How the Balkans solved a Balkan problem

The reluctance of the West to face the truth about the Macedonia name dispute stalled its resolution for years.

Zaev Tsipras
Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev and Greek PM Tsipras speak after the signing of an accord to settle the Macedonian name dispute on June 17, 2018 [File: Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters]

The Macedonia name dispute dragged on for almost three decades, becoming the longest lasting one of its kind in recent history. To an uninformed observer, it may have looked like a curiosity: Greece being so insistent that the naming of the newly formed country constituted a threat and Macedonia (or FYROM as it had to be called) being equally adamant about retaining its name.

By all accounts, that Macedonia was both a name of a country and of a region in Greece did not sound like a serious threat to anyone’s security or territorial integrity. The issue was easily being dismissed as the product of the intransigence of two typically nationalistic Balkan countries.

But the truth is the dispute remained unresolved for nearly 30 years also because the Western emissaries who were supposed to mediate it simply did not want to admit what it was all about.

For years, a statement on the website of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs (now taken down) made it very clear: the use of the name expresses claims on Greek cultural heritage, history, and, hence, identity and this in itself constitutes “irredentism”. That is, the dispute was about history and identity, and not the territory.

This was also reflected and carried in United Nations Security Council resolution 817, which recognised what it called “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” as an independent state in 1993. By way of recognising a nameless state with no national identifier, the international community was basically denying it the right to national self-determination, even if it did not intend to do so. The UNSC’s resolution corresponded with the Balkan history of the “Macedonian question“, a history of negation of the very reality of a distinct ethnic and national identity that would be called Macedonian by most of the neighbouring countries. 

For years, the UN and its special envoy, Matthew Nimetz, did not want to admit to this reality because it was embarrassing; identity disputes were not supposed to be happening in 21st century Europe.

The issue would not have been solved if this simple fact had not been recognised and addressed in negotiations. But this recognition did not come from the UN or the West; it in fact came from the leadership of the two countries involved in the dispute.

Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras and their Foreign Ministers Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kozias (until Ocrtober 2018), respectively, took off the gloves of western diplomatic etiquette and addressed the issue head-on: they reached a bilateral agreement that tackled identity.

The two countries had to recognise each other’s concerns in order to address them. The Greek side – as laid out in the foreign ministry’s statement – was convinced the name laid a claim on Greek history and identity.

The Macedonian side feared that, with the change of the name of the state, the designation of the national identity and the language would be effaced. Let us note, the fear was justified: more than once, Nimetz’s proposals for a resolution contained naming of nationality and language. By contesting the right to a signifier, these proposals were in fact contesting the existence of a Macedonian ethnicity/nation and Macedonian language.

Article 7 of the bilateral agreement between Greece and (now) North Macedonia addressed these issues by recognising that “Macedonian” can mean two different things at the same time: for the Macedonian side, it means nationality, ethnic belonging and a South Slavic language, whereas, for the Greek side, it refers to the cultural heritage of Ancient Greece and the legacy of the Kingdom of Phillip and Alexander of Macedon.

Thus, the agreement reaffirmed the principle of self-determination for the Macedonians and negotiated the inclusion of both the Slavic and Hellenic signifiers in the name.

The fact that the two Balkan nations faced the “embarrassing” truth and defied the self-censorship of political correctness to address the proverbial elephant in the room speaks volumes about their pollical acumen and bravery.

This is not a solution brokered by the European Union, United States or the UN, and it’s not just a temporary ad hoc fix to allow North Macedonia to pursue accession to NATO and the EU.

Rather, it is a resolution of a dispute between two neighbours negotiated in a way that is sensitive to their political cultures, shared history and national concerns (regardless of how inconceivable they may be to the West).

It sets a precedent in Balkan politics and can usher in a new and non-atavistic political culture that can take us beyond our nationalisms, fixation on grand historical narratives, and national complexes that we all seem to suffer from.

We would not have reached this solution had the “balkanism” of the dispute not been recognised and affirmed in order to be subverted and reinvented into an instrument of empowerment.

The two prime ministers, or indeed the two nations, very much deserve a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. The agreement ensures stability in Greece and North Macedonia which also guarantees the security of all of Southeast Europe and as a consequence of Europe as a whole. Both Tsipras and Zaev seem to have been acutely aware of this fact and have acted on it with much vision and sense of responsibility.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.