By Dr. Chris Popov –
The following article was originally published in the ‘MHR Review’
( a joint publication at that time of AMHRC and MHRMI) in June 2012.
Many of the points raised are still very relevant to today’s situation.
On 14 May 2012, the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Nikolai Vamen, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, made the following statement during a visit to Macedonia:
“This country must become a member of the EU within a certain period of time. At the moment dialogue is taking place at a high level, the roadmap has been established and that is the framework within which we are working. Denmark, as president of the EU, completely supports this process. I am convinced that we will see important steps forward by the government in close cooperation with the EU. After resolution of the dispute regarding the name, further important steps forward will be able to be made. I remain an optimist that the dispute will be resolved in the shortest possible time frame and that is one of our priorities.” (Original Source CLICK HERE)
Such statements are but a variation of the familiar mantra repeated by EU and NATO representatives to Macedonia for more than a decade: “Change your name to please the Greeks and then we will consider when to let you into our exclusive clubs”.
Instead of taking a principled approach and defending a nation’s right to self-identify by freely choosing a name for its country (something that they would take for granted and resolutely defend in relation to their member countries, even allowing for the pragmatism inherent in the conduct of foreign affairs which gives priority to interests rather than principles) the EU and NATO have, by adopting this cynical stance, jettisoned the most basic human rights principles in order to defend the “national interests” of one member state, Greece. It is ironic that it is precisely Greek “national interests” which today threaten to lead to financial chaos in the EU and euro-zone.
The EU and NATO have essentially treated the dispute regarding Macedonia’s name as a “managerial issue” which is to be solved in a way that indulges Greek bigotry and which directly harms Macedonia’s and Macedonians’ most basic rights.
What does this EU and NATO insistence- and for that matter the insistence of the USA-on a “bilateral solution” to the name issue essentially mean for the Republic of Macedonia and Macedonians worldwide? It means nothing less than allowing the most implacable enemy of Macedonia and the Macedonians to pursue its goal of erasing Macedonian statehood and identity by agreeing to a name which it deems as suitable in order to achieve that goal. The “bilateral solution” is essentially a Greek solution and one which, if achieved, will lead to the destabilisation of the Republic of Macedonia and the erosion of Macedonians’ distinct ethnic identity, as it will be predicated on the strategy of denying the existence of Macedonians in Greece, which is a crucial factor in Greece’s irrational crusade against the Republic of Macedonia.
The Responsibility of the Republic of Macedonia in Perpetuating the Name Dispute
The continued Macedonian participation in negotiations over the name allows the international community to continue to pressure Macedonia to change its name as such participation, by its very nature, “validates” the Greek arguments in support of a name change. After all, if a state is willing to talk or negotiate under duress about the sensitive, crucial and intimate matter of changing its name (and has done so for 19 years), rather than defend its inalienable rights to self-determination and self-identification, it allows the international community to adopt the line of least resistance and continue insisting on a “bilateral solution”, rather than pressuring Greece to drop its irrational demands. It has also encouraged Australia to avoid recognising Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia for 18 years by using the specious argument that as Macedonia and Greece are negotiating over a “mutually acceptable name”, it will await the outcome of those negotiations before taking a decision.
One here must also pose the question as to whether, given the EU’s parlous financial and economic state, which will not be overcome for many years, Macedonia would want to become a member of such a body. Even if the EU were not in the precarious position it finds itself in today and was willing to accept Macedonia as a member tomorrow, economic and social conditions in Macedonia would take decades to improve and would need to be predicated upon deep and far-reaching social, political and economic reforms. However, I suspect that the major reason why the majority of Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia seek EU membership is not because they think that economic and social improvements will flow in the near future, but because EU membership will eventually afford them the opportunity to live and work in the developed EU countries thereby providing them with the chance to improve their living standards.
The Macedonian Government has consistently stated that it will continue to participate in the shameful negotiations over the name of the Republic of Macedonia with Greece as it is “committed to finding a solution” and has in fact committed to doing so under UN Security Council Resolution 817 and the Interim Accord it signed with Greece in September 1995. It is clear that it is participating in such a demeaning process as a result of pressure from the EU, NATO and the USA, as well as its own mistaken belief that it should “please” those whose organisations it wishes to become a member of.
Successive Macedonian governments have ignored the clear message emanating from Macedonians abroad, and indeed a majority of its own citizens, that the negotiations with Greece over its name should be abandoned and an alternative solution to the matter of Macedonia’s name sought. Yet what would such an alternative approach entail politically and economically and what would be its likely effects, given that it would most likely entail jettisoning any long-term plans for joining the EU and NATO, as long as those organisations insist on a “solution” to the name dispute before countenancing formal invitations to begin accession negotiations?
