This piece was published in the European Voice on 24 October 2008
To be ‘the Republic of Macedonia’ and continue a decades-long dispute with Greece, or to be ‘the Republic of Northern Macedonia’ and remove a key obstacle to accession to NATO and the EU?
That is the question that the government of Macedonia was posed when a UN’s special envoy, Matthew Nimetz, suggested a compromise solution to the name dispute that the UN has been seeking to resolve for the past 13 years. Macedonia’s answer, announced by the office of President Branko Crvenkovski last week, was that “Macedonia’s leaders have agreed not to come out with an official answer to the latest UN-sponsored proposal”.
For Greece’s part, Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis declared that “the negotiations will continue until there is a solution that satisfies both countries”. Putting that in undiplomatic language: not now, not ever.
This failure to resolve who can lay claim to the name Macedonia – the state or the Greek province – has proved costly to Macedonia internationally. But the status quo is also convenient for the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. The recently re-elected premier believes he has the public’s backing in putting off a solution. He also stands to benefit from blaming Greece for Macedonia’s slow EU accession. If Greece can be blamed for his country’s isolation, then why not also blame Athens’s obstructionism for Macedonia’s slow pace of administrative reform, its economic difficulties (the rate of unemployment, officially reaching around 34%) and its poor record on foreign investments? Macedonia’s Greek-imposed isolation makes it easy for Gruevski to make excuses.
For Greece, too, the status quo works fine. Resolving the name dispute would leave the ruling conservative party Nea Demokratia without a secure constituency in northern Macedonia ahead of parliamentary elections in 2009, and the major opposition party, the socialist PASOK, would be deprived of a chance of settling the dispute (PASOK’s leader, George Papandreou, would also have to answer questions about his failure to resolve the issue when he was foreign minister).
But the EU too is proving too comfortable with the status quo. It clearly faces challenges: the fact that Greece is blocking Macedonia from integration in NATO and EU at a crucial moment for the region says much about Greece and demonstrates that Greece’s European partners have limited influence over Athens. But the EU has been unwilling to intervene (and for this some of its biggest and oldest members, such as France, hold particular responsibility for this). Leaving the UN negotiator and US diplomats to mediate between an EU member state and a candidate country did not add to the EU’s leverage in the region. Rather, it cemented the impression among candidate countries that Europeans are actually not that serious about the promise made in Thessaloniki in 2003, that the EU’s doors are open for countries from the south-east of the continent.
With the lack of a credible prospect of membership, the Macedonian leadership has realised that entering closer relations with Brussels would only expose it to tougher scrutiny – and would not bring Gruevski any votes. That is why he has settled for a goal much easier to achieve and more visible to the public: visa liberalisation. In the meantime, since the Bucharest summit at which Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership was thwarted, foreign diplomats in Skopje have discovered that their advice is increasingly being ignored and that EU-related reforms idle far down the government’s agenda.
This is emblematic of a broader problem in Europe’s periphery, from the Balkans and throughout what the EU calls its neighbourhood – it has become ***bon ton*** to be self-sufficient and isolationist and for political leaders to exercise their powers in a style more reminiscent of Tito’s leadership, leaving their countries in a grey zone between West and East. Their political goal is to maximise votes, regardless of the long-term consequences for their countries. For these leaders, European Union integration is far from being their only strategic option – and that is even more so since integration is not an option for Brussels for the time being.
Why should the West care if there are now no major crises in those regions? The West should have learned from the experience of recent months that frozen disputes – like frozen conflicts – can easily become combustible and even explosive. For Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili, war and peace appeared not to be matters of life and death, but weapons in ahis political arsenal. Gruevski may not be able or willing to use the same weaponry, but he too shows combustible tendencies. For the EU, the question is to be comfortable and accept a risky status quo, or to accept discomfort to reduce such risks.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.