(Not) in name alone: Why Athens objects to Skopje in EU, NATO

In 2004, over 13 years after its independence from Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia had submitted its application for membership of the EU. The EU accepted the application in 2005, but Greece objected saying Macedonia’s name implied a territorial claim on the northernmost Greek province of the same name.

Written by Jamie Mullick | New Delhi | Published:June 21, 2017 1:30 am
NATO, Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia in NATO, greek, european union, Nikos Kotzias Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias with his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov in Athens. (Reuters)

Last week, Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov arrived in Athens to formally request the government of Greece for help in Macedonia’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU). The move was part of efforts to settle a 27-year-old naming dispute between the two nations that has led to Athens stonewalling all efforts by Macedonia to join the two organisations.

In 2004, over 13 years after its independence from Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia had submitted its application for membership of the EU. The EU accepted the application (and those of five other countries) in 2005, but Greece objected — saying Macedonia’s name implied a territorial claim on the northernmost Greek province of the same name.

The name game

The ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, which existed from the mid-7th century BC to the mid-2nd century BC, was largely located in what is now the Macedonian region of northern Greece. However, ever since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the predominantly Slavic nation of Macedonia has been claiming the official name of Republic of Macedonia. And Greece has been provoked into accusing it of deliberately appropriating cultural symbols and personalities from ancient Greek history to support its claim to the name.

When Skopje joined the United Nations in 1994, objections from Greece ensured it was formally inducted as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, or FYORM.

This question of nomenclature was a constant irritant in the relations between the two countries during the nine-year rule of former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who built his support base on heavy nationalist rhetoric that rejected all of Greece’s demands. But under the administration of new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who was sworn in on May 31 at the head of a coalition of parties, the Macedonian stance has softened.

Zaev has taken a much more conciliatory approach towards Athens, and even attacked Gruevski’s attempts at provoking Greeks by building monuments dedicated to figures from ancient Greece, such as Alexander the Great. Zaev has also promised to create a “politics of joint European future” by getting Macedonia into the EU and NATO.

Greek demands

Over the past three decades, Greece has been accusing its northern neighbour of “cultural theft”. In the early 1990s, Greece blockaded Macedonia’s southern border, in part to protest Skopje’s use of the Vergina Sun, a symbol from the gravesite of the ancient kings of Macedon, on its flag. But in what it said was a major compromise, Athens consented, in 2007, to the use of the word “Macedonia” by Skopje, as long as it was used with a geographical qualifier such as “Upper”, “Northern” or “New”.

Closing in on a solution

The new Macedonian government has made significant progress in recent weeks towards speeding up its bid for EU membership. Ethnically divided Macedonia sees the settlement of the dispute as a means to enter into relationships with big western powers. For debt-stricken Greece, the end of the quarrel holds out the promise of relief as its crisis-wracked economy gets the chance to explore businesses in the Balkan peninsula.

During a visit to Brussels last week, Zaev said he wanted his country to join the NATO and EU “in the shortest possible time”. He suggested that Macedonia would be open to using the name it currently uses in the UN. “We will try all possible measures to move Macedonia to membership,” he said.

In Athens, Zaev’s Foreign Minister struck a conciliatory note: “I’m here to ask for your support,” Dimitrov, who was at one time Skopje’s negotiator with Greece over the name, said. “I’m convinced that you have the leverage in your hands and this leverage can help towards closing the way [for this issue].”

In return, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said Athens would support Macedonia’s bid for the EU “in every way, once the name issue has been resolved… That is a prerequisite and I believe we must, and can, work towards a good compromise benefiting both sides.”

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