MACEDONIA: Its name blocks foreign policy aspirations
Thomas Cromwell

On a recent visit to Washington, Macedonia’s deputy prime minister for European affairs, Ivica Bocevski, met with DiplomaticTraffic.com to discuss some of the recent developments in his country.

He confirmed that since independence from Yugoslavia, in 1991, that Macedonia has had two overarching foreign policy objectives: to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to join the European Union.

Since that time, the former Yugoslav state of Slovenia has emerged as an early and accomplished ‘new wave’ member of the EU, whereas Macedonia has been held back by a single issue: its name.

The problem is that larger neighbor, and EU member, Greece claims the name “Macedonia” for itself. Part of northern Greece bears that name now, and Greeks claim that ancient Macedonia, with its famous kings, including Alexander the Great, was part of Greater Greece.

Greece sees Macedonia’s attempts to inherit the mantle of ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great (a huge statue is planned for Macedonia’s capital, Skopje), along with the name itself as part of an expansionist and irredentist movement that imperils the current border between the two states.

Copies of Macedonian maps that include large swaths of modern Greece are used as evidence of this claim by Athens.

The modern Macedonian flag also resembles the flag of ancient Macedonia.

But modern-day Macedonian leaders dismiss the Greek worries. They point to Greece’s much greater size and strength, for one.

Macedonia’s population is just over 2 million, and the GDP per capita is about $9,000. Greece has a population of 10.7 million with a GDP per capita of $32,000. Greece has long been a member of NATO and the EU.

Interestingly, despite the name dispute, Greece is the largest foreign investor in Macedonia, and it provides critical access to the sea for Macedonian trade.

Minister Bocevski said that the name issue, “touches Macedonians deeply, as a matter of nature and culture.”

He said the right to self-determination includes the right to choose your nation’s name.

He also complained that whereas both NATO and the EU are perceived as politically neutral, in the case of Macedonia, “they are seen as instruments of exclusion,” in violation of democratic principles and human rights.

Nevertheless, Macedonian sentiments aside, Greece has been unwilling to budge on the name issue. Early on it persuaded the European Union and United Nations to adopt the rather cumbersome Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the formal name to be used for Macedonia. Washington has simply adopted “Republic of Macedonia” as the term it uses.

But Greece has wielded its veto power on enlargement in both NATO and the EU to effectively stymie any Macedonian attempts to join those bodies.

Minister Bocevski is tasked with overseeing Macedonia’s integration into the European Union. He said Skopje was working on eight benchmarks to prepare for talks on membership, which he hopes will be given the green light in December this year.

He said Macedonian legislation has been undergoing changes to be compatible with EU laws and codes, and this process should be complete by 2011.

Mr. Bocevski’s visit to Washington is consistent with Macedonia’s expectations that Washington will be the key to solving the standoff with Greece and facilitating its membership into NATO and the EU.

“Washington is the principle strategic partner of Macedonia,” he said. “And it supports our integration into NATO and the EU.”

But time has shown that Greece will not easily be swayed. Minister Bocevski says the Obama Administration has shown “serious engagement” in the Balkan region. Insiders say that this engagement is likely to include the demand that both Greece and Macedonia put an end to their dispute over the name by accepting a US solution that would have Macedonia called Northern Macedonia.

Neither side would be completely happy, but for both it might we worth swallowing some nationalist pride in the name of international stability and integration.