political revue


Year LXI, 2019, Single Issue, Page 78






Any mention of Macedonia immediately prompts thoughts of the protracted dispute, recently resolved, between this country and Greece. Essentially, Macedonia, which claimed to be an ancient nation founded by Alexander the Great, was accused by Greece of appropriating Greek cultural heritage and harbouring territorial ambitions against it, given that a large region of northern Greece has the same name. The dispute, however, extended to other issues besides the name. Like other parts of the world, the tiny country of Macedonia has found itself caught up in the struggle between national and spontaneous identities. Added to this, it has been the focus of Russia’s attempts to preserve its historical influence over the Balkans (a gateway to the central Mediterranean) and thus keep possible enlargements of the EU and NATO at bay.

The aforementioned clash of identities was in evidence following the historic agreement recently reached between Greece and the Macedonian state on the official name of the latter. And yet, with the signing of this agreement, on June 17th 2018 near Lake Prespa, on the border between the two countries, one of the arrows in the quiver of nationalism, namely the extreme pursuit of a national identity, seems to have been blunted somewhat in exchange for greater openness towards the West.

This change of direction was spearheaded by social democrat Zaev, the country’s current prime minister and leader of a centre-left coalition government, who succeeded in leveraging two sentiments prevalent within the country. The first of these was the huge unpopularity of “Skopje2014”, the key economic development policy launched by the previous centre-right government. As a result of delays (it was due to be completed in 2014) and rising costs, this programme, which had envisaged redevelopment of the capital in a bid to boost the tourist industry, has proved to be a heavy burden on the economy and a cause of further friction with the Greek government. Athens had, in fact, immediately interpreted the construction of numerous buildings in neoclassical style and, above all, the erection of a statue to the “Macedonian warrior” as unacceptable forms of provocation. Second, Zaev was able to exploit the strongly evocative, almost mystical, power carried in his country by the mere word “Europe”.

The Macedonian government thus proceeded to partially dismantle the Skopje2014 project, in particular the parts that most irritated Greece. Above all, it was decided that the imposing statue of Alexander the Great should be renamed in honour of the renewal of “Greek-Macedonian friendship”. This was, in fact, one of the conditions for reaching the agreement. At the same time, as mentioned, the government tried to exploit the fascination exerted by Europe, carefully couching, in pro-European terms, the referendum question through which the people were called upon to approve the signing of the agreement: “Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

These efforts, however, failed to produce the desired results, given that the consultative referendum did not reach the required quorum of half of the electorate plus one (even though it should be noted that almost 95 per cent of those who did participate voted “yes”). The first thing to say, at this point, is that the agreement, from the outset, appeared very fragile. The Macedonian state’s main centre-right party, which has always sought to foment nationalist sentiment and a sense of national identity — we might even go so far as to say it created the latter —, was strongly opposed to it, as were, on the other side, the vast majority of Greek people and the conservative party (New Democracy) that has recently been returned to power in Greece. Amidst accusations of “treason” and of wanting to force Macedonians to accept a new identity decided at a negotiating table simply to please a foreign government — these accusations were voiced during a large opposition demonstration against an executive deemed guilty of not respecting the will of the people —, the Macedonian government nevertheless managed to keep the agreement alive, and start its legislative approval process. Solid support for the agreement instead came from the Albanian minority, which felt that its situation might be improved if Macedonia’s isolation could be brought to an end. It is worth pointing out that Albanians in the country still have vivid memories of an incident in 2017 when, following the election of an ethnic Albanian as speaker of the house, Macedonian nationalist protesters stormed the parliament, prompting a fierce brawl.

