonia” would be referred to as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” This is what the so-called left – represented in the press corps, academia, NGOs and “activist” circles – applauds and supports.
The devil is in the details
A close reading of the full text of the agreement reveals many clauses and conditions which were not initially announced by the SYRIZA-led government in Greece nor included in its “non paper.” In addition, many aspects of the agreement contradict historical realities and pose potential hazards for Greece in the future.
Perhaps the most significant of these clauses has to do with the so-called “Macedonian” language. The language of the agreement states that such a language was recognized by the Third UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, held in Athens in 1977. These claims had been repeated by Kotzias in a televised interview prior to the agreement between Tsipras and Zaev.
However, these claims do not correspond to reality. As explained by professor of Giorgos Bambiniotis, professor of lingustics at the University of Athens, the 1977 Conference had a sole purpose: the establishment of a system for the transliteration and “romanization” of geographical names of non-Latin based language systems (such as Greek or Cyrillic), while only one representative of the then-Yugoslavia, representing all six of its republics, was present.
A review of the technical papers of this conference reveals a solitary reference to a “Macedonian language” within the report submitted by the then-Yugoslavia, which names “Macedonian” as one of the “variants” of the language spoken in Yugoslav territory, further adding a reference to a “Macedonian Cyrillic” alphabet. These references are found only in the technical report submitted by Yugoslavia, while the reports submitted by Greece or any other country make no reference to the recognition by the United Nations of any “Macedonian” language.
And yet, in 2018, it is the Greek government which is claiming that such a language was recognized in 1977. One therefore must wonder, if the language was recognized in 1977, why does it need to be recognized again in the Tsipras-Zaev agreement of 2018? Could it be because the “Macedonian” language, in fact, was not recognized in 1977?
Perhaps even more dangerously, a “Macedonian ethnicity” is now recognized by Greece. This, in turn, opens the door towards the de facto (and eventually, official) recognition of a “Macedonian minority” within Greek territory. Denial of the existence of such a “minority” would presumably contradict Article 6 of the agreement which prohibits “chauvinism” and “hostility” against the other Party. While this might sound noble, who gets to decide what is “chauvinist” and what is “hostile” (and what isn’t)?
And if there is a “Macedonian ethnicity” which presumably exists within Greece as a “Macedonian minority,” what would stop such a “minority” or its compatriots in “North Macedonia” from eventually seeking “reunification” of the “two Macedonias”? Yes, the agreement recognizes the territorial integrity of the two countries and prohibits each country from making irredentist claims upon the other. But what if one party argues that the other party is violating this agreement by “persecuting” its “minority population”? Could this not be a pretext to “tear up” this agreement and to “come to the defense” of their “persecuted minority”? Or are we to expect that the most virulently nationalist forces in present-day “FYROM” will abide by this agreement to the letter, when until recently prominent politicians of “FYROM” have been photographed in front of photos of “Greater Macedonia”?
Relating to this, the agreement makes no clear reference protecting the name or status of the Greek region of Macedonia, nor the right of Greek Macedonians to refer to themselves as such. Instead, there is the vaguest of references to the “area and people of the northern region” of Greece. Could identifying as a “Greek Macedonian” one day be construed as “chauvinistic” or “hostile” as per Article 6 of this agreement?
Indeed, as per this agreement, there are two different understandings of “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” historical context and cultural heritage. And while the agreement bars “North Macedonia” from making any claims towards ancient Hellenic heritage, who gets to define what is—and what isn’t—part of this cultural and historical heritage?
To illustrate this point, consider that hardcore “Macedonian” nationalists—as well as some scholars—have put forth the argument that the Ancient Macedonian civilization was not Greek but something separate and distinct. Continuing down that line of thinking, “North Macedonia” could claim that any depictions and appropriations of, say, Alexander the Great or other symbols of Ancient Macedonian culture, history, and heritage are not in violation of this agreement, as “Ancient Macedonia” is distinct from ancient Hellenic civilization.
Along this vein, the agreement foresees that if either party is using one or more symbols constituting part of the historical or cultural patrimony of the other party, the other party will be obliged to take “appropriate corrective action” to “address the issue.” While this may seemingly defend Greece from cultural appropriation on the part of “North Macedonia,” who is to say that it cannot work in the opposite direction if, say, “North Macedonia” claims that symbols of Ancient Macedonia used by Greece are in violation of this clause, based on the aforementioned argument that “Ancient Macedonia” was not an ancient Hellenic civilization?
