Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Wilder Europe June 2005

The Eurovision Song Contest is a rare chance for ordinary Europeans to
show their shared appreciation of cheesy music and tinselly smiles.
There were some nice notes of European togetherness too: the Croats
gave votes to the Serbs, and the Latvians to the Russians.

The single discordant note was that throughout the evening one country
was described only by a euphemism—the Former Yugoslav Republic of
Macedonia. In real life, though, only on-duty Greek officials and
their hangers-on actually use this clumsy formulation. The Greek
insistence on quibbling about Macedonia's name looks ever sillier,
more counterproductive and out of date.

It was understandable, perhaps, in 1991, when the British journalist
Neal Ascherson described Macedonia as the "Doomsday machine": the only
place in the region that could start a pan-Balkan war. Macedonia's
neighbours wanted it strangled—or dismembered—at birth: the Serbs
thought it was really southern Serbia, the Bulgarians considered it as
western Bulgaria, and the Albanians regarded it as eastern Albania. If
the Greeks, then the closest approximation to a western ally in the
region, were batty enough to believe it to be northern Greece, why
rile them?

Even so, the reasons why Greece found the idea of an independent
country called Macedonia so threatening were hard to grasp. I remember
an erudite Anglophile Greek trying to explain it with an analogy. It
was, he said, as if France broke up into ethnically distinct bits, he
said, and Brittany announced that it would in future be called the
Republic of Britain. How would we like that, he asked? Surely we
would see this a threat to the territorial integrity of the United
Kingdom, and insist that the new state be called something else—the
Former French Province of Brittany, perhaps.

I could, just, see his point. Given the dreadful way that Greece has
treated its "slavophone" (actually Macedonian/Bulgarian) minority, I
could see that policy-makers in Athens might be a bit nervous about an
independent Macedonia attracting allegiances across the border. But
even that didn't seem insurmountable. Rather than bash Skopje, the
obvious solution was to be nicer to the Slavs in Thrace.

More than ten years on, the Greek position looks indefensible.
Macedonia is a poster-child of post-cmmunist harmony and
reconciliation. It is friends with Bulgaria, with the awkward question
of the linguistic differences between the two languages elegantly
parked. Thanks to the common language, Bulgarian tourists love the
place. And to appease the large Albanian minority, and western human
rights doctrine, Macedonia has become in effect a bi-communal state—a
kind of Belgium of the Balkans. It is messy, but it is working.

Greek businessmen have shown no hesitation about trade and investment
with their northern neighbour, whatever they call it. So why do
officials persist in their mean-minded attempt to bully Macedonia into
a name change? Macedonia has already changed its flag and constitution
to underline the fact that they don't intend to attack Thessalonika
(though anyone who ever thought that was remotely conceivable should
try staying off the raki).

But Greece is still insisting that the country should call itself
(even in English) Republika Makedonija-Skopje. Bending over to be
conciliatory (and keen to get their EU agreement in December) the
Macedonians have even agreed that they will use this bizarre
formulation in bilateral dealings with Greece. Greece should accept
that offer at once, end this dismal feud, and get on with more
important diplomatic tasks—like preparing for next year's Eurovision.
Who knows, in future they might even get some votes from Macedonia.