January 21 could have been just another laid-back Sunday in Thessaloniki, Greece’s uncrowned “co-capital”. Except that it wasn’t. Starting from the morning hours, throngs waving the white-and-blue national flags poured into the city’s waterfront. Horsemen in folk attire joined in, said to have made the journey all the way from the island of Crete to take part in the “Macedonia is Greek” rally . There were moustachioed impersonators of Pavlos Melas, the celebrated Greek fighter chief from the early 20th century, along with those masquerading as soldiers from the army of the Ancient Kingdom of Macedon.
By the early afternoon, at least 50,000 people had gathered in front of the Alexander the Great monument overlooking the Aegean Sea. The multitude continued to parade across town throughout the day to have their message heard: Macedonia remains a treasured piece of Greek national heritage, not to be shared with the Slav parvenus north of the border.
It was a blast from the past. On February 14, 1992, one million people, 10 percent of the entire population of Greece, marched in Thessaloniki in defence of brand Macedonia. Back then, Greece ended up imposing an economic blockade on its fragile neighbour, which was desperately trying to stay away from the war raging in other parts of former Yugoslavia at the time.
Todayو things seem much calmer. Greece is the third largest investor in the Republic of Macedonia after the Netherlands and Austria. People travel freely across the border in order to vacation, shop or work.
But the “name dispute” is once again on everyone’s lips, in both Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, or, if you will, “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, the interim name the UN assigned the state in 1993, which Greece is religiously sticking to.
As a fresh round of talks looms, mediated by UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, the go-between on the issue since 1994, politicians and talking heads on both sides have been mulling and breaking spears over the putative compromise. The stakes are high: Macedonia’s accession to NATO, blocked by Greece in April 2008, and the start of its membership negotiations with the EU.
The good news is that a compromise is now within grasp. Athens and Skopje have as good an opportunity as ever to agree on a mutually acceptable name and move on. For nearly a decade, both parties to the dispute have lived comfortably with the impasse.
In the Republic of Macedonia, Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski made use of isolation from the West to strengthen his grip on power, dish out benefits to political and business cronies, and refashion Skopje’s city centre as a nationalist theme park, featuring a humongous statue of Alexander mounted upon a water fountain, a vast triumphal arch (“Porta Makedonija”) and a string of neoclassical buildings. Greece, for its part, focused on its mother of all economic crises, and had no pressing reason to accommodate its rogue neighbour.
But things have changed since then. Gruevski’s downfall, after a two-year long political crisis triggered by revelations of high-profile corruption, elections rigging and obstruction of justice, raised hopes for a new opening. The new government, led by Social Democratic Union’s Zoran Zaev and inaugurated in May 2017, wants a settlement in order to shepherd Macedonia into NATO and the EU. So do Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, one-time chief negotiator with Greece, and the ethnic Albanian coalition partners whose support brought Zaev to power.
They have no axe to grind with Greece. “We are committed to finding a solution in these six months,” declared Deputy Prime Minister Bujar Osmani from Athens on January 9. In the name of Euro-Atlantic integration, the new government signed a long-delayed friendship treaty with Bulgaria, which was recently ratified .
NATO and the EU are clearly supportive. Along with Croatia, Macedonia was a frontrunner to join both entities in the early and mid-2000s. Its accession to Western clubs would be a testament that it is still Brussels, rather than Moscow, Beijing or anybody else, calling the shots in the Balkans. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Skopje on January 18 and 19 to reassure his hosts. “I encourage you to continue on the path of reform. We want you to succeed,” Stoltenberg said.
Yet, neither the EU nor NATO can intervene as impartial mediators, since Greece is a member of both organisations. The theory that “great powers” could corner Athens into giving ground carries no water.
So the question is whether Athens is prepared to play a constructive role.
The answer is a qualified “yes” . For all his flaws, Alexis Tsipras is no foreign policy hawk, nor is Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. His stance, as those of previous governments, is: the name “Macedonia” cannot be anyone’s exclusive property, as the historic region by the same name is divided into three countries, Greece, the Republic of Macedonia and Bulgaria.
So Skopje should choose a qualifier – New, Northern, Upper, Vardar, etc Macedonia – to draw a distinction with the Greek province of Macedonia, which accounts for 52 percent of the region. And Greece insists that the new name should be used in all international dealings (“erga omnes”), rather than in bilateral affairs.
Tsipras faces a Herculean task at home. He needs to turn around hostile public opinion . He also needs to convince his junior coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), whose trademark is virulent populist nationalism. Its leader, Panos Kammenos, proposed that Skopje should settle for “Central Balkan Republic” or even ” Vardarska” (an adjective which carries no meaning on its own).
The Thessaloniki rally does not bode well for Tsipras’s success. All of ANEL’s MPs from Northern Greece, along with their colleagues from the main opposition party, the centre-right New Democracy, turned up, together with the city’s Orthodox metropolitan Anthimos and scores of local clergy (though the Orthodox Church, as a whole, declared neutrality).
“Demonstrate, my brothers, for Macedonia … Skopje will never be accepted with the name Macedonia by the people’s conscience,” Anthimos said in his sermon. “If we only shut [access] to the port [of Thessaloniki], they’re dead the following week.”
Needless to say, the far-right Golden Dawn made their presence known, too. The hard left is singing from the same song sheet. Even legendary composer Mikis Theodorakis (known for “Zorba the Greek”) has been militating against Tsipras.
The voices of reason, meanwhile, are at risk of being swept aside. “The problem is that people think that the Republic of Macedonia will take away our identity. No one is doing it, they are no threat to us. People are ill-informed,” the outspoken mayor of Thessaloniki Yannis Boutaris vented his frustration in an interview with a Bulgarian TV channel after the rally . In a gesture of goodwill, Boutaris had hosted Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zaev in Thessaloniki on New Year’s Eve.
The upheaval in Greece threatens to set off an outpour of anger in Skopje. A scandal is already brewing, spurred by a spin on the otherwise measured and constructive interview Tsipras gave to Greek newspaper Ethnos (The Nation). In advance to publishing the piece this Sunday, the Athens daily ran the following blurb: “Tsipras: A Macedonian nation never existed”. It was a classical manipulation. The editors conveniently dropped the sentence’s ending: “… in ancient times, as there was not a nation of Athenians or Spartans.”
For the time being, Zaev is not feeling the heat. The country’s leading opposition party VMRO-DPMNE’s newly elected leader Hristijan Mickoski is not rocking the boat. However, tensions might resurface anew.
In a parallel story, President Gjorge Ivanov, a Gruevski loyalist, recently vetoed new legislation that would make Albanian the second official language throughout the country. In the meantime, VMRO-DPMNE refused to back the bilateral friendship treaty with Bulgaria in parliament (Bulgarian legislators voted unanimously in favour, by contrast). If Zaev’s EU/NATO aspirations crash, stability in the Balkan state will come under strain once again.
But the news that came from the January 24 meeting between Zaev and Tsipras in Davos is positive. In a gesture of goodwill to Greece, Macedonia agreed that Skopje airport and a highway will no longer be named “Alexander the Great”. Greece, in turn, unblocked the implementation of Macedonia’s EU association agreement. A new border crossing is to open in the Prespa Lake region.
Tsipras and Zaev are having their make-or-break moment. If they succeed in making use of the window of opportunity and secure a compromise, the gain will be for everyone: Greece, Macedonia, the Balkans and the West. If they fail, however, it will be ordinary Macedonian citizens paying the price.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.