I Call Macedonia Macedonia

Daniel Serwer advocated American recognition of Macedonia by its constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia) well before Washington did it. Photo:bosanski-forum.com

A loyal reader writes: “Mr. Serwer is being quoted as the USA should pressure Greece in regards to fyrom ascension to NATO. I would really appreciate him to post something on his blog so we can discuss it.” This presumably refers to remarks I made by Skype Tuesday to a class on Macedonia at University College ISPE in Pristina, Daniel Serwer says on Peacefare.net blog!

Here are my notes on the name question and NATO for that lecture, which was observed by a Macedonian journalist:

Macedonia’s external problem remains what it has been since independence: Greece’s unwillingness to accept its name.

Let me admit that I am not neutral on this subject. I advocated American recognition of Macedonia by its constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia) well before Washington did it.

I think any country has a right to call itself what it wants, so long as it does not harbor irredentist designs on its neighbors. This applies to the United States of Mexico, and to the US state of New Mexico, as much as it does to Macedonia and Greece.

In fact, Macedonia has already changed its constitution and flag to accommodate Greek concerns.

I am convinced that Macedonia does not have irredentist designs on Greece. Greek preoccupation with this issue is rooted in Athens’ own attitude towards minorities within Greece, as it denies they exist, and concern about Greek identity.

While claiming continuity with ancient Greece, Greek identity is much more clearly rooted in the early 19th century. But whatever the origins, the result is a pernicious one. Greece’s current prime minister has gone as far as to say that he wants to see the dissolution of Macedonia and the formation of a Greater Albania, rather than accept a solution to the “name” issue.

This would be nothing more than comedic except for one thing: Greece’s attitude on the name issue is blocking Macedonian membership in NATO and holding up its progress towards negotiating EU membership.

The EU has been clever and invented a “high-level dialogue” that in essence substitutes for the EU accession negotiations, which in any event won’t be concluded during this decade.

The NATO issue is more urgent. Albanians in Macedonia regard NATO membership as vital to their own security, a kind of guarantee that the Macedonian state will continue in the direction of treating them properly. Macedonia has met NATO’s criteria for membership. Its army has even fought under US command in Afghanistan and still protects NATO headquarters there.

I’ve spoken with the Vermont National Guard commander who integrated Macedonian troops with his own fighting in Afghanistan. He told me he relied on them as he would on American troops.

But Greece shows no sign of easing its veto on membership by the time of the next NATO summit in Cardiff, Wales in September.

Washington has unfortunately said that NATO membership for Macedonia depends on its resolving its problems with Greece, a position that essentially turns American leverage over to Athens. This in my view is a serious mistake, but so far at least I’ve been unable to convince my American colleagues that they should take a more proactive role.

My own preference would be that Washington seek to end the UN mediation, which has produced nothing in almost 20 years of effort, and tell Athens that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will become a member of NATO in Cardiff, along with Montenegro, in the fall.

At the same time, Brussels should make clear to Skopje that it will need to reach a mutually acceptable accommodation with Greece before it can become an EU member. 

Athens can of course still veto Macedonia’s membership in NATO, where decisions are taken by consensus. But that would be a serious mistake if Brussels and Washington are prepared to press the issue at the highest levels. Cash-strapped Greece is in no position to annoy, much less anger, the Americans, Germans and other Europeans.

Nor is it wise for Greece to continue to ignore the 2011 decision of the International Court of Justice, which found by a 15 to 1 margin that Athens has breached the Interim Accord and rejected its allegations against the Skopje government.

While Greeks continue to claim that the Court failed to adopt any remedies, the decision was clearly a binding one that the ICJ expected Athens to implement. The court in fact has no power to enforce its decisions.

Let me be clear: the Macedonian government, while held not to have violated the Interim Accord, is not entirely without its own responsibility in this matter, especially in recent years. Prime Minister Gruevski has played to his own constituency by emphasizing connections to ancient Macedonia that are even more far-fetched than those of Prime Minister Samaras, which is saying something.

What we’ve got here are two democratically elected leaders who each feed the beast of ethnic nationalism in ways that are destabilizing and dangerous. There is a real risk that they have unleashed sentiments that will be difficult to put back in Pandora’s box, which is an appropriate label given the context.

Neither Greece nor Macedonia can cause the kind of military damage that Milosevic’s Serbia did, but they can certainly cause political instability, especially if their dispute unleashes a third ethnic nationalism: the Albanian one.

I inserted as well a few remarks based on my experience in Italy, where I met only one person (in 10 years of living there) who claimed descent from the ancient Romans. 

Italians know that the Romans were conquered by various “barbarians”–Goths, Vandals, and the like–so that modern-day Italians are thoroughly mixed genetically. Rome at one point had a population of only 85,000 people (at the peak of the Empire and today it has more like 3 million). How could any but a handful of Italians claim genetic descent from ancient Rome? How much better, or worse, is the Greek claim to descent from the ancient Greeks?

Even in the US we claim descent from Greco-Roman culture. Washington DC was designed to be the “New Rome.” Such claims deprive Italy and Greece of nothing. Pride in one’s heritage should mean pride in seeing others attach themselves to it.

Daniel Serwer is a Professor of Conflict Management, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He is also a Scholar at the Middle East Institute.


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