The Macedonian Government has stated repeatedly that breaking off the name talks would lead to Macedonia’s international isolation and lead to it being labelled “unconstructive” in the search for a solution; that is, if negotiating a “solution” to the name of your state with another state which has done its utmost to destroy Macedonian identity and statehood can be labelled “constructive” in the first place.
Breaking off the talks –at an opportune moment (many would logically argue that any moment is opportune), such as for example now, given that at the recent NATO summit in Chicago Macedonia was again denied membership essentially due to Greek objections (despite the fact that enlargement in general and a specific proposal for Macedonia to be offered membership were not on the agenda, the fact that the official NATO statement referred to resolution of the name dispute as a precondition for consideration of membership and reaffirmed the so-called consensus decision taken at Bucharest in 2008 shows that an effective Greek veto is still in place, even though it was not formally exercised in Chicago and that NATO does not care about the recent ICJ decision or Macedonia’s right to self -identification) and conducting a diplomatic offensive explaining the rationale for such a decision, which in essence would be based on Macedonia’s inalienable right to choose and defend its own name and identity – would undoubtedly lead to the EU and the USA expressing their displeasure and possibly holding up aid and other forms of assistance for Macedonia for a short period . Other than that, I would not envisage either the USA or the EU making a serious and concerted attempt to punish Macedonia long term for doing something that they themselves would do; refusing to compromise their identity and sovereignty by refusing to negotiate a new name for their nations.
One possible method of breaking off the name negotiations would be returning to the UN and seeking resolution of the dispute within the body that violated its own charter by insisting on Macedonia’s membership of the UN under the provisional reference, “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and on Macedonia continuing to negotiate its name with Greece. The strategy for defending the name in the UN has been eloquently enunciated by Dr Igor Janev, senior researcher at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade.
Without going into the detail of Dr Janev’s proposal, it essentially involves seeking a resolution in the UN General Assembly which would seek to deem illegal and exclude the additional conditions imposed on Macedonia in the relevant resolutions at the time of its admission to UN membership. Given that the issue involved (i.e., the issue of Macedonia’s name) does not involve an issue which represents a “threat to the peace, breaches of the peace, or acts of aggression” and is deemed “nonessential” and because Macedonia is already a member of the UN, the Security Council can be bypassed and would only require Macedonia to obtain a simple majority of those present and voting at the UN General Assembly to replace the provisional reference with its democratically chosen name. Given that over 130 countries now recognize Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia, it is quite probable that Macedonia, even in the face of fierce Greek lobbying and the support of some of Greece’s EU and NATO allies, would obtain the necessary simple majority and have its name in the UN accepted as the Republic of Macedonia.
Such an approach would, of course, require Macedonia to undertake an intensive diplomatic campaign of lobbying, however, given the chances of success, such a campaign would be viewed as a strong expression of the Macedonian government’s commitment to defend Macedonia’s identity and sovereignty. While the problem of the Greek veto in NATO and the EU would remain, the fact that the UN, the world’s preeminent international organisation, had accepted Macedonia’s admission as the Republic of Macedonia would bring enormous pressure to bear on Greece to drop its irrational demands and isolate it even more internationally, given its already weak international position. It goes without saying that the UN approach could be undertaken without Macedonia formally withdrawing from the Interim Agreement of 1995 and formally ending the negotiations with Greece, if it wished to keep its diplomatic “options” open, however, it would acquire greater political weight were Macedonia to renounce this agreement and end the negotiations as a way of signalling its intentions to forcefully prosecute the case for defending its name. Though there are risks with this approach and one might prefer to argue that Macedonia does not need a vote of approval from anyone, in relation to its name.
On the economic front, an alternative approach flowing from the political decision to end the negotiations with Greece would entail the strengthening of bilateral economic relations with an ascendant China and India, the oil-rich countries of the Middle East, East Asian economies, as well as of course with individual EU member states and the states of the former Soviet Union, primarily Russia and Ukraine. To the government’s credit, it has been pursuing such ties more energetically in the last few years. It would also involve a strengthening of ties with the European Free Trade Agreement countries (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Sweden) which have a special trade and political relationship with the EU, as a way of facilitating trade with the EU and possibly seeking “privileged partner” status with the EU which provides many of the benefits of membership without formally becoming a member state. An essential aspect of Macedonia’s economic revival would also encompass development of the country as an attractive tourist destination and the adding of value to goods which are presently exported.
However, an enormous contribution to the economic development of Macedonia, whether or not EU membership is being actively sought, would be to deepen the fight against corruption, create a professional, depoliticized civil service, increase the productivity of the workforce through the inculcation of a strong work ethic, while simultaneously defending workers’ rights and work security, and making sure the power of the oligarchs who came to own Macedonia’s state enterprises in the 90s is broken.
