Cracking the 'name dispute' puzzle
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest.
Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece pledged to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
The name issue cannot be dismissed as a mere labelling problem. It touches on at least four aspects which are relevant for both parties.
- Firstly, the dispute has territorial connotations. If Macedonia is first and foremost a region, then the term could potentially refer to Greek Macedonia or FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), as well as Bulgarian territory and a small piece of Albanian territory.
- Secondly, from a Greek perspective, the Slavic Macedonians and the Greek Macedonians are part of two different groups. According to Greek scientists, the first are labelled as 'Makedontsi' and the second as 'Makedones'. Yet this distinction has been indirectly rejected by Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who claims it is "strange" to classify people as originating only from the ancient Macedonians or from Slavs alone.
- The ethnic dimension of the dispute thus also has an historical and national identity side to it. When Macedonia acquired the characteristics of statehood, the government authorities and Prime Minister Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE party tried to construct an image of the Macedonian past which included clear references to the Hellenic period as part of an 'antiquisation' process. A clear example of this was the renaming of Skopje airport in honour of Alexander the Great in December 2008. Greece staunchly opposes such moves as it believes Hellenism to be unquestionably Greek.
- Lastly, there is also a commercial dimension since a number of products which are labelled as Macedonian products could mistakenly be seen as coming from FYROM. From a Greek perspective, if 'Macedonian' as an adjective were to refer only to FYROM, it would threaten Macedonian products from Greek Macedonia.
Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name by all EU countries except Greece, the 'name dispute' has led to an impasse in the country's membership of NATO and the EU.
The Bucharest summit of 4 April 2008, during which Croatia and Albania were invited to join NATO,while Macedonia's bid was put on ice, was perceived as a serious blow to Skopje's hopes. It also sparked harsh criticism of the Greek stance, as it was seen as a breach of the 1995 UN Interim Accord (EURACTIV 04/04/08).
Macedonia reacted by suing Greece at the International Court of Justice and pushing hard in diplomatic bilateral relations to get the name 'Republic of Macedonia' adopted. In this respect Macedonia's claims seem to be gaining ground, with more than 100 UN members using its constitutional name and four out of five members of the Security Council calling it 'Republic of Macedonia'. In a major blow to Greece, during the second Bush administration the USA recognised the 'Republic of Macedonia' as its appropriate constitutional name.
Both the EU and the UN have a special representative in Macedonia. The former is represented by Erwan Fouéré, and the latter by Matthew Nimetz. For the last few years the UN envoy has been trying repeatedly to broker an agreement, but so far he has been unsuccessful.
A number of alternatives were put on the table to solve the issue, including: Vardar Macedonia, Republika Makedonija-Skopje, Constitutional Republic of Macedonia, Democratic Republic of Macedonia, Independent Republic of Macedonia, New Republic of Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia.
The last and most promising option for reaching a solution appears to be 'Republic of Northern Macedonia'. What remains to be determined is the scope of the new name's use, including for example whether all documents such as passports would need to be changed accordingly.
Since November 2009, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his Greek counterpart George Papandreou have been holding direct talks, with UN mediation, in an attempt to break the deadlock. Seemingly, progress has been made.
In June, the Greek press reported that an agreement was close, with Macedonia considering adding 'Vardar' to its name. Using Vardar – the name of the country's main river– would satisfy the demands of Athens (EURACTIV 16/06/10).
However, seen from other angles, a solution to the long-standing problem does not appear to be within reach at all. In September, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov described Greece's position as "irrational" and called on Athens to stop frustrating the negotiations (EURACTIV 10/09/10).
A recent controversy involving an encyclopaedia, published by FYROM's Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU), illustrates the tensions which government circles in Skopje appear to be capable of generating (EURACTIV 13/10/09).
The work has managed to offend most of Macedonia's neighbours. Similarly to Greece, which considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history, Bulgaria was also offended by what it saw as its neighbour cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its 19th and early 20th century struggle against Ottoman domination.
However, the most offended were Kosovars and the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia itself, as MANU refers to ethnic Albanians as "settlers" who came to the country in the 16th century and to Albanians as 'Shiptari' or 'Planinci', which have derogatory connotations. The Albanians generally consider themselves to be the descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC.
