Macedonia to add ‘Vardar’ to its name

Nikola Gruevski [Wikimedia]

According to reports, Macedonia is close to finding a formula to defuse its long-standing name dispute with Greece, which has prevented the former Yugoslav republic from starting EU accession talks and has kept it outside the NATO alliance.

The name 'Republic of Macedonia of Vardar' could be the miracle solution to solve the long-running dispute, reported the Greek press. This name fulfils the requirement of Athens that Macedonia, which borders a Greek region with the same name, should adopt a name with a geographic connotation (see 'Background').

Vardar may sound bizarre to someone unfamiliar with the region. But in fact, Macedonia is a wide geographic region stretching across three countries that for decades was called Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria, Aegean Macedonia in Greece and Vardar Macedonia for the territory corresponding to the former Yugoslav republic.

Vardar is the name of the longest river in the current Republic of Macedonia. Its basin covers two-thirds of the country. It is also the name of a football team and a popular song, 'Oj, Vardare'.

However, it remains to be seen whether Skopje will agree to use its new name erga omnes – meaning in the country's "relations with everyone". So far, Skopje has insisted that the name Macedonia could be kept "for internal use" and that countries which have recognised Macedonia with its constitutional name would continue to use it.

It also remains unclear whether Macedonian citizens could continue to be referred to as 'Macedonians' or 'Macedonians of Vardar' instead. A 'dual use' would help Skopje avoid having to amend its constitution and change all its national documents, including passports. Greece does not recognise Macedonian passports and until recently issued visas to their nationals on a separate sheet of paper.

Western pressure has already forced Macedonia to make changes to its constitution once before, after an ethnic conflict in 2001 and the signing of the so-called 'Ohrid' framework agreement. Even before that, in the mid-1990s, Macedonia was forced to remove the Vergina sun from its flag and delete alleged irredentist clauses from its constitution.

An eventual change to the constitution is likely to be decided by a referendum. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is opposed to such changes and is likely to spearhead a campaign to reject them.

Choice 'between two evils'

"Gruevski chooses between two evils," reads the headline of Skopje daily Nova Makedonia's leading article. According to diplomatic sources, Skopje was facing a choice between the Republic of Macedonia of Vardar (Republika Vardarska Makedonija) and the Republic of Macedonia (Vardar). Both possibilities were described as difficult to swallow by Macedonian diplomats, who nevertheless expressed a slight preference for the latter.

Western diplomatic sources told the Greek daily Kathimerini that there has been discernible progress in the negotiations since Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided to hold face-to-face discussions with his Skopje counterpart Nikola Gruevski – rather than let the talks continue at a lower diplomatic level.

Gruevski and Papandreou have been holding discrete meetings since last November to seek a way out of the impasse (EURACTIV 25/11/09).

United Nations special mediator Matthew Nimetz, a US diplomat, has not had one-on-one talks with either side since February but his office insists that he is still committed to finding a solution, Kathimerini writes further.

Ambassador Nimetz is in frequent contact with both parties, but he will not be responding to specific questions on substantive discussions, UN Deputy Spokesman Ari Gaitanis said in a written statement last week.

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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 (seeEURACTIV LinksDossieron 'EU-Macedonia relations').

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 by all EU countries except Greece, the name dispute has led to an impasse for the country's membership of both the EU and NATO.

According to recent information from diplomatic sources, a name with a geographic connotation– defining Macedonia more as a region than a country– would be acceptable to Greece (EURACTIV 07/04/10).

Greece insists that the new geographic name should be used in Skopje's "relations with everyone," rejecting Skopje’s position that a name "for internal use" could be kept.

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