Political: On 17 June 2018, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the Prime Minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) Zoran Zaev, have signed a deal in which FYROM has agreed to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in both domestic and international texts. However, citizens of this newly-named nation will be known as Macedonians and their language will be called Macedonian. This dispute has lasted since the fall of Yugoslavia and the creation of Macedonia as an independent state in 1991. Both FYROM and several northern Greek regions lie in the modern geographical areas of ‘Macedonia’. Indeed, Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, is in this area of Greece known as Macedonia; Greece had previously demanded exclusive rights to the name. Usage of the previously chosen name, ‘the Republic of Macedonia’ was blocked in all EU countries by Greece but it is recognised outside Europe.
Why is the Name So Important?
The name is important for reasons of culture, identity, and history. Probably the most famous Greek of all time – Alexander the Great – was born in Pella 356 BCE in modern day Greece and was officially known as Alexander II of Macedon. His reign and military victories created an empire, providing a source of pride in Greek society today. Greece considers Macedonia and the name a non-negotiable part of its history and has previously claimed that through the conquests of Alexander the Great that; ‘all Macedonians are Greek’. Athens had always feared that by naming itself Macedonia, FYROM held territorial desires on its own province of Macedonia. From their perspective, FYROM viewed Athens’s desire to block the name Macedonia as a denial of their national identity. Politicians in both countries have built reputations on their vehement opposition to any deal with the other, gaining support by stoking nationalist sentiments.
Why Has the Agreement Come About?
This bitter dispute has left FYROM in geopolitical limbo for decades with Greece blocking its application to both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The dispute has turned nasty in the past. In 1995, following a 19-month Greek trade embargo, Macedonia bowed to Greek pressure and amended its constitution and changed its flag. However, since taking office, both of the current leaders of Greece and FYROM have struck conciliatory and constructive tones with each other over the dispute. Both leaders have been keen to break the political deadlock and move the relationship between Greece and FYROM forward. For this, despite opposition, Prime Ministers Tsipras of Greece and Zaev of FYROM deserve praise for their pragmatic courage. It should also be noted that both leaders gain a certain degree of international prestige, improving their personal positions at a difficult time for the region. After years of UN-mediated talks, and with EU prodding, the two countries have at last found common ground.
This agreement is seen as vital for European security, explaining the EU’s active role in encouraging discussions. The door is now open for FYROM to eventually join the European Union and NATO. Russia has long held ambitions of growing its influence in the Balkans and this deal serves as a strong rebuke to Moscow and populists it backs across the continent. It courted Zaev’s opponents in previous elections and attempted to assassinate a former President and Prime Minister in Montenegro when he began taking the country into NATO. If FYROM joins the EU and NATO, Greece becomes less isolated in southeast Europe as only Bosnia, Kosovo, and Serbia of the Balkan nations would be outside of the military alliance. This agreement provides timely support for the European project which has faced significant and much-publicised challenges in recent years. The EU is currently in negotiations with Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro regarding EU accession. This allows for a race to the top as seen with large EU expansion in 2004. In this case, the ten countries attempting EU accession fought with each other to make the necessary reforms required to join the union. It also helps to consolidate the democratic gains in a region still healing after bloody conflicts. This is important not only due to the rise of Russia but also due to increased uncertainty in Turkey; politicians from Turkey have previously stated desires to regain Greek islands in the Mediterranean. The deal is also expected to provide economic support to both countries which have struggled in this domain in recent years.
The success of the deal is far from assured. Before the deal is passed, it still needs to be legally ratified by both parliaments and then get approved by referendum in FYROM. If FYROM does not take the steps to confirm the deal, it is likely to die and lead to continued Greek opposition to the country becoming the newest member of the EU and NATO. The EU is seeking to help the new state of Macedonia to ratify the deal by beginning accession talks almost immediately, likely in June or July of this year. There has been significant domestic political opposition to the agreement, supported by the significant population of nationalists in both countries. Violent unrest has been reported in Skopje and Athens, which is set to continue. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in parliament on 16 June due to his announcement of the deal; political opponents had accused Tsipras of making too many concessions. Meanwhile, the President of FYROM, Gjorge Ivanov has stated he will not support the deal and indicated that he would veto the accord when it came to parliament. However, he would have to accept the result if parliament endorses the deal a second time.
The region remains unsettled and it is unclear if both governments and their leaders will remain in power to see the deal through. International powers in Paris, Berlin, Washington, and Brussels need to support this deal and give acclaim to those who have negotiated it to ensure it succeeds, including overt discussion of Nobel peace prizes. If this deal fails, the reform movement in the Balkans suffers and Russian influence grows. More importantly, failure puts the potential for a deal on hold, probably for at least a generation.
All protests should be avoided as there is the potential for violence, even if protests generally remain peaceful. Notably, there is a greater potential for violence at spontaneous demonstrations. Travellers should follow local media in order to remain aware of their local environment and plan to bypass protests. There is the potential for police to use assertive measures to disrupt demonstrations. If unexpectedly caught in any unrest, police instructions should be followed immediately. It is recommended to follow local media for updates.
Solace Global would generally not advise clients of the need to employ additional security measures when visiting Greece or Macedonia, depending on traveller profile. However, in all cases, the use of a travel tracking app with the ability to display an intelligence feed will assist employers to implement effective duty of care and permit the traveller to remain up to date with pertinent security updates. Travellers are advised to employ an enhanced level of situational awareness when travelling in Athens, Skopje, or along the border region.