Furthermore, the agreement also states that “FYROM” will no longer use again “in any way and in all its forms” the symbol formerly displayed on its national flag (the ancient Greek “Star of Vergina”). The current flag of FYROM contains a variation of this symbol, but nevertheless that country’s government spokesman stated that “state symbols have never been part of the negotiations” and that “the anthem, flag, and coat of arms remain the same.” So which is it?
Another interesting point concerns the supposed referendum which will take place in “FYROM” to approve or reject the Tsipras-Zaev deal. The SYRIZA-led government initially claimed that “FYROM” would be obliged to hold a referendum no later than this year, claims which also made it into initial reports regarding this agreement. The text of the agreement, however, states otherwise, that “FYROM” simply has the option to hold a referendum on the issue.
While Zaev has stated that a referendum will be held, what is significant is that his government is not bound to do so as per this agreement. Furthermore, no detail is given as to the specifics of such a referendum, if it were to take place, including the question that would be posed to the voters. Furthermore, while “FYROM” may choose to hold a referendum on this agreement, no such option is available for Greece.
As stated earlier in this piece, there is also no provision in the text of the agreement for Greece or any other country to use the term “Severna Makedonija” untranslated, as Tsipras had initially claimed when announcing the agreement. Instead, “Republic of North Macedonia” or “North Macedonia” for short will be used in all instances, translated into the domestic language of each respective country.
Further adding to the mess, while as per the agreement “FYROM” is obliged to alter all of its official documents intended for international usage to reflect the country’s new name within five years, documents for internal and domestic political use will have to be changed within five years of the commencement of each relevant chapter in EU ascension negotiations. Therefore, if we have a situation such as that of Turkey, where its ascension talks have stalled for decades on end, “FYROM” will, de facto, have the right to continue referring to itself as “Macedonia” without any additional geographical or other qualifier, for an indefinite period.
Relating to this, “MK” and “MKD” remain as the national acronyms of “FYROM” with the only change apparently achieved by the Greek negotiating side is an obligation for “North Macedonian” license plates to be denoted with the acronyms “NM” and “NMK.”
Furthermore, “FYROM” will continue to be allowed to maintain its present-day commercial usage of the term “Macedonia” for a period of three years following the establishment of an “international group of experts” in 2019, which will examine commercial names in use by both countries.
Some of the most significant aspects of this agreement are those, however, which have not received much attention, if at all, from politicians on both sides of the issue, or from the press. One such issue has to do with the formation of a committee which will be supervised by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs (and not, say, the Ministries of Education) of each respective country, which would review school textbooks and other aspects of each country’s educational curriculum, to ensure that no textbooks contain any “irredentist/revisionist references.” While this may again seem reasonable at face value, who gets to decide what is “irredentist/revisionist”?
Here it bears noting that the “impartial mediator” installed by the United Nations, Matthew Nimetz, has served as the founding chair and director of an organization, based in Thessaloniki, known as the “Centre for Democracy and Reconciliation in Southern Europe” (CDRSEE). This organization, which receives funding from such sources as the George Soros-founded Central European University, the United Nations Development Program, the European Commission, and the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is involved with an initiative known as the “Joint History Project.”
What is the “Joint History Project”? It is described as an effort to “change the way history is taught in schools in the Balkans.” Indeed, the CDRSEE produces school textbooks which are in use in schools in several Balkan countries. What do these books contain? One such textbook contains references to the “historic roots of the Macedonian nation,” and in place of the country’s national anthem, a nationalistic poem regarding the “Macedonian nation,” originally said to have been written in Bulgarian by a 19th century poet even though no original manuscript exists, is published.
Considering the above, multiple questions arise regarding the impartiality of Nimetz as a mediator between the two parties, as well as regarding a potential conflict of interest, if the CDRSEE stands to benefit from “revised” textbooks which the two countries might be obliged to publish as per this agreement.
The agreement also creates a de facto open border between the two countries. Article 14, Paragraph 3 clearly states that there shall be no impediment to the movement of people or goods through the territory of either party to the territory of the other. This, translated, means free migration and free trade, even prior to “North Macedonia’s” EU membership.
The very next paragraph of the agreement goes further, indicating the agreement of the two countries to construct, maintain, and utilize interconnecting oil and gas pipelines. Indeed, the agreement takes care to specify that this may refer to “existing, under construction and projected” pipeline projects.
In other words: follow the money.
While Tsipras, Zaev, the State Department, NATO, the EU and the globalist press have been busy celebrating though, a number of potential obstacles for the final realization of this agreement have become evident and have been largely overlooked.
