EU envoy apologises for calling Macedonians ‘Slavs’

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At the request of the president of Macedonia, the EU Ambassador in Skopje apologised yesterday (19 November) for having called the majority of the country’s population “Slavs”, a development that could harm efforts to find a solution to Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece.

EU Ambassador Aivo Orav made a statement in an attempt to calm accusations that the EU was denying Macedonians the right of self-determination. President Gjorge Ivanov asked the EU envoy to apologise, local media reported.

Orav spoke last Thursday to the European Parliament's foreign relations committee in Brussels, using the term “Slav Macedonians” to describe the majority of the country’s population.

Slavophone Macedonians are 64% of the population, followed by ethnic Albanians (25%), Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

While accepting that they speak a Slavic language, Macedonians consider themselves descendents of Alexander the Great. Such a reading of history raises eyebrows in Athens (see background).

A Macedonian official told EURACTIV that speaking a Slavic language did not imply being of Slavic ethnicity. He compared Macedonia with Spanish-speaking Latin America, where the population could not be called “Spanish”.  

‘Strong disagreement, protest and condemnation’

An official statement on the Macedonian government website published on Saturday left no doubt about the fury the EU envoy unleashed in Skopje.

“Regarding the use of the term 'Slav Macedonians' by Ambassador Aivo Orav, the Government considers that such treatment does not contribute to the solution of the open question that our country has with its southern neighbour, and expresses strong disagreement, protest and condemnation,” the statement reads.

The Macedonian government also slams the EU envoy for having expressed “disrespect for the fundamental principle of self-determination and self-naming”.

“It should be realised that consciously or unconsciously shows an issue has been opened not just regarding the name of our country, but for its identity," the statement says, warning the European Commission that it has moved to “dangerous grounds”.

Ambassador replies

Orav said that the key message he had tried to convey in Parliament was positive for Macedonia.  

“I was describing inter-ethnic relations and ethnic communities in a way that was understandable to the audience. I was not making a political statement of any kind,” Orav reportedly said, according to the EU mission in Skopje.

The comments made big headlines in Macedonia.

Former Macedonian Ambassador Risto Nikovski, quoted by the daily Dnevnik, said the statements by Orav indicated that Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle wants to make the name controversy solution a Brussels condition for the country’s membership to the EU. Up to now, the conditionality was only raised by Greece.

However, everything appears to indicate that to the contrary. Füle and his team want to give Skopje the chance to start accession negotiations even before an agreement on the name issue materialises [read more].

Sources told EURACTIV that the “disproportionate” reaction of Skopje risks endangering accession efforts.

Matthew Nimetz, a US diplomat who is the UN mediator between Skopje and Athens over the name dispute, has just begun a new negotiating round while the latest nationalist episode unfolded.

“This is a very untimely development,” an EU diplomat said.

Read more with EURACTIV

Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Yugoslavia in 1991.

The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians (as foreign diplomats describe them) represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

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 – the Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece vowed to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.

Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name most EU countries, the name dispute with Greece has led to an impasse for the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.

Greece also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. The airport in Skopje was named after Alexander the Great, who is seen by Greece as a hero of its ancient history. Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great. Naming the Skopje international airport “Alexander the Great” was also seen from Greece as a very bad idea. 

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