Macedonian nationalism is built on a very partial and somewhat artificial reading of history. Even if we acknowledge the existence of some form of common identity between the people who inhabited this area 2000 years ago and the people who live there today, it has to be recognised that, on account of the various Slavic migrations into the region, the population of the current Macedonian state, despite originating from the area that the Romans called Macedonia, is ethnically far removed from the ancient Macedonians. Moreover, over time, the Greeks have preserved their linguistic and other links with various “ancient Greek” bloodlines, including the Macedonians, and many of the ancient Macedonian cities, founded near the sea, are now located in Greek territory. Naturally, these few considerations only scratch the surface of the hugely complex dispute that has run ever since the Macedonian Republic was founded as a sovereign state in 1991. But it might be ventured that the real issue at the heart of this dispute is actually another one altogether. Thirty years ago, the “brand new” Macedonian Republic, lacking the “glue” previously provided by the country’s membership of the Yugoslavian Federation, found itself urgently needing to create a common sense of belonging in order to unite the new country and hold it together. From this perspective, the creation of a national narrative based on the name Macedonia (which it had already had when it was part of the Yugoslavian Federation) served to shelter the country from the post-independence struggles in the area and allowed it to maintain (other than during the period of the war in Kosovo) reasonably easy relations with the Albanian Muslim minority.

Russia’s interference in Macedonia, on the other hand, is linked to longstanding Russian policy in this region, which dates back to the end of the Yugoslavian Republic. Ever since the simultaneous collapse of the communist regimes in Russia, Yugoslavia and Albania in the 1990s, Russia has been seeking to establish pockets of influence in the Balkan region. Following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, Moscow, wanting to profit from the situation, attempted to draw the region’s newly formed states into its sphere of influence; however the force of attraction exerted by the EU proved to be far stronger, with the result that almost all the Balkan states ended up signing association agreements with the EU and becoming members of NATO. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Croatia, all now EU member states, gradually managed to break free of Russia’s influence. In this context, paradoxically, Macedonia has always been the Balkan country furthest removed from the Russian sphere of influence, always receiving far less Russian investment than its neighbours; today, however, it remains one of the few countries that can still be contested, and Moscow’s strategy in this regard has been, above all, to try and muddy the waters, by prompting allegations of violations of the procedure for approving the agreement with Greece, and fuelling violent demonstrations against the same. The US intelligence service has identified Ivan Savvidis, a Russian oligarch of distant Greek descent, as the individual at the heart of efforts to scupper the agreement between Macedonia and Greece. He came to public attention after a photograph emerged that showed him, armed with a pistol, taking part in a pitch invasion during a football match being played by PAOK Thessaloniki, the team he owns. This episode prompted the Greek government to suspend the national soccer championship. Phone-tapping evidence has shown that Savvidis paid groups with a traditionally ultra-conservative and nationalist agenda, in particular organised groups of supporters linked to Macedonian football teams, to organise violent demonstrations against the agreement. Given that he is a hugely popular figure in Thessaloniki, it is possible that he was also behind the demonstration against the signing of the agreement held in that city, where many of the participants wore PAOK shirts. What is more, Savvidis is also a member of a consortium that purchased the city’s port, which is Greece’s second largest after the Port of Piraeus and one of the country’s main strategic assets.

However, the leaders of Greece and Macedonia responded to all this with great determination: although Greece is usually closely aligned with Moscow, it expelled several Russian diplomats, having accused them of trying to corrupt Greek officials and stir up protests designed to undermine the agreement. And the Macedonian citizens responded even more emphatically, with almost 95 per cent of the voters in the referendum choosing to support the agreement. However, getting the deal through parliament proved to be very tricky. The Macedonian parliament was forced to approve the agreement twice on account of President Ivanov’s initial refusal to ratify it (Ivanov, a member of the opposition party, accused the majority of attacking Macedonia’s national identity). Finally, however, parliamentary approval was granted (on July 5th, 2018) and the constitution was duly amended (on January 11th, 2019), changing the name of the state. In Greece, meanwhile, the parliament’s ratification of the agreement threw the government into crisis: Independent Greeks (ANEL), a populist right-wing party close to SYRIZA, whose anti-austerity stance it shares, withdrew both its ministers and its support for the government. However, after rejecting a vote of no confidence, the Greek parliament, too, finally ratified the agreement (on January 25th, 2019).

In view of the ratification of the agreement by both sides, Greece lifted its veto on Macedonia’s application to join the EU and NATO. Shortly afterwards, on February 6th, 2019, the member states’ permanent representatives to NATO signed a protocol on the accession of North Macedonia. By contrast, Macedonia’s road to EU membership still looks to be very much uphill, since the removal of the main political difficulty nevertheless left a number of technical aspects still needing to be addressed. Despite the European Commission recommending the unconditional start of North Macedonia accession negotiations, the European Council dragged its heels. Bowing to pressure from France and the Netherlands, just days before the signing of the agreement it issued a series of conditions (concerning the economy, the judicial system, and the fight against crime and corruption) that would have to be met in order to allow accession negotiations to get under way in June 2019. At the time of writing this article,[1] these politically imposed conditions were still to be met in full and, on this basis, France and the Netherlands decided to postpone the debate until after the European elections.