Reflecting the often amateurish way in which the Greek government has handled the Macedonia issue in public, a governmental “non paper” with 16 points arising from the Tsipras-Zaev deal was immediately called into question by FYROM government spokesman Mile Bosnjakovski, who described it as an “interpretation” of the agreement. For instance, while the SYRIZA government claimed that the name “Severna Makedonija” would be in use within Greece, the actual agreement makes no mention of “Severna Makedonija.” This, in any event, would contradict the “erga omnes” usage of the name “North Macedonia.” Bosnjakovski, in his statement, added that his country will maintain its “Macedonian indentity and language.”
In Greece, opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, head of the New Democracy party, has come out in opposition to the agreement. Making good on his threat, New Democracy released a ten-point takedown of the agreement, and followed this up on Thursday morning by announcing that it would call for a vote of confidence in parliament against the government on Friday, even though following EU pressure, New Democracy decided to formally call for the vote of confidence following Friday’s parliamentary vote on the new austerity bill being proposed. Can’t disappoint one’s EU masters, after all.
Nevertheless, Mitsotakis may simply be attempting to score cheap electoral points for an agreement that is domestically unpopular, however his opposition is nevertheless significant, especially if the deal ultimately reaches the Greek parliament for ratification.
Recently, the president of the Greek parliament Nikos Voutsis stated that an agreement regarding the Macedonia name might not need a supermajority of 180 votes in parliament, implying that it could be approved with a simple majority of 151 votes in the 300 seat chamber. This is despite pressure from the EU for the agreement to eventually be approved by a parliamentary supermajority, which would lend greater political legitimacy to the deal.
This difference is significant. If only a simple majority is required, SYRIZA – with 145 seats in parliament — could potentially get a deal passed through parliament even without the support of its coalition partner, the Independent Greeks, who according to the party’s leader, defense minister Panos Kammenos, will not vote for the deal and will expel any MP who does. The most likely source for the votes SYRIZA would need in this instance would be the “To Potami” political party, which holds 11 seats and whose leader, Stavros Theodorakis, came out in public support of the agreement, stating that “there will be no other historic opportunity” to solve the dispute between the two countries.
If, however, a supermajority is necessitated, the picture becomes more complicated. SYRIZA would need the votes not just of “To Potami,” but several other parties, which may include the Union of Centrists (9 seats), the Democratic Alignment (the former PASOK along with the Democratic Left party) with 17 seats, and its governing partner, the Independent Greeks, who hold 10 seats.
As has frequently been in the case with other controversial matters in the past, Kammenos and the Independent Greeks expressed public opposition to a controversial matter – in this case the Macedonia deal – but stopped short of resigning from the coalition, which would lead to the collapse of the government and snap elections. Nevertheless, if Kammenos keeps his word and his party opposes the agreement if it comes to a parliamentary vote, a forthcoming collapse could be imminent, as well as a potential failure to ratify the deal if a supermajority ends up being required.
It should also be stated here that the fact that it remains unclear whether such an important vote can be ratified with a simple majority or a supermajority demonstrates quite clearly the often arbitrary manner in which Greece is today being governed, and has been governed during the eight-plus years of economic crisis and foreign oversight. One needs to look no further than the first memorandum agreement, which was not even ratified by the Greek parliament. Instead, the loan agreement which delivered the first set of crippling austerity measures to Greece was simply signed by then-finance minister Giorgos Papakonstantinou and by the then-president of the Bank of Greece Giorgos Provopoulos.
Returning to Kammenos’ statements though, what is more significant than his verbal opposition to the deal was another remark he made which may have let the cat out of the bag. Specifically, Kammenos stated that “…the structure of the agreement shows that it will not be approved by FYROM.”
What exactly does Kammenos mean by this? The realities of politics in Greece’s northern neighbor are revealing.
For starters, a constitutional revision, which is a necessary prerequisite for the finalization of this deal and for the ascension of “FYROM” into NATO and the EU to proceed, requires a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the country’s parliament in order to be ratified, and indeed, for this ratification to take place no later than December 2018. The current Zaev-led government is a product of a political crisiswhich emerged in “FYROM” in 2015 and 2016, which led, after several postponements, to snap elections in late 2016. No clear winner emerged in these elections, in which Zaev’s “social democratic” SDSM party finished second. Nevertheless, after several months of political stalemate, and soon after the visit of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Hoyt Lee to “FYROM,” the SDSM was able to form a coalition government with pro-Albanian nationalist parties.
