EXCLUSIVE: POLITICAL GAMES AND GAINS AMID MACEDONIA NAME DISCORD
By Evgenia Filimianova
Photo: Sputnik, Evgenia Filimianova
"Macedonia is Greek and no one can take it!" "If Macedonia is Greek, then Greece is Turkish!" Clashing statements by protesters were voiced at recent demos over the ongoing name dispute between Greece and its neighbor in the north, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

The two countries have been at loggerheads for almost 30 years over the name issue, since Macedonia declared independence in 1991, and now it has resurfaced again — louder than ever. The talks revival and its timing could indicate there is more to the row than just a name.
'Was, Is and Always Will Be'
February 4 saw huge crowds gather in central Athens at a rally against the use of the word "Macedonia" in the name of FYROM. According to the Greek police, the number of attendees was around 140,000. According to demonstration's organizers — it was over a million.
A corresponding rally took place on the same day at Westminster, in London.
Photo: Sputnik, Evgenia Filimianova
Michael Arapis, lawyer and vice-president of the Greek Orthodox community of Cardiff and South Wales, one of the London protest organizers, told Sputnik that "Macedonia was, is and always be Greek."

"Everything started in 1945 when Josip Broz Tito, then leader of Yugoslavia, called the Slavs of the region Vardaska — Macedonia because he was afraid that Bulgaria would claim the regions for themselves. Therefore, we have this issue for the last decades but Macedonia has always been Greek from antiquity. The people who live in FYROM now are Slavic people and they came to Europe a thousand years after Alexander the Great, the conqueror and Greek king. So what they [FYROM] are doing is historically erroneous and we need to make sure the world knows about it because the vast majority of people across the globe are unaware of this historical inaccuracy and they don't take the issue seriously."
Another protester voiced her frustration with how the issue is handled by the current Greek government.

"It is our history and no one can take it. Something that has belonged to us for thousands of years cannot be taken from us. They are a new country; they can use any other name related to their recent history – not Alexander the Great or Macedonia that have belonged to Greece for centuries. We will not accept it. We will not stop. We will not allow them to use our history. We are deeply disappointed with what the current government is doing so far. I hope these voices will get to their ears and they will be more decent in their negotiations and fairer to our nation and history – that's all we hope," she told Sputnik.
Photos: Sputnik, Evgenia Filimianova
A week prior to the Athens rally, activists from Macedonia were protesting on January 27 outside the European Parliament office in London, as part of a bigger international movement trending on social media under the hashtag #WeAreMacedonia: Enough is enough.

And while one protester was shouting "If Macedonia is Greek, then Greece is Turkish!" outside the EU building, others were holding signs "Macedonia's name is not for sale,' 'Protect our name, rights, identity,' and the organizer of the protest told Sputnik that the rally was not just about the name.
Photos: Sputnik, Evgenia Filimianova
The London representative of the United Macedonia Diaspora – an NGO promoting interests of Macedonian communities worldwide and headquartered in Washington D.C. — Ilija Vlcevski told Sputnik:

"Today we are protesting a number of things. One of them is talks with Greece about changing our name. Another one is the attempt to make Albanian second official language in Macedonia and talks with Bulgaria discussing the origins of our language. With the name – it's a violation of the right to self-determination. If we give in on that bit, just the principle will carry on being pushed over
."
In January 2018, Macedonia's parliament passed a law allowing wider official use of the Albanian language, as part of the coalition deal between the ruling Social Democrats and parties representing ethnic Albanians who make up nearly a third of the 2 million population.
'Embarrassment of the UN System'
Macedonia is the name of a Greek province considered to be the center of the ancient empire of Alexander the Great. Athens sees the name to be part of its own cultural heritage and fears that the use of the name by its neighbor implies a claim to parts of its own territory.

A fresh effort to solve the dispute between the two Balkan neighbors is being led by UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, who according to reports has proposed five possible options for the country's name: Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia), Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia), Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia), Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardar Macedonia) and Republika Makedonija (Skopje).

