On June 12, the Macedonian and Greek governments bombastically announced they had finally arrived at a compromise on the tedious name issue. Five days later, a comprehensive 19-page deal entitled “Final Agreement” and envisaging a new name (North Macedonia) and nomenclature for the Republic of Macedonia, was officially signed in the symbolic village of Nivici (Greek: Ψαράδες/Psarades), on the shores of the picturesque Prespa Lake.
Quite expectedly, this spurred an avalanche of protests and negative reactions within the Macedonian and Greek societies, even though the UN, the EU, NATO, as well as many individual western allies had been sufficiently quick to hail the “historic” move by Skopje and Athens. With the series of demonstrations all set to go on, primarily in Macedonia, one important peculiarity could be escaping the common perception; among the most vehement protestors one can find not just hardcore nationalists, as would normally be expected, but also significant left–wing and non-partisan elements (e.g. genuine and pro-Russian leftists, clergy, soldiers, defiant youth, football fans). Thus far, these hybrid opposition and national-patriotic circles in both countries have managed to come up, as if being coordinated, with more-or-less the same dire message:
The Prespa deal is “a national catastrophe,” nothing but “capitulation,” and the signatories will be held accountable by history and the people for “high treason” and adversarial activity against the state.
This parallel reality, no doubt, undermines the hopes of all moderate and liberal voices within the Euro-Atlantic orbit. While the latter have been eager to see the Prespa Agreement serve as both a dual reconciliatory model—for good neighbourliness in the volatile Balkans and for resolving identity clashes and highly emotional issues on a global scale—and a booster of NATO and supranational integration (the EU), it is quite uncertain how things are going to play out in the coming months.
As a matter of fact, a vital question remains up in the air: could a diplomatic and strategic investment of this scale, which is known to have been furtively crafted by up to 60 international experts over the course of at least four years, eventually end up “in a garbage bin”? Probably not, although, to “survive political [as well as legal] challenge,” the current name change deal would need no less than a miracle. It is yet to be seen how well its sponsors have factored in the substantive and temporal aspects and considerations upon which the deal’s success depends heavily.
Substantively, on the Macedonian side, there have been numerous and virtually insurmountable concerns over the content and implications of the Final Agreement. These range from domestic unconstitutionality, unlawfulness and illegitimacy, incompliance with a whole host of international legal norms, most notably those of imperative nature (jus cogens) and enshrined in the UN Charter, breaching of all relevant human rights declarations, conventions, and pacts, to frustrations over harmed national dignity and related fears of the ultimate effects of the continual regional geo-political engineering pursued by major powers.
The overwhelming majority of ethnic Macedonians, therefore, keep on viewing the Republic of Macedonia’s national security through the prism of preserving their historical identity and constitutional status. In doing so, their key concern is not the Prespa deal per se, nor any other recent controversial arrangement (e,g. the one with Bulgaria or the so-called Tirana Platform) taken individually. Rather, in their view, it is all about the looming, underlying danger of “federalization and cantonization” or even outright break-up of the Republic of Macedonia in favour of multiple grand-strategic designs.
This alone makes the signed name change deal unsustainable, at least over the long term. What’s more, by violating the seemingly vague Macedonian notion of “rational” or “dignified compromise,” which basically means no erga omnes use of any compromise name solution, no internal constitutional reforms, and no exclusivity over history or parts thereof, the deal not only lacks clear and durable majoritarian support among Macedonian citizens but also risks compromising the imperfect political consensus on Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
For their own part, the Greeks remain firmly bound to their well-known post-1821 national narrative. This is especially true for the Greek Makedones, an ethno-cultural subgroup deriving its origin mainly from today’s northern Greece (the cradle of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedon, otherwise commonly referred to by ethnic Macedonians as Aegean or White-Sea Macedonia) and playing a prominent role within the Greek diaspora. Hence, albeit much less affected by any name solution, the great majority of Greeks, reportedly about 68% of them, cannot stand even the slightest and most implicit recognition of the existence of a distinct, non-Greek Macedonian identity. With the signed name deal now explicitly referring to “Macedonian” nationality (albeit in terms of citizenship rather than ethnicity) and language, the Greek hardliners would likely need no extra incentive from Moscow to obstruct its implementation at some point.
Importantly, obstruction in this case could imply more than just rejecting ratification by the Hellenic Parliament towards the end of the year. In Skopje, for instance, there have been simmering concerns that Athens might expediently evade agreed principles and commitments during the later stages of Macedonia’s Euro-integration. This possibility for a déjà-vu scenario is now being largely downplayed, yet the bitter experience with the 1995 Interim Accord may well be relived all over again at the expense of Euro-Atlantic interests.