And is there really a Need for NATO Membership?
There does not seem to be any clear military rationale for joining NATO at this time. NATO seems to be an organisation without a precise goal and raison d’etre following the end of the Cold War and has tried to remain relevant by transforming itself into a body whose main goals are “humanitarian intervention” and the fight against the threat of terrorism or the Iranian “rocket threat.” In such a context, alternative military options which might enhance Macedonia’s security would be the formation of a small, but effective army able to meet the challenges of the region. It goes without saying that Macedonian troops currently serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led ISAF mission would have to be withdrawn and returned to Macedonia rather than defend the interests of an organisation which shows such disrespect towards Macedonia.
As with economic cooperation, Macedonian could diversify its cooperation in the military field, i.e., procurement of weaponry, training, joint exercises, including with China and Russia (which does not, however, necessitate the establishment of Russian and Chinese bases in Macedonia) in order to send the signal to NATO and the West that it is not an ally to be taken for granted. By charting a less dependent course and showing that it is willing to flirt with adopting a more non-aligned direction in pursuit of its national interests, Macedonia would make both the EU and NATO take notice and realise that they have to make greater efforts to retain Macedonia’s support, instead of counting on slavish acceptance. It is also relevant to note here that NATO has no mechanism for resolving military conflict between member states and also has no mechanism for defending a state against internal aggression or in a situation of civil war, which would rule out any concrete assistance were there to be a further Albanian aggression in Macedonia.
It is important to note here that the implementation of the abovementioned alternative economic and military approaches would have to take place in the face of fierce internal opposition from the Albanian minority which remains resolutely pro-NATO and proEU.
At the moment, while Greece has been substantially weakened by the financial and debt crisis, paradoxically it’s uncompromising stance on Macedonia has been strengthened by this crisis in that the EU, IMF and USA are not willing to pressure it to stop blocking Macedonia’s integration into the EU and NATO for fear that requiring Greece to back off may make it even more intransigent and less likely to adhere to the terms of the bail-out package, leading to an exit from the euro zone and a default on its debts.
However, while it must be said that the likelihood of Greece rejecting the terms of the bail-out package has substantially receded in the wake of the June 17 elections which saw New Democracy emerge as the winner, a Greek coalition government led by Antonis Samaras, who is known for his intransigent antiMacedonian stance, raises the prospect that Greece will harden its position on Macedonia’s name and increase tensions between the two countries.
The Cost of a Name Change is just too High
Does Macedonia risk jeopardising its statehood, Macedonian identity and culture by changing its name to suit aggressive Greek demands as the price of entering NATO and the EU? A name change will be used by Greece as a springboard to eventually obtain the renaming internationally of Macedonians and their language and their further negation in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania. For it is clear that if a name change occurs and Macedonians become known as, say, Northern Macedonians and their language as Northern Macedonian, they will no longer be Macedonians and must relinquish their unique past which will give rise again to claims that before Tito’s time they were either Serbs, Bulgarians or Greeks or just nameless, unreconstructed “Slavs”, which poses a real existential threat to Macedonia’s territorial integrity and continued statehood. Or does Macedonia renounce the shameful name negotiations, assert unequivocally to the world that a name change is completely unacceptable as a precondition for entry into NATO and the EU, and in so doing strengthen the national identity of Macedonians, and return to the UN to prosecute its right to be internationally recognised as the Republic of Macedonia, while at the same time charting a more independent and non-aligned political, economic and military course and changing the political and work culture in the country while it waits for the EU and NATO to come to their senses and bring Greece to heel?
It is clear that the only acceptable course is one flowing from a renunciation of the name negotiations. It is our fervent hope that the Government of Macedonia will develop the fortitude to take this step and show that it is prepared to resolutely defend Macedonia, its name and people rather than slavishly follow the dictates of the West, USA, EU and NATO in a futile and self-destructive attempt to show that it is being “constructive” and “flexible”.
About the Author
Dr. Chris Popov was born in Melbourne. His parents are from the villages of Kuchkoveni and Rula in Aegean Macedonia. In 1985 he became one of the first members of the Macedonian Human Rights Committee of Melbourne and Victoria and was President of that Committee from 1994 until 2000. He was one of the founding members of the Australian Macedonian Human Rights Committee and President of the AMHRC from the mid-nineties until 2000. He was recently a member of the Executive of the AMHRC. In 1989, 1990 and 1991 he was a member of the international Macedonian human rights delegations which visited the European Parliament and United Nations and attended the OSCE Human Rights Dimensions Conferences in order to lobby for recognition of the rights of Macedonians in Greece, Bulgaria and Albania. He is the author or several books and brochures on Macedonian history, politics and human rights and has written numerous articles on these same topics for several publications.