Koppa had been involved with this issue since the mid-1990s. She began by setting out the historical background to the issue, which went back to the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913. The Ottoman region of Macedonia had been divided into four unequal parts, with the largest part going to Greece, about one third to Serbia, and the remainder to Bulgaria (mostly) and Albania. The small share allotted to Bulgaria (9%) had been the basis for continuing Bulgarian irredentism and led to Bulgaria joining the Central Powers in 1914. Across the entire region, Greek had been spoken in the towns and cities, while the rural population spoke a Slavic language.
After 1913, Serbia had not managed to assimilate the population it had acquired, so had followed a policy of ensuring they didn’t feel Bulgarian, by promoting a Macedonian identity. This gradual transformation of a geographical into a national identity had been formalised in the 1945 Federal Constitution of Yugoslavia. The myth of an Ancient Macedonian identity had developed to exclude Bulgaria.
Although Belgrade had claimed rights for a Slav speaking minority in Northern Greece up until 1991, Greece had never recognised this minority. At the same time, since the use of the term “Macedonia” was purely internal to the state of Yugoslavia, the name issue was not salient in Greece; it only arose on independence. Rather than opting to act as a bridge between the new country and its international partners, Greece had opted to become part of the problem, much to the bewilderment of its partners, since it ignored the historical reality of the country as part of a wider geographical region, and led to Greece’s isolation in the region.
Efforts to reach agreement had been made from the early 1990s up to now, but these had initially been hampered by a Greek cross-party agreement in 1992 that no solution including the name Macedonia could be considered. Subsequent efforts almost led to agreement in 2000, but were halted by the advent of civil strife in Macedonia; even the EU’s Thessaloniki Agenda adopted in 2003 failed to relaunch the process, and the election in 2006 of Gruevski as PM, with his focus on “antiquisation” rendered further progress extremely difficult.
From 2015, the SYRIZA led government in Greece had promoted confidence building measures and, with the change of government in Skopje and support from external mediation, agreement had finally been reached in 2018 on the name “Northern Macedonia”. This had allowed Greece to lift its block on accession to NATO and the EU, although other EU Member States had put off accession negotiations until June 2019.
As regards the process of approval, the first step was approval by the Parliament in Skopje, on 20 July, of the referendum put to the population, in a question that made no mention of the change of name. The referendum on 30 September was won by a large majority in favour of the agreement, but with a turnout of less than 37%, well below the 50% threshold for the result to be valid. This kicked the issue back to Parliament, which began its debate on 15 October, passing the vote of principle by the requisite two thirds majority – just. In November, debate on the detail requires only a simple majority.
Assuming all this works, the fourth step is ratification in the Greek Parliament, in the face of strong public opposition and a split within the government coalition. The question is thus whether an agreement of this type can in fact work in Greece. The issue has become party politicised, with Nea Demokratia opposing it, in part for electoral reasons; there is growing radicalisation of young people, and of Greek society more generally; there is a perceived sense of national humiliation; and the Greek Orthodox Church has come out against it. In sum, there is a popular sentiment of loss of control, compounded by SYRIZA’s failure to consult with – and bring on board – other political parties.
This unstable situation is compounded by outside players in the region – Russia and Turkey – attempting to influence developments on both sides of the border.
A solution to the name issue, Koppa concluded, is both desirable and necessary, but to be durable it needed to reach hearts and minds; external pressures could not on their own change people’s perceptions of their identity. Her outlook was not overly optimistic.
During the Q & A, a number of issues were raised:
- Greek party-political opposition – reflects electoral politics and, in the case of PASOK, ignores the history of the party;
- SEESOX’s long-standing involvement in this issue;
- The reasons for the decision in the agreement to refer to citizens as either “Citizens of Northern Macedonia”, or “Macedonians” – this was done so that the Macedonian Government could, while changing the name of the country, protect their perceived popular identity;
- The extent to which any agreement could ever be considered a success when only elites supported it;
- How far could inter party consultation really have helped achieve consensus in Greece – probably unlikely, but the Government should have tried, rather than make no effort. Similarly, it had made no effort to explain the issues to the population;
- The costs of no solution – continuing isolation and loss of influence for Greece; and there was little or no chance of finding another solution if this effort failed.
Jonathan Scheele (St Antony's College, Oxford)