In truth, however, in this scenario, it is possible to identify one particular factor that has carried more weight than all the others: nationalism, having returned to the fore some time ago, is now reaping its ripest fruits. Perhaps the clearest indication of its hefty and disturbing presence is the fact that, both in North Macedonia and in Greece, those opposed to the agreement between these countries based their opposition on the same argument: that it constituted an attack on national unity and security. Nationalism is an element that has been seen to strongly influence public opinion, not only during street demonstrations (as during the large-scale protest outside the Greek parliament, in which the most violent fringes clashed repeatedly with police), but also in public debate, encouraging violence and hypocrisy.

We have already examined the birth of Macedonian nationalism whose vehemence is in no way tempered by its being a recent development. Greek nationalism, on the other hand, has a longer and more complex history. It first came into being at the start of the nineteenth century in conjunction with the struggle for independence against the Ottoman Empire. However, the element that most influenced its development in modern contemporary history was the Μεγάλη Ιδέα (Great Idea), a political doctrine advocated primarily by Eleutherios Venizelos. Based essentially on a rather simplistic idea of recreating a Greek world, it aimed to annex to the Greek state all territories inhabited by populations of “Greek ethnicity”. The vagueness of this term encouraged Greece to broaden its territorial ambitions, so that they even extended to the entire region of Macedonia, to Thrace, including Constantinople, and to West Anatolia. Greece came closest to achieving its objective in 1921-22 when, under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres, it obtained part of Thrace and the region of Izmir. The subsequent collapse of the project on the battlefield with Turkey, after Greece’s Western allies had lost interest in it and ceased to support it, was a bitter disappointment which left scars that remain visible to this day. Greece’s poor relations with neighbouring states, which are coloured, on both sidesby the fear that any concession will lead to a relinquishing of territory, are a lasting effect, as is the widespread feeling in public opinion (especially after the sovereign debt crisis) that Greece’s interests are always considered secondary to those of other international players. Such attitudes have also encouraged the development of feelings of resentment that the name “Macedonia”, regarded as Greece’s property, had been “sold, without anything ever being given in return”. Finally, it should be considered that Greece’s rather dysfunctional school system and official history textbook (published by the Ministry of Education, this is the only one used throughout the country and it deals only scantly with the negative aspects of Greek history, such as the civil war and military dictatorship) deprive the citizens of opportunities to develop the critical and reflective abilities that are needed in order to counter the return of nationalism. And so, in what amounts to a vicious cycle, we see nationalism once again being used as a tool to gain consensus; it certainly played a key role in the recent Greek national elections. The country’s new prime minister, Mitsotakis, represents the centre-right New Democracy party that, often adopting ambiguous and extremely superficial stances, had no compunction in milking the strong popular opposition to the agreement with the Macedonian state — opinion polls put this at more than 60 per cent —, even managing to attract radically right-wing voters. However, now that he finds himself at the helm of government, with a generally positive economic situation to defend, he will likely be forced to row back on his most radical positions. Since EU accession negotiations are generally very protracted, and it is not yet clear how public opinion will evolve in the future, Greece will probably adopt a wait-and-see policy with regard to the agreement with the Macedonian state, at least initially.

For its part, Macedonia has shown that it is seriously committed to respecting the terms of the agreement. It is therefore now in the interests of both Greece and the EU to persuade the other European partners (particularly France and the Netherlands) to overcome their reluctance to agree to the opening of membership talks with North Macedonia. If the present impasse is allowed to persist, it will simply give third parties that stand to benefit from instability in the Balkans the opportunity to fuel this by underlining the futility of Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU. Macedonian citizens must not be left alone in their struggle against nationalism because it is a fight shared by all those who hold dear the values of peace, freedom and democracy. As European citizens, then, it is our absolute duty to support them.

Paolo Milanesi

[1] This article was drafted on 10 July 2019.




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