Thursday, March 25, 2010

The most boring issue in the world


What's in a name?
Mar 25th 2010

It is time for the most tedious dispute in the Balkans to be settled
IN THE headlines about Europe’s economic woes, one country stands out. Its public finances are a disaster. It has systematically fiddled its statistics. Its overpaid, underworked public-sector employees are a laughing stock across Europe. Rigid labour and product markets, and membership of the euro, have imprisoned it in an economic-policy straitjacket. It urgently needs a big bail-out. Call it the “Country That Needs Help” (CTNH).

Its next-door neighbour in south-eastern Europe is the “Country That Can’t Be Named” (CTCBN). The name it would like to have annoys CTNH, which regards it as an implicit territorial claim on its northern province with the same name. So the country is often called by a cumbersome five-letter acronym.

What a FYROre

The dispute has consumed an enormous amount of diplomatic time and energy over the past 15 years. It has prevented CTCBN, a small, poor country, from joining NATO, and has blocked the start of talks over its membership of the European Union. The details of the dispute are so mind-bogglingly silly that they make the Polish-Lithuanian row over spelling seem serious. it is difficult to know what sort of adjective or other qualifier, in what language or languages, with or without a hyphen, in what documents and in what contexts, would be enough to satisfy CTCBN's feeling of identity without prompting paranoia in CTNH.

Neither side is blameless. Politicians in CTCBN have provoked their southern neighbour. The controversial renaming of an airport and the erection of a prominent statue of a historical figure claimed by both sides are the main charges (no kidding: this is Europe in 2010 and people are getting seriously cross about statues). For its part, CTNH has been ridiculously obdurate: having said it would not let the name issue stop CTCBN’s integration into Euroatlantic organisations, it has

done exactly that.

Delay means playing with fire: CTCBN is divided ethnically and has weak national institutions. One of the things that keeps the country together is the prospect of integration into international organisations, chiefly the EU and NATO. CTCBN’s minority Albanian population has no dog in the fight. But if the name dispute goes on long enough, they may lose faith in CTCBN’s future as a country. Violence is not likely, but is certainly possible. If it does break out, CTNH’s foot-dragging will be largely to blame.

So a lot rests on the meeting of the two countries’ prime ministers at an EU summit on March 25th. Matthew Nimetz, the American diplomat charged by the United Nations with mediating the issue, sees some signs of hope. (He deserves a Nobel prize for patience, if nothing else).

What is missing is more muscular outside intervention. America thought of getting serious before the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, but failed to push CTNH hard enough. Being realistic, even with health-care reform successfully passed, it is unlikely that the White House is now buzzing with excited talk about this arcane dispute as its next big priority.

The EU is a more hopeful source of help. It is good at solving problems by being boring. Faced with the prospect of a near-death experience in a meeting room in Brussels, people often discover new possibilities for compromise. But the EU doesn’t want to get involved.

That’s a pity. Without getting into crude arm-twisting, it should be possible to suggest to CTNH that talks about the bailout might go faster if the government showed a bit more flexibility. Sighs of relief would echo round the world. And the indefatigable internet propagandists insisting on either unadorned Macedonia or Greece-sanctioned FYROM would have to find something else to do.


sleeper said...

Excellent idea. Couldn't the Cyprus issue benefit along similar lines?

Astoria said...

It may be that for CTNH going bankrupt is the lesser evil than recognizing CTCBN.