Meto Koloski, president of the United Macedonian Diaspora told Sputnik the latest proposal of Mathew Nimetz "is probably by far the worst possible proposal we've seen and an embarrassment of the UN system."

"Macedonia should withdraw from the discussions at the United Nations. Macedonia's name is Republic of Macedonia; it is recognized by 137 countries worldwide, including 4 of 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council. We call on the Macedonian government to withdraw and submit a resolution to the UN General Assembly calling for full recognition of the country as Republic of Macedonia," Mr. Koloski told Sputnik.

An online petition by the UMD — calling on the government in Skopje to withdraw from the name negotiations – has so far gathered over 23,000 signatures.
Photo: Sputnik, Evgenia Filimianova
Diversion Tactics
The protesters on both sides are largely against the ongoing UN-mediated talks between Greece's Syriza-led government with Alexis Tsipras in charge and Macedonia's Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), headed by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

The two leaders however have expressed willingness to find a compromise and resolve the longstanding name issue as they met in January on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
One of the primary goals of the Greek mission in Davos was discussion of the economic development and the third exit program. The third economic adjustment program for Greece started on 19 August 2015 and is scheduled to run until 20 August 2018. The financial assistance of up to €86 billion under the program is provided by the European Stability Mechanism (ESM).

Dr. Vassilis Monastiriotis, professor of Political Economy at the London School of Economics, believes the agreement to follow the completion of the third exit program is likely to entail continuation of supervision and monitoring by international institutions. A public focus on another issue, such as the Macedonia name dispute, could divert attention from the financial hardships caused by austerity measures.
"Any government would want a clean exit - with no further obligations. It is very unlikely to be as clean as the [Greek] government would have wanted. So if there is another issue that keeps people busy – even if it reflects negatively on the government – it takes up space and there is less attention paid to the resolution of the austerity packages," Dr. Monastiriotis told Sputnik.
Following discussions with Zaev, Alexis Tsipras returned to Athens where he held talks with key political officials, including those of most opposition parties, to work out a joint strategy for upcoming United Nations negotiations on the matter.

In a televised speech, Tsipras said on January 27 he is ready to accept a "composite name" that includes the moniker "Macedonia."
"We must not listen to nationalist outbursts or fanatical shouts," he added.

The Greek PM was referring to the leader of the opposition — conservative New Democracy's Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who launched an attack at Tsipras, saying "We will not divide Greeks to unite Skopje."

It is difficult for a responsible opposition party to take a view they won't be able to defend if they come to power, Dr. Monastiriotis believes. He told Sputnik the New Democracy (ND) will likely have to concede in accepting the use of term 'Macedonia.'
"In that case, Syriza is not the only party to take the blame — the whole establishment takes the blame. Whereas, in the case of the post-bailout agreement, if it happens, ND can always say – if we were in power, we would never have agreed to that – because it is a one-off event. So it is a bit of party politics."
Timing Is Key
The timing of the talks reboot between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic could be explained by the relatively recent change of government in Macedonia and Greece's willingness to jump at the chance of burnishing the country's image with the European Union and the rest of the international community.

Zaev is new in his leadership position, his office started on 31 May 2017 following a long-term political crisis, which soured after the early general election held on December 11, 2016.
This file photo taken on December 04, 2016 shows the leader of the main Macedonian opposition Social Democrats Zoran Zaev delivering a speech during a pre election rally in Skopje on December 4, 2016. Photo: AP Photo, Robert Atanasovski
When he came to power, Zaev promised economic growth, an end to corruption and integration with NATO and the EU.