A New Deal or Process vs Sovereignist Eurasia?
With all this in mind, the desired “finalization” and entry into force of the Prespa Agreement could easily remain just a hope. Moreover, if the deal in its current form is further insisted upon, and somehow takes quasi-legal effect without being at least renegotiated (if not abandoned) in the interim to diminish unnecessary frustrations and become more ‘digestible’ particularly to the Macedonian side─for instance, by dropping the essentially inapplicable erga omnes requirement and allowing the Macedonians, in line with accepted international standards and practices, to care for their minorities abroad while also nurturing their own perspective on the Ancient world─the already complex situation in the Balkans is likely to aggravate.
In such situation, it would be difficult to use the name issue even as a region-shaping and crisis management tool. Of course, by virtue of its very location, Macedonia would then still be struggling within Samuel Huntington’s “fault line,” with the latter being already restyled as the “line of fire” by the former US secretary of state John Kerry. However, if until recently the tiny Balkan nation (i.e. the major bearer of its sovereignty, the Macedonian people), while maintaining an unequivocal pro-Western orientation, was solely rejecting redefinition of its ethnic-based identity, with the latest developments its civilizational affiliation could be put into question entirely.
No doubt, with the Prespa deal largely ignoring what Huntington deems “fundamental” (the importance of ethno-cultural identity), and what even social constructivists, such as Alexander Wendt, acknowledge (the basic, Hegelian “struggle for recognition”) in their otherwise overly optimistic visions of global governance, many Macedonians feel compelled to explore strategic alternatives, however debatable these may be. So far, neither Russia nor Serbia’s ‘military neutrality’ has been sufficiently perceived as a realistic and reliable option. But that might change quickly in a newly emerging regional constellation. Let’s not forget that the unprecedented naming dispute has already been drawing some of its energy from the global rise of sovereignism and national populism across the political spectrum. What’s more, around the time of the ceremonial gathering in Nivici, serious coordination efforts and countervailing strategies were initiated by pro-Russian actors in both Serbia and Macedonia.
These developments definitely confront NATO and EU decision-makers with the strategic dilemma: do we want Macedonia as a true ally, or simply as a conducive strategic territory where the new name and all of its far-reaching constructivist implications, from linguistic and historical to cognitive, ontological and political, are to deliver some desirable short-to-mid-term outcomes despite being totally counterproductive in the long run? In addressing this dilemma, it would be a cardinal mistake to overlook the fact that in the past the Macedonians have forged true alliances only with those (e.g. the Serbs/Yugoslavs, the Comintern, Tito) who have recognized, even if only partially and opportunistically, their national distinctness and struggle for political independence.
Clearly, the Prespa deal has the potential to turn into its antipode. Instead of serving as a region-wide exemplar of good neighbourliness, a global model, and a booster of supranational tendencies, it might eventually contribute to a situation where a seemingly minor and benign identity issue drives the revival of Westphalian credos through limited Pan-Slavic unity and local reification of the loose but effective Eurasian concept.
To avoid negative implications for Euro-Atlantic interests in this sense, Washington and its allies can rely on a combination of measures. One option is to help initiate negotiations towards a more sensible and more realistic name deal between Macedonia and Greece. This would help preserve Macedonia’s pro-western preferences while also ensuring and expending the basis of US military presence in the region. Second, the West urgently needs a “more balanced approach” to the predominantly Orthodox Balkans, as was reportedly recommended by the US intelligence community a few years ago. Last but not least, engaging Russia in a constructive way (this is sometimes conceived as “a new Yalta” deal demarcating the currently overlapping spheres of influence within and beyond South Eastern Europe) might be the only effective solution for limiting the Kremlin’s steadily increasing influence in the Balkans.
Anyhow, by the end of 2018, the outcome of the Macedonia-Greece naming dispute, even if only temporary, will help determine not just the political fate of an important strategic region, but also the West’s strategic direction in the decades ahead.
Hristijan Ivanovski is a Research Fellow at the University of Manitoba (UofM) Centre for Defence and Security Studies (CDSS), Associate Editor (Europe) of iAffairs Canada, and a former coordination officer with Macedonia’s Secretariat for European Affairs. Since 2016, he has been a Member of East-West Bridge (EWB) contributing to the Foundation’s Foreign Policy Task Force. Hristijan can be reached @ email@example.com.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia