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Background 30 Jun 11

Macedonia-Greece Name Dispute: What’s in a name?

Ever since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, its name has been the subject of a bitter dispute with southern neighbor, Greece.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonia is already the name of a northern Greek region and the Greeks are angry that the former Yugoslav republic has linked its heritage to both Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.

They argue that the name Republic of Macedonia inherently suggests territorial ambitions beyond their neighbor’s existing borders.

The term Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was proposed in January 1993 by France, Spain and the United Kingdom, the three European Commission members of the United Nations Security Council, to enable the Republic to join the United Nations.

After prolonged diplomatic pressure on both sides, despite opposition from hardliners, Athens and Skopje endorsed the proposal in April 1993.  The Republic of Macedonia thus became the 181st member of the United Nations under the provisional term FYROM, which is still in use pending a solution to the spat.

In due course, the same convention was adopted by many other international organizations and states but they did so independently. However, since then, some 120 countries, including the United States, China and Russia have recognized Macedonia’s formal name.

Following an 18 month-long Greek trade embargo, formally over the unresolved issue with the then Macedonian flag containing the Vergina Sun, which was seen in Greece as part of its own national heritage, the two countries eventually formalized bilateral relations in an UN guaranteed Interim Accord signed in New York in September 1995.

Under the agreement, Macedonia removed the Vergina Sun and altered a passage in its constitution to clearly state that it has no claims over Greek territory. For its part, Greece agreed that it would not object to any application by the Republic so long as it used the FYROM title.

Both countries committed to continuing negotiations on the naming issue under UN auspices.

The issue remained open as economic relations between two countries gradually gained momentum. The pace of the UN mediated name talks was slow and without a foreseeable solution.

The spat escalated again in April 2008 when Athens put into action its threat to block Skopje’s accession to NATO.

NATO foreign ministers considered Macedonia along with Albania and Croatia to join the alliance at a summit in Bucharest but due to Greek objections, Macedonia was told it could join the Alliance only once the name row with Greece is resolved.

In the autumn of 2009 the European Commission gave green light for Macedonia’s opening of EU accession talks. However, Greece again intervened and without its consent the EU Council of Ministers in December same year could not extend a start date for the talks to begin. A unanimous vote is necessary before reaching such decision.

The EU said it would reconsider extending the start date when there is a breakthrough in the UN sponsored name talks between Athens and Skopje.

The UN talks, mediated by the experienced US diplomat Matthew Nimetz have intensified following the 2008 NATO blockade. Still, they have made little progress despite the mounting international pressure for a swift solution.

Media have speculated over the years that a possible compromise can be found if both countries agree on some variation of the name Northern, Upper, or Vardar Macedonia. Some have mentioned Republic of Macedonia (Skopje) as the most suitable solution that would distinct the state from the northern Greek province.

However various details, including the range of countries and institutions with which the new name would have to be used, remain to be settled as well.

Meanwhile, in parallel with the UN name talks, both parties have started a practice of eye-to-eye meetings between the Prime Ministers. Since his coming to power in the autumn of 2009 Greek PM George Papandreou met his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Gruveski several times.

Their parlays were deemed courteous and brief, without adding any new substance to the name talks.

At the same time both countries are waging a parallel battle related to the name dispute in the International Court of Justice, ICJ in the Hague. At the end of 2008 Macedonia sued Greece in front of the ICJ over the NATO block. Skopje argues that Athens breached the 1995 Interim Accord by blocking the country under the term FYROM.

After hearing both sides’ arguments this year, the court is expected to reach its decision by the year end. The ICJ however has no means of forcing countries to comply with its ruling.

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Macedonia-Greece Name Dispute: What’s in a name?

Ever since Macedonia gained independence in 1991, its name has been the subject of a bitter dispute with southern neighbor, Greece.

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