Nov 22nd 2007
Time to look past archaic disputes
FOR anyone who cares about peace in the Balkans, few things matter more than keeping intact the country most of the world calls the “Republic of Macedonia”. Its perilous stability will wobble more with looming independence for next-door Kosovo, which will delight Macedonia’s Albanian minority, and stoke the Slav majority’s fears.
In theory, no rich country should care more about Macedonia than neighbouring Greece. Yet relations are hampered by an arcane dispute about nomenclature. Greece insists that “Macedonia” was, is and can only be part of Greece. The name’s use by a region of Yugoslavia was, it maintains, part of a communist-era plot aimed at destabilising Greece. Greece therefore insists that the country be called “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).
Extremists on both sides use rhetoric (seen, among other places, in clumsily made presentations on YouTube) so ill-phrased and comical that Borat himself could claim authorship. They share the unspoken but absurd assumption that the features of the entity known as Macedonia in ancient history should be of decisive importance in modern ethnography or political geography: because an ancient kingdom called Macedonia existed, only one modern entity can claim that name. The region is still waiting for a statesman to pick that assumption apart.
It is a close call, but the extreme Macedonian nationalist position, which argues that most of northern Greece is “theirs”, is perhaps the battiest. It is as if the Greeks insisted that unicorns were pink while the Macedonians maintained, even more absurdly, that the horned beasts were of a colour found nowhere on the conventional spectrum: moonlight, perhaps.
Greek twitchiness about even mythical controversies was more understandable in the early 1990s, when the whole future of the southern Balkans was alarmingly fluid and unpredictable. Amid disputes over Macedonia’s future involving Serbs, Albanians and Bulgarians, the Greek objection to the name was part of a wider pattern of worries about borders and minorities.
But the Macedonian nuts have little effect on their government’s policy these days. The country has changed its flag and constitution in order to accommodate Greek sensitivities. The forward-looking government in Skopje is into flat taxes, e-government and attracting foreign investment (paradoxically, in large measure from Greece).
Greece, however, still insists that the mere existence of a next-door country called Macedonia “is directed against the cultural heritage and historical identity of the Greeks” and “there is no question of its neighbour acceding either to the European Union or to NATO under the name Republic of Macedonia”.
A lobby group called the “Association of Macedonians” has issued an appeal this week noting that Greece does not fully recognise Macedonian passports and that Macedonia’s state airline cannot fly to Greek airports. That, they say, adds insult to injury.
Slavophone people in northern Greece have had a tough time, not only with mass deportations in 1949 but also in their treatment by the authorities on issues such as surnames and schooling ever since. (Greeks saw the slavophone minority, with some justice, as a security threat during the Cold War, and Greek minorities have been abominably treated too in other countries. But even multiple wrongs don’t make a right).
The great tide of EU and NATO expansion that has served the continent so well in the past ten years is already running worryingly slack. Pushing ahead with Macedonia’s applications to both bodies will change the mood in the whole region. Prosperity and stability in the Balkans will benefit Greece hugely. It is time to relegate the name issue to the backwaters of bilateral diplomacy, and highlight the benefits to Greece of Macedonia’s stability and prosperity—and the dangers of its disintegration.
Thursday, November 22, 2007