Not mad, not bad, just sad
Mar 20th 2008
The Macedonia name-game
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IF YOU have an unexploded bomb on your doorstep, do not hit it with a hammer, especially if you hear it ticking. That would seem uncontroversial, except when the unexploded bomb is Macedonia and the hammer is wielded by Greece.
Neither side is blameless in the two countries’ tedious wrangle about who can be called what. Ultranationalists of both flavours make absurd claims about the geographical and ethnic characteristics of “historical” Macedonia. If the Olympic games featured an event that measured stubborness and prejudice, the partisans from the Wikipedia talk page dealing with the name wrangle could form a world-class joint team.
Greece’s fears of irridentism from the north are not wholly groundless. But they are out of date and minor compared to the real threat: instability, or worse. The best way to prevent the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” from posing any kind of security threat to its southern neighbour, or stirring up trouble among the slavophone population in the northern Greek province also called Macedonia, is to bring it into the European Union and NATO.
That prospect has also scotched the notion of a Greater Albania, which would have included Kosovo and a large chunk of Macedonia. If borders look set to matter less, that idea will stay dormant.
Membership in the Atlantic alliance has proved a highly effective means of calming old rows (not least between Greece and Turkey). It is hard to argue that Greece will be more secure if it vetoes Macedonia’s NATO membership at the alliance’s summit in Bucharest between April 2nd and 4th, especially if Albania and Croatia gain membership.
America is promoting compromises (Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia, Democratic Republic of Macedonia and Constitutional Republic of Macedonia). Greece rejects these, and wants a different qualifier (Upper, Northern, Vardar or Skopje). Macedonia says it will accept an extra label, but not a geographical one.
Macedonia’s impatient-sounding stance and displays of petulance in the past have not always helped its own case, especially in Greek eyes. But a resentful and isolated neighbour will be worse for Greece, not better.
More troublingly, it may blow up. Macedonia’s precarious internal stability is teetering. The coalition government has lost its majority since its Albanian coalition partner pulled out last week; it wants immediate recognition of Kosovo, greater use of the Albanian flag and language, plus pensions for veterans of the insurgency in 2001. Only some prompt and effective international mediation saved that conflict from turning into civil war.
For now, Macedonia has been something of a success story, pushing ahead with fast tax-reform and promoting e-government. That has benefited Greek companies too, who find politics does little or nothing to dent the attractions of northwards trade and investment. Macedonia is already a handy NATO ally, with soldiers in Afghanistan (who, unlike those from some existing members of the alliance, are actually allowed to fight).
A great deal more needs to be done. Infrastructure is dismal, education inadequate, corruption still a problem. But the well-trodden path to membership in the European Union and NATO is the best route for improvement. It if works, it will benefit Greece too.
It may well be that America will bang heads together in the run-up to the NATO summit. But outside attention is a scarce commodity and needed elsewhere too—not least for the vital but chancy business of producing a convincing NATO offer for Georgia and Ukraine.
Greece’s politicians would be doing themselves and everyone else a favour if they would settle the “name issue”—or at least say publicly that they will not veto their northern neighbour from joining an organisation that will make everyone safer and freer.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Not mad, not bad, just sad