After Prespa: Could the North Macedonia name agreement fall apart?

Both North Macedonia and Greece are gearing up for new elections. Political forces on all sides are ready to go into political battle over the Prespa Agreement

Six weeks ago the Greek parliament ratified the Prespa Agreement on the name of North Macedonia. But the accord is now facing the even greater challenge of implementation. The big question in both countries is: to what extent will internal opposition to the agreement now disappear – especially as all sides are now digging in for election campaigns? 

There is a sense in Greek society that the agreement was imposed by foreign players, and that the ‘Macedonia’ name was “given away”

North Macedonia: Zaef strong, Albanians stronger, VMRO weaker

In North Macedonia, where a presidential election is taking place next month, the main opposition party is damaged and the nationalist former prime minister Nikola Gruevski is in self-imposed exile in Hungary. The governing coalition’s candidate for the election, Stevo Pendarovski, is a politician with broad appeal: he won 37 percent of the vote in the first round of the last presidential election, in 2014 – almost 10 percent higher than the percentage of the vote received by the party supporting him. Meanwhile, Gordana Siljanovska Davkova’s VMRO-DPMNE party, which opposed the Prespa Agreement, does not appear to have the necessary reach to overcome the extremely difficult position it finds itself in. It has been unable to present alternative proposals for a scenario in which North Macedonia remains outside NATO and the EU. 
This does not mean that VMRO has resigned itself to defeat or that Russia is not lying in wait, ready to use the party to pounce on any opportunity that arises. However, Moscow’s influence is rather weak: its investments in North Macedonia are meagre, especially when compared to the clout it has established in Serbia and Bulgaria. Instead, it is more interested in pointing up lapses in legitimacy – including alleged violations, such as with the procedure followed in passing the Prespa Agreement through parliament, as well as the low turnout in September’s referendum. This will give it grounds for accusing the West of disregarding the law and help it win over Macedonian Slavs, who are largely opposed to the agreement. The current president, Gjorge Ivanov, is aiding Russia in this. In an attempt to turn the agreement into a rallying point for all those opposed to it, he is now staging a rearguard action by not signing Prespa-related laws or texts. 
In any case, a number of events have proved unpopular among Macedonian Slavs: the Prespa Agreement itself, which many of them consider undermines “Macedonian” identity; the Prespa referendum, which was ‘carried’ by high turnout from the Albanian-speaking community, and from which Slavs’ abstention has, they feel, been disregarded; the granting of official status to the Albanian language, which is now used in sessions of parliament; and a more general Albanian assertiveness in the Western Balkans. Voices in the West have been muted in countering this assertiveness, which has included repeated statements by the leaders of Albania and Kosovo on “Greater Albania” and on unifying Albanians throughout the region. The coming months will figure decisively for prime minister Zoran Zaev’s attempts to strike a balance between the broadened demands of his Albanian partners in government (such as for a fairer distribution of the state budget, with the ultimate goal of federalisation) and the concerns of his fellow Slavs. 

Greece: Europe in election season

The European Union has a decisive role to play in the post-Prespa ratification situation. Provided that North Macedonia demonstrates its commitment by following the letter and the spirit of the accord, it is in Greece’s interest to overcome the reluctance of other member states, such as France and the Netherlands, to provide North Macedonia with an opening date for accession talks. In any case, this long process will give Athens time and room to exert pressure on Skopje to fully implement the agreement. And the EU and member states need to acknowledge that any further delays will merely provide time and space for third powers to advance their arguments as to the supposed futility of North Macedonia’s efforts to join the European family. These powers will subsequently seek to capitalise on citizens’ disappointment and the resulting turmoil in what is an unstable region. In addition, Bulgaria has also been raising objections to North Macedonia’s accession ambitions, mainly in the form of comments from the country’s deputy prime minister, who has even threatened to veto North Macedonia’s accession to NATO. But these are highly unlikely to become national policy. 

In Greece, opposition to the Prespa Agreement stands at 60-70 percent. Most Greeks are against the use of “Macedonia” in the name, even though North Macedonia has had a virtual monopoly on it for at least the past 27 years. There is a sense in Greek society that the agreement was imposed by foreign players, specifically “the West”, and that the name was “given away”, with Greece getting essentially nothing in return. The leader of the main opposition party, New Democracy, has even intimated that Athens struck a deal with its European partners to keep already-small pensions from incurring further cuts, while a relevant law on pensions had already been passed. This allegation of “transactional diplomacy” was lent credence by the secrecy surrounding the government’s moves and its unwillingness to pursue a broader consensus with opposition parties or to keep those parties abreast of developments during the negotiations. Some opposition forces have expressed anything from misguided to extremist stances on what would constitute compromise under the given conditions. New Democracy has adopted a rigid stance that rules out even a modicum of consensus; it fears losses from its more right-wing ranks, or even the creation of a Greek League of the North as an expression of general disappointment in what critics call a “painful national compromise”. 

Greece is facing four imminent votes: two rounds of local elections, the European election, and a general election. The last of these is slated for October, but there are scenarios for going to the polls earlier. Whatever transpires, the Macedonian name issue will leave its mark on the results. More specifically, in northern Greece, where sentiments run higher over the name, the government is expected to come in for electoral punishment. Meanwhile, in Epirus (north-western Greece), citizens are sensitive to Albania-related issues and are apprehensive of a repetition of Prespa. This could show through in the election results there, as a sort of a pre-emptive measure taken via the ballot box. In other areas of Greece, with some exceptions the Prespa issue will impact on the vote much less. 

As long as the issue figures prominently in the domestic news cycle, opponents of the Prespa Agreement will seize the slightest opportunity to argue that developments are vindicating their stance and that the agreement is damaging to Greece’s national interests. This may involve as little as, for example, a controversial report from the BBC that provoked strong condemnation from Athens; or agitation from the “Rainbow” party, which claims to represent Slavonic-speaking Greeks. In spite of the fact that an October date for the general election will likely damage the economy (harming foreign direct investment and creating paralysis in the public sector), the prime minister hopes that disagreement over Prespa will have subsided by then, perhaps having played itself out in earlier elections. Still, Alexis Tsipras will probably eventually realise that he underestimated the effect of solving a long-standing, sensitive issue in defiance of public sentiment, even if national elections take place in October. 

And the main opposition party, if it wins the election, will have to respond to a disappointed electorate. A critical mass expects it to cancel the agreement, even though it has not said it would do this. Such a development could risk the defection of voters to far-right and nationalist parties – though New Democracy may then find itself playing the same game as Tsipras, of observing not only the enforcement of the Prespa Agreement but also noting how far off the next election is and hoping that the issue dies down by then. But with EU accession negotiations set to take many years, the pressure for North Macedonia to conform to the prescriptions of Prespa will remain. The inflection points these processes will provide could mean that the issue is regularly thrust back into the Greek public debate, however, with all the unpredictable implications this has for the agreement’s future. Still, in the long run, Prespa may be a catalyst for convergence between the two sides, with Greece influencing in a positive way its northern neighbour’s engagement with the West, which may gradually restrain nationalist dynamics in North Macedonia

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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