In other words, the parties currently governing FYROM did not even win the country’s most recent election. Nor does the government seem to enjoy wide parliamentary or public support. Protests against the government have become a regular occurrence, and indeed occurred outside the parliament of “FYROM” on Tuesday evening. Its most vehement opponents are precisely the nationalist hard liners of the previous governments which have themselves opposed a compromise on the “Macedonia” name, for very different reasons from those who oppose such a compromise in Greece.
One such hard liner is FYROM’s president Gjorge Ivanov, who prior to the agreement said that he will not accept an “erga omnes” use of the “Macedonia” name, characterizing it as a “Zaev-Tsipras deal.” Making good on his previously stated opposition, Ivanov refused to receive Zaev and “FYROM’s” foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov, walking out of their meeting on Wednesday after just two minutes, where Zaev and Dimitrov were set to officially Ivanov about the agreement.
Following this, Ivanov addressed his country’s citizens on television, referring to the agreement as “disastrous.” Furthermore, it remains unclear as to whether a potential veto by Ivanov can be overcome by “FYROM’s” parliament.
Even if such a veto is surpassed, however, it is even more doubtful that the necessary two-thirds majority in the parliament of “FYROM” can be secured in order to permit the necessary constitutional changes to be ratified. Without such ratification there’s no deal, and presumably no NATO or EU membership for the country. With opposition from the nationalist right-wing party which formerly governed “FYROM” (which finished first in the December 2016 elections but was unable to secure a parliamentary majority or to form a government) and the possibility that nationalist Albanian political forces may smell blood – via the opportunity to precipitate the dissolution of “FYROM” which well-informed geopolitical analysts such as Andrew Korybko have predicted going back to 2016, foreseeing the splitting of “FYROM” between Bulgaria and Albania – it seems highly likely that such a supermajority will not be secured.
One additional potential obstacle would be a national referendum in “FYROM,” should the agreement make it that far in the process and should such a referendum ultimately be held. Not everyone in “FYROM” is so insistent that their country should be named “Macedonia” in any form – and the country’s significant Albanian and other minorities may have other thoughts on the matter, should they have the opportunity to cast a vote. Indeed, recent public opinion polls in “FYROM” have suggested that such an agreement would fail to attain a majority in a referendum.
There is also public opinion in Greece to contend with. Public opinion polls, biased as they are, have consistently recorded large majorities opposing a compromise regarding the “Macedonia” name, and support for the rallies which have been organized. Consistent with this trend, early indications are that the Tsipras-Zaev agreement is highly unpopular amongst the Greek public, while a new round of demonstrations and rallies is being planned.
So why the rush? Why is there such a push at this specific point in time to ram through this agreement after 27 years of stalemate?
One potential reason is political timing. As mentioned before, the SYRIZA-led Greek government is preparing to agree to a new set of austerity measures via a bill which will be placed before parliament for a vote on Friday. This bill, which is reportedly only in English, contains new rounds of cuts and also places 25 billion euro’s worth of Greek public assets as collateral, if Greece so much as misses one installment of its debt repayment. The irony, of course, is that this bill comes while SYRIZA (and much of the press and the foreign press corps which propagandize in its favor) are touting the Greek economic “success story,” thanks to SYRIZA and only to SYRIZA of course, while the government is proclaiming (falsely) the end of austerity, the end of the memorandum agreements, and the end of foreign economic oversight in the country. Therefore, a “heroic” deal on a longstanding national issue is a great distraction from such inconvenient economic news.
Oil and gas may be another reason. As noted earlier, the Tsipras-Zaev agreement specifically mentions cooperation between the two countries on the construction and development of oil and gas pipelines. It is possible that several players from both the West and the East want to get in on the action, and indeed various pipeline projects have been proposed in the past which would have been routed through both Northern Greece and “FYROM.” It bears noting that on Wednesday, Kotzias met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Ivanov, in Moscow, with economic cooperation, trade, and energy on the agenda.
One final factor which must not be overlooked is pressure from Brussels and Berlin, and various forms of economic blackmail and political gimmickry. In April, it was reported that Berlin was ready to accept a six-month postponement of the implementation of pension cuts which the SYRIZA-led government agreed to as part of the third memorandum, and which were due to come into effect on January 1, 2019. More recently, New Democracy has levied accusations against the government that it is preparing a solution to the Macedonia name dispute in exchange for debt relief.