The authors also claim that the ethnic Albanian movement in Macedonia, the National Liberation Army, was trained by US and British special forces in 2001, and that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes. In fact, Ahmeti has never been indicted. Both the US and UK embassies have rejected the information as "false" and "ridiculous".
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called the book "absurd and unacceptable" and complained of "identity based on the forgery of history".
Bulgarian and Greek leaders kept a low profile, but according to diplomats, the encyclopaedia has infuriated both Athens and Sofia.
Skopje, meanwhile, was apparently less concerned about the reactions in Athens and Sofia than those of elsewhere. The ambassador of an EU country told EURACTIV that in fact it was pressure from the USA and the UK which convinced Skopje to back down and remove the book from the shelves.
An all-powerful governing party
EU representatives lament the lack of political dialogue in Macedonia. This situation is aggravated by the fact that there is an all-powerful party in power, the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity), which describes itself as Christian Democratic and is inspired by nationalism.
The party controls the parliament, the presidency and two-thirds of local municipalities, a grip on power which the European Commission insists brings with it a responsibility to engage with other party leaders.
Although freedom of expression remains at satisfactory levels, "political interference in the media is a source of concern as it leads to self-censorship and limits freedom of expression," the Commission said in its October 2009 progress report on Macedonia's EU membership bid.
The report further took notice of the fact that Gruevski's party VMRO-DPMNE has challenged the legitimacy of a Constitutional Court ruling on religious education. Although constitutionally Macedonia is a secular country, the ruling party had introduced religious education at school, a decision which has since been reversed.
"This incident raised concerns about the independence of the judiciary, although the government provided assurances that it would respect this ruling," the report says.
Minority problems and Roma exclusion
Overall the Commission progress report paints a generally positive picture of the handling of minority issues in Macedonia. But it expressed concern about education, and particularly referred to linguistic divisions between Macedonian and Albanian speakers in a number of municipalities.
"In some schools, in Kumanovo and Tetovo, for instance, segregation is virtually complete, as students go to separate buildings to study. Some, like the one in Struga, are well on their way to completing the process," claimed Ticiana Garcia-Tapia, education development officer for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Spillover Monitor Mission to Skopje.
She nevertheless admits that there are still bright spots, and some schools do offer opportunities - albeit limited - for inter-ethnic contact.
The Commission's representative in Skopje, Erwan Fouéré, noted that an OSCE proposal on starting classes in Macedonian from the first instead of the fourth teaching grade has triggered much controversy. The current boycott of language classes in ethnic Albanian schools underlines the extreme sensitivity of this issue and the need for proper consultation, he said.
Additionally, the Commission laments the lack of progress made on Roma inclusion. The 2009 progress report stresses that some 73% of Roma are unemployed and 63% live under the poverty line. It also criticised the lack of funding for projects and stressed that the action plans defined for the 2005-2015 decade of Roma inclusion have so far not produced tangible results.
According to the World Bank's 'Doing Business 2010' report, Macedonia ranked as third top reformer last year and it now occupies 32nd place in terms of the ease of doing business there, just behind France and before the United Arab Emirates. Such reform efforts have in recent years triggered considerable injections of foreign direct investment. FDI rose steadily between 2002 and 2007 from 105 to 699 million US dollars.
As it relies heavily on foreign investment, Macedonia was severely exposed to the financial crisis. In 2008, FDI dropped to $598 million. GDP growth remained high in 2007 (5.9%) and 2008 (5%). Yet growth slowed down from 6% in the first three quarters of 2008 to 2% in the fourth quarter. During the first semester of 2009, industrial production fell by 11%.
According to the Commission report, "the overall macroeconomic policy mix suffered from the low quality of government spending, with many measures geared more to election-related promises rather than to combating the crisis".
Nevertheless, by far the biggest problem facing Macedonia remains structural unemployment, which is hovering at around 34%. The most affected category appear to be the young population, which suffers from roughly 55% unemployment. Government policies in this respect have so far produced little results.
Ever since the EU visa liberalisation scheme was enforced, Belgium has complained of hundreds of Macedonians claiming for asylum. On a visit to Skopje on 6 February 2010, Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme said his country would not allow this wave to continue. Four hundred Macedonians filed asylum requests in February 2010, compared with only 12 the year before, when the visa regime was still in force.