That’s how it is. Life isn’t fair, and reality demands a compromise. These are the words that Erwen Fouréré, the long-standing EU ambassador to Skopje, a witness and occasional actor in Macedonia’s troubles, addressed to his hosts, warning them that the time to reach a deal with Greece over Macedonia’s name was fast running out.
A month from now the EU will decide whether Macedonia, after five years of candidate status, will be given the date for starting negotiations on finally joining the EU. In Macedonia itself, however, there is a gloomy atmosphere of unfulfilled expectations. It is as if the Macedonian government and public have come to accept that Macedonia will draw the short straw in the ‘wrestling match’ at the EU summit in June.
It is most likely, indeed, that the setting of the date will again be postponed, hopefully until the end of the year, less optimistically for an indeterminate period. The formal explanation will be the slowing down, indeed end of reforms; but in reality it is the failure to reach an agreement with Greece over the country’s name. The conflict with which Greece has burdened Macedonia, and which until quite recently was merely a ‘technical problem’ that did not affect Macedonia’s progress towards EU and NATO membership, has in the meantime grown into an ‘unavoidable obstacle’. Or rather, into Brussels’s political ultimatum. It is true that the issue of the name does not appear as a formal condition; but when it comes to choosing between a state that already is a member (Greece) and a state that wishes to become one (Macedonia), there will be no dilemma. Despite sympathy for Macedonia and irritation with the Greek economic assault on EU stability, Macedonia will get short shrift. The offence will be chalked up against the weaker side, although everyone knows full well that the stronger one, which sets the rules, has been playing a highly destructive game.
Though Brussels officials hope for some turnaround by mid-June, its chances are nil. The Macedonian-Greek negotiations on Macedonia’s name reached a dead end several months ago, so that a change in the coming weeks would be truly miraculous. The long-standing American UN mediator in this conflict, Matthew Nimetz, does not believe in a sudden change either, and has been postponing the restart of negotiations. For sure, at the beginning of the this year there was a hope that ‘Republic of Northern Macedonia’ might, under certain conditions, be acceptable to both sides. But it vanished the moment the Greeks ‘explained’ that the change of name from Macedonia to Northern Macedonia would oblige the country to change also its national identity, its language, its constitution, its national anthem and its state emblem and flag – a recasting in fact of the whole of its history and culture.
The Macedonians interpreted this Greek ‘shopping-list’ in the only possible way – as the introduction of a Greek protectorate. The idea consequently, and logically, died even before it had been officially endorsed. A section of Macedonian public opinion, and certain political circles in Skopje, were initially positively inclined towards the name ‘Northern Macedonia’. But when the Greeks upped their demands, the Macedonians responded by reviving the old idea of a referendum on the name, the negative outcome of which is beyond doubt.
Greece responded to the idea of ‘letting the people decide’ by accusing Macedonia of blocking its ‘cooperation’ and ‘good will’ in the search for a ‘mutually acceptable compromise’. In fact, Greece is in no hurry (though one might think differently, given the seriousness of its crisis), all the more so because it has finally and without much effort won the support of EU leaders for its irrational national campaign, despite the fact that its economic and financial policy has brought into question the very survival of the euro and of the European Union. Athens can allow itself the luxury of simultaneously relaxing its chronic inter-state tensions with Turkey, thus winning the sympathy of Brussels and Washington, and assuaging European frustrations with the consequences of the Greek economic collapse. Turkey is more important to the international community than Macedonia, and the Greek prime minister can therefore afford to risk the wrath of Greek nationalists at his dialogue with Turkey. The tightening of the screw on its ‘unreasonable’ Macedonian neighbour comes as a recompense to the nationalists, at a time of real danger that the domestic crisis might unite the social and nationalist revolts into a powerful anti-government and anti-EU movement. This is why the so-called red line of Greek national interests is being maintained against the small and weak Macedonia, a line that Prime Minister Papandreas will not dare to cross.
But whereas Greece, therefore, may be in no hurry to reach a settlement with Skopje (not least because the very maintenance of mutual tensions causes serious internal trouble for Macedonia), one would expect Macedonia itself to be keen to arrive at a settlement that would unfreeze its current status as a forgotten country, and put it on the path to membership of the EU and NATO. This, however, does not appear to be the case.
The long and exhausting ‘war’ with Greece has created a situation of near-complete lethargy, with elements of indifference. The economic crisis is deepening, investors are avoiding the country as too risky, the social situation is increasingly hopeless, reforms have practically ceased, the prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration are receding – all this is creating anew a deep political crisis characterised by growing tensions between the country’s Macedonian majority and Albanian minority.
Instead of intensifying diplomatic activity, the government headed by Nikola Gruevski (VMRO- DPMNE) seems to have opted instead for a tactic of silence combined with anticipation, guided by a strange logic that time is in fact on Macedonia’s side. The idea being, it seems, that Europe will in time tire of Greek nationalist belligerence and arrogance, if not because of the Greek tactic of systematically undermining Macedonia, then because of the catastrophic effect of Greek economic mismanagement on European stability. Pursuing a tactic of ‘mutual attrition’, Macedonian nationalism in the form of a ‘return to antiquity’ has been offered as a response to Greek nationalism (though the intensity of the search for a new ancient Macedonian identity has somewhat diminished). Convinced that truth and justice is on its side, the government appears no longer interested in finding friends and allies abroad, and it is here that the main reason for the current near-total marginalisation of the country’s international position should be sought.
An ideological war is instead being waged against internal critics, with the government using its media to indict ‘traitors’, those who ‘favour selling the national spirit and dignity’ (i.e. argue for continuation of dialogue with Greece), and this is turning the Macedonian political scene into an arena of permanent confrontation. There is a real danger that, in the absence of a speedy internal political agreement, Macedonia could easily revert to the situation that pertained on the eve of the armed conflict between the authorities and mutinous Albanians in 2001.
Prime Minister Gruevski is no longer preoccupied with Athens, Brussels and Washington, but with the fanning of domestic conflict in order to hold off the Macedonian and Albanian political opposition and to create a suitably nationalist atmosphere for winning a new mandate at the increasingly likely early elections. With this in mind, the critics of the Macedonian government agree that it is, in fact, not in its interest to reach a compromise with Greece. Gruevski’s coalition government, involving the leader of the Albanian national community Ali Ahmeti, is on the point of collapse, as both sides contest the Ohrid Agreement that ended the war in 2001, the ruling party arguing that it gave too much to the Albanians while the Albanians believe that federalisation of the state offers the only way out of the crisis. The situation has become so confused that no one in Skopje can confidently predict what will come first: early elections with a new political configuration, or a new conflict between Macedonian and Albanian nationalists.
Macedonia, which back in the 1990s was a bright spot in the sea of Balkan troubles, appears today to be losing a sense of orientation, having been left to itself through its own but primarily through international fault.
In a situation of growing external pressure on Macedonia to capitulate on the name issue, with Greece sticking to its maximalist demands, and with Brussels irresponsibly willing to sacrifice Macedonia by letting it drown in internal troubles and using it as small change in Balkan trade-offs, few in Skopje can argue with any degree of confidence that the European idea retains its earlier dominant appeal. The growing impression is rather that the Euro-Atlantic enthusiasm is being slowly and steadily exhausted.
Translated from Peščanik website by Bosnian Institute, 26.05.2010.