Macedonia’s Name: Why the Dispute Matters and How to Resolve It
Macedonia’s Name: Why the Dispute Matters and How to Resolve It
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  1. Executive Summary
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Report 122 / Europe & Central Asia 5 minutes

Macedonia’s Name: Why the Dispute Matters and How to Resolve It

On 16 November 2001, Macedonia’s parliament passed a set of constitutional amendments that were agreed in August, when Macedonian and Albanian minority leaders signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement.

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Executive Summary

On 16 November 2001, Macedonia’s parliament passed a set of constitutional amendments that were agreed in August, when Macedonian and Albanian minority leaders signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Later that day, President Trajkovski clarified the terms of an amnesty for Albanian rebels, in line with international requests.

These positive moves have breathed new life into the Framework Agreement. But they do not put it beyond risk, or take Macedonia itself out of danger. A powerful faction in government still opposes the agreed reforms, and will resist their implementation. Ordinary Macedonians deeply resent the way the Framework Agreement was reached and remain suspicious of the international community’s entire role. This provides a serious obstacle to the reform process, and a valid grievance for the anti-reform camp to exploit.

So far as Macedonians are concerned, the Agreement contains a double weakness. First, it redresses long-standing minority grievances mainly by reducing the privileges of the majority. Secondly, its purpose of turning Macedonia into a ‘civic state’ – while admirable and necessary – makes Macedonia an anomaly in a region of emphatically ‘ethnic’ states, three of which uphold fundamental challenges to the Macedonian identity. Greece vetoes international acceptance of Macedonia’s name, Serbia denies the autonomy of its church, and Bulgaria (while accepting Macedonia as a state) denies the existence of a Macedonian language and a Macedonian nation.

Following its success at Ohrid, the international community has tended to underestimate the profound challenge that the Framework Agreement poses to Macedonia’s already fragile sense of identity, and how this erodes the country’s capacity to implement the agreed reforms. This in turn has led to a loss of influence. The NATO and OSCE missions have let themselves be outflanked by the anti-reformists. Parliamentary elections – due next April – are no guarantee that more amenable leaders will come to power.

The conflict with part of the Albanian minority has pushed Skopje to seek security help (both weapons and political support) from the very neighbours who challenge Macedonian identity. There is a real risk that the anti-reform camp in Skopje will be tempted by a military solution, even at the risk of national partition – a move that would be welcomed by Albanian extremists.

In sum, the conflict with Albanians and the perceived shortcomings of the Framework Agreement have abruptly increased the importance of Macedonia’s identity crisis. The international community needs to reassure Macedonians on this issue in order to re-establish a more promising political environment for good faith implementation and constructive cooperation.

The most acute identity issue – and the one that if resolved would have most positive impact – is the long-running name dispute with Greece. While both countries claim the name and heritage, the Macedonian claim is not exclusive. However, only the Macedonians depend on the name ‘Macedonia’ as the designation of both their state and their people.

Greece has a more direct interest than other European Union members in stabilising Macedonia, but is extremely unlikely to amend its position without a clear message from its partners that they sympathise with and will be helpful to its basic concerns. Greek statesmanship is crucial. The Greek offer of financial and security assistance, while helpful, cannot substitute for the need to secure the Macedonian identity.

Bilateral talks to resolve the dispute at the United Nations have not yielded a solution, nor – given the nature of the issue and the regional record on bilateral negotiations – are they likely to do so. The international community has a compelling strategic reason to acknowledge Macedonia's constitutional name as a matter of regional stability, and this can be done in a way that meets Greece’s legitimate concerns.

ICG proposes a triangular solution with the following three elements coming into effect simultaneously:

  • A bilateral treaty would be concluded between Skopje and Athens in which Macedonia would make important concessions, including declarations on treatment of the Greek cultural heritage in the Macedonian educational curriculum, agreement that Greece could use its own name for the state of Macedonia, and strict protection against any Macedonian exploitation of its constitutional name to disadvantage Greece commercially or legally.
  • The member states of NATO and the European Union and others would formally welcome this bilateral treaty through exchange of diplomatic notes with the two parties, in which they would both acknowledge Macedonia’s name as ‘Republika Makedonija’ and promise Greece that they would consult with it about appropriate measures if the assurances contained in the treaty were violated.
  • The United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations would adopt and use for all working purposes the Macedonian-language name ‘Republika Makedonija’.

Before formally acknowledging the name ‘Republika Makedonija’ bilaterally and in intergovernmental organisations, it would be reasonable for the international community to require at least two up-front concessions by Macedonia relating to the implementation of the Framework Agreement reforms, namely:

  • An invitation for NATO to extend its mission for at least six months beyond March 2002; and
  • An invitation for OSCE to extend its mission for a full twelve months after December 2001, with a mandate to monitor the electoral process at all stages, including full access and authority to make inquiries and recommendations.

The most crucial benefit of this package is that it would consolidate the achievement at Ohrid by boosting the Macedonian sense of security and confidence in the international community. International recognition of the country by its own preferred name would supply the critical missing ingredient in the present situation – reassurance about Macedonian national identity.

The proposed package would also address critical Greek demands: that Macedonia’s name should be changed, and that it should not monopolise the single name ‘Macedonia’. Greece would retain the right in the United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations to use its own preferred name for Macedonia (such as ‘Upper Macedonia’). There would be no bar on commercial use of the name ‘Macedonia’, or any variant of it, with respect to products or services from either Greece’s province of Makedonia or Republika Makedonija.

Also to Greece’s advantage would be the explicit reference to the proposed bilateral Athens-Skopje treaty in the proposed diplomatic notes acknowledging Macedonia’s name. For the first time, Greece would not have to depend on Macedonian promises, but would be backed by leading powers that would make clear their endorsement of the total package. 

This proposal is not a cure-all and it requires the international community to break with the habit of a decade. It will be difficult to negotiate, but – in ICG’s judgement, after canvassing the proposal at length in Skopje, Athens and among some of the major international players – not impossible. The alternative – letting the name dispute fester – signals to Macedonians that the international community may not be fully committed to the Ohrid reforms, or to preserving Macedonia as an integral state. This is a message with dangerous implications.

Skopje/Brussels, 10 December 2001

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