Macedonia has made great strides to meet Greek concerns over its name, for Greece this isn't enough with the agreement now threatening to bring down the Tsipras government.
Last week the Macedonian parliament narrowly cobbled together a two-thirds majority to pass the Prespa Agreement. This agreement, signed by Macedonian and Greek leaders last June, changes Macedonia’s constitutional name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia to alleviate Greek concerns.
Macedonia’s name has been the source of a longstanding dispute between Athens and Skopje.
In 1944, Macedonia became one of the six republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. In 1990, after Yugoslavia changed from a socialist state to a parliamentary democracy, ‘Socialist’ was dropped from Macedonia’s name (with which Greece voiced no problems at the time). With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia became an independent state and kept Republic of Macedonia as its new constitutional name. Almost 140 countries around the world recognise Macedonia by this name.
However, Greece has long protested against the use of ‘Republic of Macedonia’ because the name Macedonia, which is the same as that of Greece’s northern province, implied regional territorial claims by Skopje.
However ridiculous this might sound, it has become a very serious issue. Greece has constantly blocked Macedonia from joining NATO and stalled its EU membership over the matter. Now, many hope that the Prespa Agreement will finally pave the way for Macedonia to enter the Euro-Atlantic community.
But nothing in the Balkans is simple and straightforward. There are good reasons to believe that the agreement is far from a done deal.
First, ratifying the Prespa Agreement came at a huge political cost for the Macedonian government. A majority of the people boycotted the referendum that was held in October. Only 36.8 percent of Macedonians registered to vote did so. Complicating the matter even further, more than one-third of those who voted came from the ethnic Albanian areas of the country.
With such a low voter turnout, one would think the government would go back to the drawing board and listen to the legitimate concerns of all Macedonians. Instead, the government brought the issue to parliament. After performing parliamentary gymnastics to rustle up enough support—which included controversially offering an amnesty to certain members of the opposition over alleged crimes—the motion passed 80-39, barely with the two-thirds majority required to change the constitution.
It remains to be seen what the political fallout will be—especially if Greece refuses to ratify the agreement.
This raises the second issue of concern. There is no guarantee that the Prespa Agreement will be ratified in the Greek parliament. A Greek political drama unfolded over the weekend when the ultra-right wing nationalists left the governing coalition over the Prespa Agreement. This sparked a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government which he narrowly won by one vote.
Tsipras plans to hold a vote in parliament on the Prespa Agreement by February, but it remains to be seen if there are enough votes to ratify itbehavior since Tsipras is basically governing with a minority government. If Greece does not ratify the agreement, it would be tragic for the Macedonian government, which has already paid a huge political price to ratify the agreement themselves. In retrospect, it was an error not to have the Greeks ratify the agreement first.
Thirdly, nobody should think that the road to NATO membership will be smooth even if neighbors. There is still plenty of scope for Greek nationalists to cause problems—especially when the accessions protocol for Macedonia’s NATO membership someday comes to the Greek parliament for a vote.
Also, there has been little discussion about what role Albania and Bulgaria could play in causing problems for Macedonia’s eventual NATO membership. Both have a complicated, and sometimes confrontational, history with Macedonia. It is unlikely that either will be enthusiastic about Macedonia joining NATO without first extracting a high price from Skopje.
Regardless of the outcome of the Prespa Agreement, one should never forget that it was Greece’s petulant behaviour that got Macedonia into this situation to begin with. It is extraordinary that a country like Greece, which has been so dependent over the years on the financial goodwill of its European neighbours, would block the accession of one of its tiny neighbours into the Euro-Atlantic community.
Also, if a majority of Macedonians do not feel that their culture, language, and identity are respected and protected, then the Prespa Agreement could plant a seed of discontent that could bring more instability to both the country in the region into the future.
This is the last thing the Balkans needs. So before rushing to celebrate the Prespa Agreement, everyone should step back and take a deep breath.
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