Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia reached a historic agreement to put an end to the long-standing dispute on the latter country’s name.
On Tuesday, the two countries’ respective Prime Ministers, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev finalised the deal in a telephone conversation which came after months of negotiations.
Shortly after, Alexis Tsipras gave a televised addressed to the Greek people, explaining that FYROM agreed to change its constitutional name ‘erga omnes’, to ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ (Severna Makedonija), erga omnes – i.e. the name will be used both internationally and bilaterally, something that has been a long-standing demand of Greece, and has been opposed so far by FYROM.
In effect, this means that all 140 countries that have recognised the country as ‘Macedonia’ (among them China, Russia and the US) will have to recognise the new name, Mr Tsipras said, claiming that this deal is a “diplomatic victory” and a “historic opportunity” for Greece.
Greece and FYROM had agreed on a composite name that would include the term Macedonia with a geographic determination, in an interim deal that has been in effect for more than two decades. The current agreement is in line with this, as well as with the diplomatic position that all Greek governments have held on the issue during all these years.
In particular, the deal sees that FYROM will concede to a series of Greece’s demands, most importantly to proceed to constitutional amendments, clearing out any irredentist claims and more particularly any reference to ‘Macedonian Minorities’ that fall under the country’s protection.
Greece’s concessions include a recognition of ‘Macedonian language’, as it has been officially recorded by the United Nations in 1977, with the clarification that this it belongs in the family of ‘south-slavic’ languages.
The citizens of the country will be officially acknowledged as ‘Macedonian- Citizens of North Macedonia’ in their passports and all official documents. This comes as a recogition of Macedonian nationality, but not of a Macedonian ethnicity, with Greece acknowledging that citizens of North Macedonia have the right of self-determination.
This recognition of a ‘Macedonian’ nation also comes with the clarification that it is a new nation, that has no claim on the history of ancient Macedonia. The Greek government argues that this deal allows Greece to “reclaim the history of Ancient Macedonia”, which has been continuously been expropriated by FYROM in the past, officially clarifying for the first time and without any doubt that the ancient kingdom of Macedonia is part of the Hellenic history and cultural heritage. This is stated in articles of the deal that specify that the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” refer to different meanings for the respectful countries, in terms of history and cultural heritage.
During their telephone conversation the two PMs set a clear timeframe for the implementation and ratification of the deal. The first step is for the agreement to be signed by the two countries’ Foreign Ministers, then it needs to be ratified by the FYROM Parliament. Greece will then send letters to the European Union and to NATO withdrawing its objections to accession talks for both organisations. Both invitations have as a prerequisite the full acceptance of the terms of the deal by Greece’s neighbour.
The text is expected to be signed on Saturday on the shores of Lake Prespa, which spans the countries’ borders, but despite optimism by both Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, the process of its actual ratification is bound to be difficult. The first goal is to get the FYROM parliament to back the agreement before EU leaders meet for a summit on 28 June, but the actual constitutional changes will demand a referendum to be held, in which FYROM citizens will be asked to agree to the country’s new constitutional name. According to some analysts, debate around the referendum question will be focused on the country becoming a member of the EU and NATO.
What might be even trickier would be for the Hellenic Parliament to ratify the agreement. Leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for PM Tsipras to not sign this agreement, claiming that any agreement that recognises a “Macedonian” nation and a “Macedonian” language is a bad deal. “We will not divide Greeks to unite Skopjans,” said the leader of Nea Dimokratia.
It remains unclear at this stage whether the SYRIZA government will seek support in other parties, or whether it can guarantee the vote of the majority of MPs, on this issue. Panos Kammenos, Greece’s Minister of Defence and leader of the minor coalition partner, the far-right Independent Greeks party, has insisted on not condoning any deal that would allow for the term ‘Macedonia’ to be used by the neighbouring country, but few believe that he would jeopardise the government.