Athens, Greece – The dispute over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM – as it registered with the UN in 1993) is the last major extant issue arising from the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Early attempts at compromise came to nought. The government in the FYROM capital, Skopje, refused to relinquish the term Macedonia, and Greece rejected the use of even a composite name that included it, such “Northern” or “Slav” Macedonia.
For two decades, the two sides grew apart. In the absence of an agreement, 100 countries recognised the fledgling state, including many NATO and EU countries concerned for its stability and survival.
The talks that reopened last month are over the country’s name, and do not address identity or ethnicity. But as both peoples see the two issues as interlinked, reaching an agreement they will accept appears a difficult task.
Greece and FYROM have not seriously discussed it since 1993. Here is a chronology of the first, crucial years of the dispute:
November 1990 – “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” holds its first post-Yugoslav election. VMRO-DPMNE is the top party with 22 percent of vote and 38 seats. Its platform includes uniting all Macedonians in Macedonian lands under occupation in neighbouring Bulgaria, Greece and Albania into a Macedonian confederation, which will seek EU membership.
25 January 1991 – The parliament of the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” declares “sovereignty of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia” and the “right of the Macedonian people to self-determination”.
8 September 1991 – About 72 percent of citizens vote yes in a referendum on the question: “Do you support a sovereign and independent state of Macedonia, with the right to enter into a future union with the other sovereign states of Yugoslavia?”
17 September 1991 – Based on the referendum result, the parliament in Skopje declares independence. Article 2 of its declaration states that the country will “fight for uninterrupted respect for the generally accepted principles of international relations contained in the UN treaties”.
The country also pledges to “base its legal foundation on respect for the international rules which govern relations between states and total respect for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, strengthening mutual respect and trust and developing co-operation with all peoples with mutual interests”.
Article 3 pledges “good neighbourliness” and Article 4 pledges “strict respect for the inviolability of borders as a guarantee for peace and security in the region”. However, Article 5 calls for respect for “the rights of the portions of the Macedonian people, which live as an ethnic minority in neighbouring countries.” This becomes a major problem for Bulgaria and Greece.
17 November 1991 – The “Republic of Macedonia” adopts its constitution. Greece objects to three points in the constitution:
- The preamble invokes “the Macedonian people and their struggle over centuries for national and social freedom”. It speaks of the “legality of the Krushevo Republic” of 1903, a revolution whose ambition it was to to unite the Ottoman Empire’s administrative province of Macedonia – which would include present-day Greek and Bulgarian territory – in a breakaway independence movement. Ottoman forces crushed the uprising after ten days. The preamble also references the “historic decisions of the Anti-Fascist Assembly of the People’s Liberation of Macedonia” (1944), a communist partisan committee which lasted for a few months at the end of the Second World War. It called on “ethnic Macedonians” in Bulgaria and Greece to rise up against their oppressors. The latter inaugurated Marshal Tito’s aspirational policy of a Macedonian state at the expense of Greek territory as a way of uniting the southern tip of the Republic of South Slavs (Yugoslavia). Greek foreign minister Antonis Samaras quoted from the committee in a letter to his European colleagues on 17 January 1992, to demonstrate the irredentist implications of the constitution: “Let the struggle of the Macedonian piedmont inspire you… this alone leads to liberation and the unification of all Macedonians… Allow the artificial borders that separate brother from brother…to crumble.”
- Article 3 leaves open the possibility that “the borders of the Republic of Macedonia may be changed.”
- Article 49: States that “the Republic cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighbouring countries.” Greece is concerned that this creates a pretext for meddling in its internal affairs, as well as forming a basis for irredentist territorial claims.
16 December 1991 – The European Community’s Declaration on Yugoslavia comes as close as Europe will ever come to aligning itself with the Greek position. It pledges that the EC will recognise all Yugoslav member states on 15 January on certain conditions. Among other things, they must respect the human rights of individuals and ethnic groups; they must support the UN’s efforts in Yugoslavia; in a clear reference to Skopje, they should provide “constitutional and political guarantees” that they harbour no territorial claims on EC states and “will conduct no hostile propaganda activities versus a neighbouring Community state including the use of a denomination which implies territorial claims.”
6 January 1992 – In response, the parliament in Skopje makes two amendments to the constitution. The first stipulates that, “The Republic of Macedonia has no territorial pretensions towards any neighbouring state,” but continues to allow for the revision of borders “on the principle of free will”. The second asserts that, “the Republic will not interfere in the sovereign rights of other states or in their internal affairs,” but article 49 remains. The issue of the name goes unaddressed. In short, Greek concerns are not addressed.
11 January 1992 – The Badinter Commission (appointed to provide legal advice on Yugoslavia to the European Council) opines that the former Yugoslav Macedonia has provided enough assurances to warrant recognition as a sovereign state, but as Greece still has objections, Europeans refrain from doing so.
February 1992 – A march against compromising with former Yugoslav Macedonia is organised in Thessaloniki, with an estimated million people in attendance. The issue has escaped the halls of diplomacy and becomes a bone of contention between the two peoples, not just their governments.
February & March 1992 – The Portugese rotating presidency of the European Council suggested two further texts bolstering mutual respect for borders and non-aggression, but its initiative foundered on the suggestion of “Nova Macedonia” or “New Macedonia” as a name for the new state, which neither Athens nor Skopje accepted.
13 April 1992 – The Greek Council of Party Leaders meeting under the president announces that it will not recognise the “state of Skopje” if its name contains the term Macedonia. Foreign minister Antonis Samaras had sought even more – to threaten Skopje with a closure of borders. Samaras’ support for the hard-line position – to forbid use of the M-word in any form – brought him at odds with premier Konstantine Mitsotakis, who dismissed him that month.
23 June 1992 – Premier Mitsotakis writes to his European counterparts saying that Greece is willing to accept the so-called “double name” – whereby Skopje is recognised under a name that doesn’t contain the M-word but calls itself what it wants. Greek foreign policy will later reject this as insidious, but at this time it is the first Greek concession.
27 June 1992 – The European Council’s summit meeting in Lisbon again calls on the government in Skopje to find a name that doesn’t contain the M-word, hewing to the Greek line.
3 July 1992 – the parliament in Skopje rejects the summit communiqué, saying that without recognition of the Macedonian state and ethnicity there can be no smooth development of democracy in that country.
30 July 1992 – The president of former Yugoslav Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov, changes tack and applies for recognition at the UN. This caught Greece unprepared and created a two-track process Greece did not immediately address. Meanwhile the deepening and broadening of the war in Yugoslavia added to European concerns that hostilities could extend to the south of the country if central government authority in Skopje were not quickly reinforced.
10 December 1992 – The rotating British presidency of the European Council reports that Skopje is willing to accept a qualified use of the term Macedonia, calling itself Republic of Macedonia (Skopje) in all its international relations. This marks the first modification of Skopje’s hard line.
January 1993 – France suggests that Athens and Skopje submit to international arbitration.
14 May 1993 – A mediation by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen suggests the name “Nova Makedonija” for all international uses, and addresses all the constitutional issues that bother Greece. Skopje rejects this. Greece accepts a composite name for the first time, preferring the term “Slavomakedonija”, but ultimately withdraws the suggestion of a composite name under pressure from hardliners in the ruling conservative party.
September 1993 – Two MPs withdraw from the conservative bloc, depriving it of its ruling majority in parliament and bringing down the government.
October 1993 – The socialist party returns to power in Greece.
February 1994 – The socialist government of Andreas Papandreou places an embargo on Skopje, excluding food and medicines. Subsequent studies show that this is largely ineffective, as Greek exporters send shipments through Bulgaria rather than lose business. It also backfires, leading to outrage with Greece and international sympathy for Skopje, which now reaped a flurry of recognitions either as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, its official name in the UN, or as Republic of Macedonia.
September 1995 – Athens admits defeat and with Skopje signs the Interim Accord, whereby Athens and Skopje recognise each other’s sovereignty, disavow any mutual territorial threat, resume trade and pledge to find a solution to the name issue. This is the bilateral document that still governs relations between the two nations.