The curious case of the (almost) Republic of North Macedonia

A statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje [Photo: Robert Benson]
On September 30th, the people of a small country on the periphery of the European Union went to the polls to ask the question: what, if anything, is in a name?

For the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the stakes could not be higher.  Since its independence in 1991, Macedonia has been in a quixotic albeit highly-charged public row with Greece over its official state title. The problem stems from the perceived appropriation of the name Macedonia from a geographic and historical region of northern Greece which shares the country’s namesake.

The Greeks, for their part, claim that the government of Macedonia has deliberately tried to co-opt its Hellenic culture through a policy of ‘antiquisation’. Literally, the building of garish monuments and bronze statues scattered seemingly ironically through the capital city of Skopje and culminating in a surreal tribute to Alexander the Great: A spectacle that one must first see to believe.

The policy was the brainchild of then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose nationalist government was brought down by a series of dramatic wiretapping revelations in 2016 and who this year was found guilty of abusing state funds.

Yet lavish spending and recriminations aside, the otherwise risible dispute has serious policy implications that extend well beyond the Balkan Peninsula.

Call me by your name

For decades, Greece has blocked  Macedonia’s accession to NATO.  The so-called Greek veto has been a persistent and devastating setback for a government with larger European aspirations.

This June, talks led by Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov and his Greek counterparts in Athens finally made headway. Macedonia would officially change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia, thereby paving the way for an end to the decade’s old kerfuffle. In doing so, Greece promised to end its obstruction of Macedonia’s NATO bid, while Macedonia would provide its own assurances on Greek heritage and culture.

However, for the deal to come into full force, it first required a nonbinding constitutional referendum in Macedonia and subsequent parliamentary approval in both countries.

Despite the pact’s bona fides, getting voters to approve a name change would be a steep uphill battle in a traditionally conservative country. Last month, it was announced that Macedonia’s leading opposition parties would boycott the referendum. The results were predictably disappointing: Although 90 % of participants voted in the affirmative, only a third of eligible voters actually cast a ballot, falling well below the required 50% threshold.

The fate of the deal is now more uncertain than ever. If parliament votes to ratify the results, not only will Macedonia have to change its name in all international documents and related communications, critics’ crow, but will be doing so with dubious democratic consent.

The plot thickens

The story, of course, is not complete without rumors of Russian interference. This July, Athens took the unusual step of expelling Russian diplomats for co-coordinating opposition to the plan. With the referendum now firmly in the rearview mirror, details of a boorish plot to derail the agreement have suddenly resurfaced in the media.

Whether the government will play the Russia card in the wake of such disappointing results is yet to be seen, but in a country that still bears the physical and demographic scars of NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, doing so may be a dangerous gambit.

Which brings us to the astonishingly tone deaf question asked on the ballot: ‘Are you in favor of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the republic of Macedonia and Greece?’ In an attempt to ask a leading question, the government may have overplayed its hand.

Although the vote was widely held as a catch-all referendum on the future of Macedonia, one should question the wisdom of grouping such contentious issues such as NATO membership, the European Union and Balkan identity together in such a spectacular fashion. Explicitly drawing a link between Macedonian EU and NATO membership was less a stroke of political genius than a dubious attempt to move the goal post.

More broadly, the embarrassing low turnout should give pause to other European governments whose caviler attitude towards public opinion has already produced shocking results such as Brexit. Defending the prevailing liberal order requires a defense of liberalism, not merely opaque political maneuvering.

The problem in Macedonia is neither one of Russian malfeasance nor an excess of democracy, but a chronic unwillingness to summon the arguments and campaign effectively on the issues at hand. Perhaps the focus in Skopje should be less on the Kremlin and more on the concerns of its own citizens. If the name change indeed means a carte blanche for NATO membership, it is a debate that is certainly worth having, but on its own merits.

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