Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced on June 12 that Athens and Skopje agreed on the name Republic of North Macedonia (Severna Makedonija in Macedonian). According to Zaev, the deal will preserve the Macedonian identity, while making a clear distinction with the Greek province bearing the same name. The agreement could pave the way for Macedonia to join both the European Union and NATO, which is something Greece has prevented until this point. Nonetheless, some hurdles remain, as both countries’ parliaments have to ratify the agreement and Zaev promised a referendum on the issue. While the international community welcomes the deal, the leaders in both Athens and Skopje face stiff opposition at home and thus possible complications of the deal.
Since the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 and the establishment of an independent state, Greece has been challenging the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by its northern neighbor. Greece repeatedly brought forward the argument that ‘Macedonia’ is an exclusive term for its northern province and that any foreign use could imply territorial ambitions on behalf of that country. In its efforts to gain United Nations membership, the newly independent Macedonian state agreed in 1993 to seek dialogue with its southern neighbor. Until the dispute was resolved, the country would be referred to by the international community as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In the early 2000´s, a stalemate solidified following the interim agreement. Since the conservative VMRO-DPMNE came to power in 2006, Macedonian politics became increasingly nationalistic, further complicating the name issue with Greece. The latter greatly contested large-scale city renovating projects in Skopje focused on glorifying the Macedonian past; with the construction of Greek-style buildings and fountains in honor of Alexander the Great, the famed ruler of ancient Macedonia, the country, according to Athens, “claimed to be the sole heir of Alexander the Great’s legacy”. Overall, developments stagnated the process of dialogue, and led to no further progress.
The rule of the VMRO-DPMNE and their elaborate national identity-building project came to a sudden end, however, when a political crisis erupted in 2016 after a wire-tap scandal involving the government. The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) of Zoran Zaev came to power after snap elections, and the new Macedonian PM was eager to resolve the disagreement as soon as possible, setting nationalist narratives aside and seeking compromise. In late 2017, Zaev announced his government’s intent to enter into direct negotiations with Athens.
Under the auspice of the UN, Greece and Macedonia started a new round of talks in 2018. With the nationalistic narratives slowly being dropped by both governments, hopes arose that talks would be fruitful. The governments were nonetheless faced with several obstacles: Reportedly, the Greek delegation set demands for the solution to include Skopje distancing itself from any potential territorial claim on the Greek province of Macedonia. Meanwhile, the Macedonian side wanted their citizens to still be referred to as ‘’Macedonians”. The deal announced on June 12 by Zaev has proudly been proclaimed to include the demands of both sides. The signing of the name deal is expected to happen over the weekend of June 16th, although the decision will result in amendment of the Macedonian constitution and must thus still be put to a referendum in Macedonia in autumn.
Accession talks to launch soon
Macedonian Prime Minister Zaev has asked to provisionally give the deal to parliament for ratification before the referendum in autumn, and has expressed his country’s interest in proceeding with EU and NATO accession talks as soon as possible. Since Macedonia’s independence in 1993, Greece had blocked talks about Macedonia’s accession to either organization based on the principle that all members must unanimously agree with negotiations for accession. Through immediate ratification, Zaev argues, both NATO and the EU can advance steps for integration as soon as Greece has lifted its blockage, and NATO has expressed its intention to invite Macedonia to join the alliance at the NATO Summit in July. Respectively, the European Union is expected to act on the recommendation of April 17 by EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and EU Enlargement Negotiations Officer Johannes Hahn to open accession talks with Macedonia in June. If Greece fulfils its side of the deal after swift ratification by Macedonia, the debates on June 28th within the European Union will thus not only concern Albania’s potential accession, but also that of Macedonia. In an online statement, Mogherini and Hahn expressed that the EU “will now accompany the next steps with all [means] for [a] common European future.” Once the decision to launch formal membership negotiations has been made, the EU will begin a process to implement EU institutions in the accessor state and prepare the country for joining. The governments of the United States, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom and others have expressed their satisfaction with the developments, stating that integration into the EU and NATO is a beneficial way to improve the stability of the Balkan region, and that relations between neighboring countries are set to enhance.