After nearly 30 years of delay, Macedonia – which will be re-named the Republic of North Macedonia – is finally on the brink of entering NATO and later will start accession negotiations with the European Union.
Skopje’s story since its independence is mixed. Clearly a lot of time has been lost on the unnecessary dispute surrounding its official name, which stopped the country from moving on for three decades and allowed third parties – Russia in particular – to manipulate the sentiments both in North Macedonia and in Greece.
On the other hand, the resolution of the dispute, which seemed close to impossible only a year or two ago, is a testimony of maturity of the current leadership in Skopje and Athens.
Why did it go on for so long and what will the current resolution bring to the region and North Macedonia itself –are two essential questions for now.
The power of historical discourse
The politics of history is an instrument of political power throughout the entire ex-communist area but nowhere is this as powerful as in the Balkans.
Anybody working on the region is familiar with the prophetic work of Robert Kaplan’s “Balkan Ghosts” written in 1989/1990 and predicting the outbreak of ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia.
What convinced Kaplan about the inevitability of inter-ethnic violence was the power of human emotions associated with various historical myths in the region and the emergence of organised political movements, which used extreme nationalism as their platform.
The people in the region can be passionate about developments from the remote past, which are often passed on to them in a form distorted from the actual historical reality (as was the case with Kosovo). Kaplan stressed, quite rightly, that all nations in the region share faith in their own historical greatness, they all have a syndrome of victimhood and they believe that their neighbours were either their worst enemies or, at best, that they were deceitful.
As much of the former Yugoslavia was engulfed in the ethnic conflicts, including ethnic cleansing and even genocide in Srebrenica, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was an island of relative peace and stability. It was the only republic of the Yugoslavia that seceded the federation peacefully.
In 2001, FYROM was also hit by inter-ethnic conflict, when militant groups of its Albanian minority started guerrilla warfare in the border areas. But within a year the conflict ended with a peaceful resolution and the Ohrid accords that gave Albanians new rights.
The inter-ethnic violence in FYROM was of course regrettable, but when seen against the scale of violence in Kosovo and earlier on in Bosnia, the conflict in FYROM was on an incomparably smaller scale.
Considering that the Albanians make close to one third of FYROM’s population and the country’s proximity to Kosovo, it is still remarkable how relatively stable Macedonia remained in the region engulfed by violence.
So, there has been a well-deserved expectation that FYROM would be a frontrunner in the region in the bid to enter the western community and join NATO and the EU earlier than its neighbours.
This however did not happen and only now, almost 30 years since its independence, Macedonia is on the path to join the western community.
The reason for the delay – as absurd as it sounds – is the power of politics of history, which pitched FYROM against Greece – a member of both NATO and the EU.
Whilst seceding from Yugoslavia, the new leadership in FYROM insisted on its adherence to the Hellenic heritage and the name of the Republic of Macedonia. Greece, which considers itself the sole heir of Hellenic heritage, was appalled.
In addition, Greece argued that since its own region bordering with FYROM is also called Macedonia, Skopje’s choosing of this name could lead to the territorial claim that would violate Greece’s geographical jurisdiction.
In the following years, both Athens and Skopje dug deep in their positions motivated by the conflict over the ownership of the heritage over 2000 years old.
The historical discourse was then hijacked by the politicians in both countries pitching the neighbours against each other. The Greeks were blocking FYROM’s integration with the Western community whilst Skopje was going further and further in claiming the Hellenic heritage.
The first flag of the Republic was the Vergina Sun – the rayed symbol appearing in Greek art. The Greeks reacted by imposing an economic blockade on FYROM. The subsequent flag, adopted in 1995 and in place till today is a variation still based on the Greek symbol.
Since 2012 the process of Hellenization of FYROM has taken the form of fantasy construction projects. The entire centre of Skopje was redone and new building designed in the ancient Greek style were put up. A massive statue of Alexander the Great was erected at the central location in the city centre.
Eventually the state’s finances went broke over these fantasy projects and people took to the streets demanding that the government focuses on improving the economy rather than on these expensive projects. In 2014, this historical construction project was halted
Overcoming the past
As Skopje was becoming fed up with the politicians holding the country back in the name of a dubious dispute, Greece has also gone through a political change.
The outbreak of the economic crisis in 2010 and the near bankruptcy of Greece exposed the corruption and ineptitude of the traditional parties – both the conservative New Democracy and the socialist PASOK – who had mismanaged the Greek economy for years and who both had a tendency to stir up nationalistic sentiments.
In 2015, the traditional parties were defeated by left-wing Siriza that stabilised the economy and questioned some of the old dogmas of traditional Greek politics – the politics of history and the unnecessary conflict with neighbouring FYROM being a few of them.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras successfully negotiated the name change issue with the FYROM Prime Minster Zoran Zaev since their meeting in Davos. Keen to overcome the diplomatic blockade, Zaev agreed to rename the Skopje airport and highway running to the Greek border, both of which bore the name of Alexander the Great.
As Tsipras and Zaev pressed on with their negotiations and eventually reached an agreement – whereby the Republic of Macedonia will become the Republic of North Macedonia – they both risked their political futures and have encountered serious political backlash.
Tsipras saw some of his MPs defecting and lost his majority in the parliament. Meanwhile, Zaev was accused of treason and faced often Russia-sponsored opposition to the deal. Moscow worked to actively oppose the agreement, which was bringing Skopje out of the diplomatic limbo and opening the doors for its NATO membership.
It took a lot of courage and an ability to run against these deeply entrenched stereotypes in both nations, in which history holds a status comparable only to religion, but today Greece and North Macedonia are clear winners.
On the 6th of February, NATO and Macedonia signed an accession treaty and two days later Greece became the first nation to ratify the treaty.
No doubt Russia will continue to meddle in the ratification process of the remaining 28 member states, but today it seems most likely that within a year Northern Macedonia will become the 30th member of the Alliance.
Greece will acquire a predictable and allied neighbour whilst North Macedonia will become a full member of the western community.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight.