If you want proof that the ‘name issue’ that has plagued relationships between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is a very complicated one, you should just look at who’s rejoicing that the referendum to decide adopting the constitutional name ‘North Macedonia’ failed to attract the 50 per cent participation needed to make it legally valid.
The outcome is definitely going to make things more difficult for FYROM’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev who will struggle to pass the Prespes agreement through the parliament and may resort to snap elections, much to the joy of the Opposition – the country’s nationalists, who have been opposing the change, as it would signal a ‘humiliating’ concession to Greece’s demands.
Paradoxically, Greek nationalists are also rejoicing; to their mind, the ratification of the agreement would signal a severe defeat, as it would mean that Greece condones the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ for the neighbouring state.
The fact that both sides see the agreement as a ‘humiliating concession’ means that both countries agreed to meet in the middle – that is the nature of diplomacy. Speaking of which, when the issue was first raised, almost 30 years ago, when Yugoslavia was dismantled, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, then Prime Minister of Greece, called for a meeting of all parliamentary party leaders, to update them on the discussions he had with then FYROM leader Kiro Gligorov, and the potential names that were on the table, Slavomacedonia being one of them. In his notes, reprinted later in a book, then opposition leader, Andreas Papandreou, scribbled the words ‘Diplomatic Defeat’. He was probably right. Accepting the name ‘Macedonia’ may have been a defeat. But it is the choice that government after government in Greece has stood by, accepting the interim agreement as a basis for all diplomatic talks. Government after government has agreed that any solution will have to include the word ‘Macedonia’.
As the Greek PM whose signature is on the Prespes agreement, Alexis Tsipras would have to deal with the political cost. Now the failed referendum gives his government a lifeline.
According to the agreement, the deal has to be first ratified by the FYROM parliament, before it is discussed in Greece. So any stalling means that a possible rift between SYRIZA and its junior coalition partner, the hard-right populist Independet Greeks is postponed. Now it is the opposition which is feeling the pressure, as it may have to deal with the issue after the elections, should New Democracy (ND) become government. But the party’s official statement that “the Prespes agreement is nationally damaging for Greece” and that ND will do anything in its power to nullify it, is just talk to appease Greek nationalists – those who are rejoicing that a solution to the name issue is further stalled, because they believe that this stalling tactic will eventually work for the benefit of the Greek side. They are wrong. Three decades of embargo, of vetos, of stalling have only resulted in FYROM being universally called ‘Macedonia’ – officially or not – by the vast majority of countries and people in the world.
This is why the FYROM nationalists don’t want the Prespes agreement to be ratified, objecting to the ‘erga omnes’ part of it. Because that would mean that they would have to lose something that they have already gained, because of Greece’s stance.
If Greece persists with this tactic, it will only manage to basically just hand the name out to FYROM – and lose the diplomatic battle once and for all.
Of course, nationalists don’t care about diplomacy. Their polemic rhetoric stops short of becoming a declaration of war, which would be ludicrous, since neither country would ever want that – and both have confirmed that they have no territorial claims whatsoever.
Apart from Tsipras, the only other leader who has a reason to rejoice is Vladimir Putin. The outcome of the referendum brings FYROM one step closer to the Russian sphere of influence and one step further from NATO and the EU.
These two institutions are also the major losers of the referendum. What the low turnout further confirmed is that people rejected the main mandate – that a constitutional name change would be the pathway for FYROM to enter the EU and NATO. What the abstinence showed is that voters are weary of these faceless, bureaucratic organisations who dictate what their member-states’ national policies should be.
And therein lies the gravest danger for democracy – the alienation of people from these institutions which are supposedly established to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the countries that comprise them. Election after election, referendum after referendum, be it the one where Greeks said ‘no’ to the EU-imposed bailout program, or the one where UK voted for ‘brexit’, voters are massively turning their backs to the EU, to NATO, to the UN, playing into the populist rhetoric employed by the far-right throughout the world, from Trump to Orban, to Pauline Hanson, to FYROM President Ivanov.
So far, advocates of the EU and the other international organisations have been lecturing voters, telling them what is right for them. They will have to do the extra mile to persuade them, to offer tangible evidence that they offer a better, tangible alternative to nationalism and seclusion. Lecturing is only broadening the gap – and threatening democracy.