What should be clear is that when one looks past the celebratory rhetoric of the government, the EU, NATO, and the pro-EU, pro-NATO, pro-austerity, pro-SYRIZA press corps, this deal, if finalized, poses numerous potential hazards for Greece. A “Macedonian language” (based on, at best, a flimsy pretext) and “Macedonian ethnicity” has been recognized. The “Macedonia” name, even with a geographical qualifier, has been given away. NATO and EU ascension talks for Greece’s northern neighbor have been agreed upon, while it will have an (as of now) indefinite period of time to change all domestic political references referring to itself plainly as “Macedonia.” The “FYROM” government is also insisting that its flag and national anthem and symbols will not change, as part of this agreement. School textbooks and teaching materials may be revised in Greece to alter content that may be construed in some unspecified way as being “irredentist” towards “North Macedonia.” A de facto open border will be created between the two countries. And we are supposed to believe that the international community will become aware of all the various “asterisks” in the fine print of the agreement which are meant to inform us that today’s “North Macedonians” are “unrelated” to Ancient Macedonians and that today’s “North Macedonia” bears no relation to the ancient Macedonian civilization. We might as well ask that country’s citizens to walk around with a copy of the agreement at all times, to be shown to others on demand.
Moreover, by recognizing the existence of a “North” Macedonia, complete with a “Macedonian language and ethnicity,” the door opens up for the recognition of said “minority” within Greece, as well as future calls for a “reunification” of the “two Macedonias.”
The agreement is also wholly unclear as to the timeline of NATO and EU ascension procedures for “North Macedonia” or what happens if they get derailed or delayed. Are we, for instance, supposed to believe that if there’s some sort of violation of this agreement on the part of “North Macedonia” 10 or 20 years down the road, that suddenly they will cease being recognized as “North Macedonians” with a “Macedonian language and ethnicity”? Such things, quite simply, do not happen.
One might say that the agreement protects the territorial integrity of the two countries and prohibits claims of each country towards the other. But geopolitical reality in the world throughout history has shown that “agreements” are meant to be broken—and indeed are violated all the time. Turkey’s occupation of almost 40 percent of Cyprus is in violation of numerous UN resolutions, for instance. Yet it continues unabated and Turkey remains a candidate for EU membership and enjoys the benefits of NATO membership.
Meanwhile, popular opinion in Greece will be wholly, soundly ignored. That, however, is not of concern to a government which in the past has had no problem overturning referendum results – or referring to anyone who protests its policies as “fascist.” One such “fascist,” in the eyes of SYRIZA, is Mikis Theodorakis, who has once again spoken out on the “Macedonia” issue, calling this agreement “a national defeat.”
In many ways, this issue is reminiscent of the ongoing Cyprus conflict, one which was almost “solved” in 2004 with the Annan Plan (which, among other things, would have permitted a permanent Turkish military presence on the island) but which was rejected by Greek Cypriots in a referendum. Flashing forward 13 years, talks between Cyprus and Turkey in Geneva in early 2017 based on a framework similar to the Annan Plan were touted as the last, best chance for a solution to the island’s division. The servile, pro-EU government of Cyprus was ready to agree, but the demands of “mad sultan” Erdogan for still more concessions from Cyprus finally (and fortunately) derailed the agreement.
Might Greece be saved from itself (or its politicians, as well as its “allies” in Europe, NATO, and the State Department) once again? It’s entirely possible, if the deal is rejected in FYROM due to a presidential veto, a failure to enact the necessary constitutional amendments, or a failed referendum if such a vote takes place. It’s also possible if political opposition in Greece is such that it results in a collapse of the current SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition government. This, for instance, could happen via a parliamentary vote of no confidence in the government, or if the Independent Greeks – not known for keeping their word in the past – follow through on their threat to not vote for the agreement in parliament.
It may indeed be the case that the Greek world will need plenty of saving – with a new austerity agreement on the way despite claims of the “end of austerity,” and now with promises on the part of Kotzias that he will proceed to solve the Cyprus problem and ongoing tensions with Albania.
But it may also be that the people of Greece and the broader Greek diaspora will have the final say. Rallies are being planned on Friday and Saturday in Athens, and this coming weekend in the Prespes region where Tsipras and Zaev are slated to meet and to sign this agreement. Still more rallies are slated to come, and calls for a general strike have begun to be heard from some sources.
It is also quite possible that this deal will fail en route to completion in “FYROM,” and indeed, it is possible that should this agreement collapse, that political developments in Greece’s northern neighbor will be such that the eventual dissolution of the country and a potential split and federalization of sorts between Albania and Bulgaria (and perhaps other actors) may take place, as predicted by Korybko in his aforementioned analyses.
Ultimately though, while the agreement faces many hurdles on the part of “FYROM,” Greeks cannot exclusively pin their hopes on a “miracle” from their northern neighbor.