Greece has now the opportunity to settle this issue and find a compromise because the Balkans are in a very unstable mode and Greece doesn't need an unstable neighborhood, Syriza member and MEP Stelios Kouloglou told Sputnik.
"Reaching a solution would also upgrade the international status of Greece. It would be seen as a nation that can cooperate and find acceptable solutions, as opposed to being blinded by nationalism. There is one reason the negotiations have restarted and it is the change of power in Skopjie. The new government said it wanted to negotiate and declared it was against the excesses by the previous government."
Following the Davos get-together with his Greek counterpart, Prime Minister Zaev said his country would rename Skopje's Alexander the Great airport to show its "strong commitment" to ending the row with Athens. He also said, the north-south Alexander the Great motorway ending at the Greek border will be renamed "Friendship Highway".

In January demonstrators in Skopje objected to Zaev's plan to rename Macedonia's main highway and airport.
Visitors arrive to the official opening of the new terminal building of Alexander the Great Airport, near Macedonia's capital Skopje, on Tuesday, Sept 6, 2011. Photo: AP, Boris Grdanoski
NATO, EU Jolts
Zaev's eagerness to settle the name dispute hasn't received warm welcome among all. Milo, a protester at the Macedonian demonstration, in London told Sputnik:

"We don't agree with what is going on in Macedonia. We are angry with our politicians, with the European Union and the world. They promised us we can get in Europe if we change our name. Personally, I don't believe that."
Maya Dimova Handley, a Macedonian, who has been living in the UK for two decades and has a dual nationality, told Sputnik the ruling party's political interests were to blame:

"When you scratch the surface and you take away the name and the language, what is left for any political party to bargain and to unite the country with? Nothing! They've got no agenda and no economic progress, there is no justice. Our justice system is elected and changed by the government. Every time a new government comes in, they use it to their own favour. It is absolutely disgusting. There are nationalists in every country but it doesn't define the whole nation. The economy is a massive problem and because nobody has a real agenda, they are consistently throwing the so-called nationalism on the forefront of any political agenda."
Greece's vote prevents Macedonia from entering both the European Union and NATO, as inducting new members requires a unanimous vote in both bodies.
A Greek national Pantelis Theodoropoulos believes the instability in the Balkan region is caused by external forces with a very specific agenda.

"We shouldn't compromise on the name because it's not right for us to give up any ground on our territory. I would accept such names as Vardaska or Southern Serbia or whatever they want – but not Macedonia. The moment we start negotiating on the term Macedonia, we are giving up too much ground and it is irreversible in the future. The instability is being caused by the foreign powers that are intervening in our politics. If NATO took a step back, it wouldn't cause this instability. The foreign powers, the supernatural entities such as NATO, the EU that have unelected politicians who – just because we are going through a debt crisis – think they can come and take our lands and petrol in the north. It is all about the money."
A resolution of the issue is needed before Macedonia can join NATO or the EU, with Greece previously threatening to veto its entry over the dispute.

Washington's desire to induct Macedonia into NATO explains the restart of the negotiations between Greece and FYROM, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a press conference in January 2018.

"As to the resumed negotiations and intensified efforts to solve the problem of Macedonia's name, those efforts were semi-dormant for a very long period and intensified only when the United States decided that Macedonia should join NATO. Greece is already in NATO, which means it doesn't need any concessions, while concessions are needed from Macedonia, which they are trying to draw into NATO," Lavrov said.
Western Balkan Strategy
The European Union on Tuesday, February 6 warned Balkan countries hoping to join the bloc that none will be invited until they have resolved all disputes with their neighbors.

The announced Western Balkan strategy clearly spells out that the EU door is open to further accessions when – and only when – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and its former territory of Kosovo, have met the criteria.

"The EU will not accept importing these disputes and the instability they entail. Definitive and binding solutions to disputes with neighbours must be found and implemented before a country accedes," the European Commission factsheet reads.
The "window of opportunity" is there, Matthew Nimetz said February 1, calling on swift action by Greece and Macedonia "to move to solution in the next couple of months."

It's possible that political ambition in both countries eventually outweighs public opinion in favor of keeping that window wide open.

Hopefully, no one gets pushed out of it.
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