In what may be the most significant diplomatic step in the Balkans since the end of the Bosnian war, a bitter, decades-long bilateral dispute has been put to rest in Europe Friday. After 27 years of mutual mistrust, a name deal has been sealed between Athens and Skopje.
Under the agreement, Greece’s neighbor will stop using the name “Republic of Macedonia,” a name it chose for itself when it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It will instead call itself “Republic of North Macedonia.” Following months of street protests and heated debate in both countries, the name deal has overcome the last of a number of hurdles in Athens Friday, with 153 votes in support in the 300-seat parliament.
The change is significant because Greece, a member of both NATO and the European Union, has been blocking Skopje’s membership to NATO and the beginning of accession talks with the EU until the name dispute is resolved. Under the deal, Greece will lift its objections paving the way for its neighbor’s integration.
How we got here
Both countries have been under pressure to resolve the dispute, as Western nations see the further integration of Balkan countries into the EU and NATO as a way of improving the region’s stability. The move will perhaps even serve as a compromise that can ease other regional disputes. But Moscow openly opposes Macedonia’s aspirations, having long been a major player in the region.
The agreement, first ratified in Skopje, follows the defeat of Macedonia’s nationalist conservatives by the social democrats. It has significantly improved the climate between the two neighboring countries after decades of strong nationalist rhetoric on both sides.
Since the early 1990s, maps have widely circulated in Greece with the landlocked state’s borders extending to the port city of Thessaloniki, Greek Macedonia’s capital, funneling territorial fears. A giant statue of the ancient Macedonian King Alexander the Great erected in Skopje’s central square fueled further claims of cultural plunder.
In summer 2018, the easing of relations led to a joint declaration by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev that the name dispute was finally over. In a ceremony high in symbolism, held by Lake Prespa where the borders of Greece, Albania and Macedonia meet, the two men signed the landmark agreement, known as the Prespa accord.
Deal seen as PM’s legacy project
The deal has been faced with widespread criticism in both countries in the steps leading to its ratification. A referendum in Skopje saw low turnout and the Greek government has survived two no confidence votes in seven months and the loss of its junior coalition partner over the deal.
Concerns revolve around identity and how it may affect future security. Opponents say the addition of the word “North” may help to define geographical terms but it does nothing to separate nationality and language, which could create a basis for minority issues and territorial claims.
With latest polls showing that more than six in 10 Greeks oppose the deal, demonstrations have been held across the country in the buildup to Friday’s vote. A protest rally in Athens Sunday attended by tens of thousands was marred by violence.
The Greek Prime Minister has expended political capital to push the deal describing it as a “patriotic duty.” He has also acknowledged that the deal would come “with a political cost.” His party is trailing 10% behind the main opposition, a strong opponent of the deal. Main opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, of the New Democracy party, speaking in parliament ahead of Friday’s vote, described a ratification of the agreement as “a national mistake that is an affront to truth and history.”
Shortly after the deal was ratified, Tspiras said in a tweet: “Today we are writing a new page in the Balkans. Nationalist hatreds, disputes and conflicts give their place to friendship, peace and co-operation.”
His Macedonian counterpart shared the same positive outlook in a congratulatory tweet to the Greek PM.
European leaders also took to social media to celebrate the agreement. European Council President Donald Tusk praised Tspiras and Zaev for their courage in finding a middle ground while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the confirmation of the Prespa accord as “an important contribution to the stability and prosperity of the whole region.”
“They had imagination, they took the risk, they were ready to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good,” Tusk wrote on his official Twitter account.
Polls indicate Tsipras is set to lose an election that will take place this year. The 44-year-old politician took office in 2015 as an economic populist in the height of Greece’s financial crisis, promising to rewrite the terms of Greece’s bailout with grand fanfare but without great success. Many Greeks see the name deal as Tsipras’ legacy project aimed at securing his future in politics and strengthening his image beyond Greek borders.