In a headlong rush to facilitate entry into the European Union and NATO Macedonia’s population are being presented with a multi-faceted, loaded question at the country’s forthcoming plebiscite. Not only is consensus being sought with a view to joining the EU and a military alliance initially predicated on standing up to Stalin’s USSR, there is also the small matter of an attached rider that seeks approval for the country to become known as North Macedonia. With what should unarguably be the subject of an entirely separate ballot question – or perhaps even a different referendum altogether – being interwoven into one catchall response, Macedonia, or FYROM as it has been international known, is in effect being held to ransom by its neighbour Greece, who has consistently blocked its path to becoming the latest Balkan element of the world’s big boys’ clubs.

Since its secession in 1991 from a crumbling Yugoslavia Macedonia has found itself in a more or less continuous diplomatic wrangle with Greece over how it should be recognized as a sovereign, autonomous state. The right for it to independently exist outside of the Yugoslav Federation wasn’t in question, but Athens objected to the country simply being known as Macedonia because of a lack of semantic differentiation between it and Greece’s northernmost province of the same name. Confusion and paranoia did though seem to reside purely in the minds of the Greeks; any that did occur elsewhere hardly compared with the ‘to this day’ tedious ignorance which sees many muddle up Slovenia and Slovakia. I have also known Slovenia to be misrepresented as the Croatian province of Slavonia.  A compromise of sorts resulted in Skopje accepting its FYROM appellation, identifying the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and not a part of Greece or with any designs on the frontier territory that shared its name.

To the best of my knowledge there have never been any attempts to absorb the Greek Macedonia into former Yugoslav territory, nor do covetous eyes continually shoot envious glances across the shared border. It therefore remains a mystery, to me at least, quite why Greece have remained so hysterically polarized by the situation, especially at a time when the country was going through an unprecedented financial crisis. Could this have been a tactic to deflect Greek public opinion from more pressing matters – onto those which never fail to stir up nationalistic fervour?

If the Macedonian people were squarely asked if they endorsed their country’s entry into the EU and NATO, there is a strong chance that the answer would be an overwhelming yes. The image of the EU is, after all, famous for disbursing far more money to the smaller, less wealthy nations under its auspices than to those who get far less than they put in. Load the question with a name change thrust upon the nation by a neighbour who has continually blocked Macedonia’s path to EU accession, and the majority, if there is to be one, might not be so overwhelming to give a clear mandate. Therein lies the decision to fuse two entirely separate, critical issues into one take it or leave it answer.

Northern Macedonia, as FYROM could soon be known, sounds all wrong and posits to the uninitiated that it has been separated from the rest of its territory, a la the partitioning of the Korean peninsula. This could then indicate that ‘southern’ Macedonia should indeed be a nation in its own right, or that it can one day expect to be unified with its northern counterpart. To precisely delineate between Macedonia as a nation and a province of Greece will create more confusion still, all the while those in the former Yugoslav territory being told what they should be known as if they want to get on in the world(if by being in the EU is an indicator of the albeit young country becoming more upwardly mobile). If anything, for FYROM to be known as Northern Macedonia could engender greater insecurity in Greece regarding its sovereign territory.

For NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg to almost rebuke Macedonia that the Belgium-based military alliance is ready to welcome Skopje into the fold, but that the future is in “their hands” is preposterous; to in effect state that the country’s readiness for entry will in some way be more acceptable should it acquiesce to Greece’s demands. If this is the only hoop left for Macedonia to leap through to gain admission, then NATO should have turned around to Greece and said this is your problem, not ours or that of Macedonia. Indeed, in 2008 Macedonia’s then foreign minister claimed, with some justification, that only Greece had a problem with Macedonia’s constitutional name. It is therefore puzzling, and troubling, that Greece are being given the scope to make such demands which to some could be regarded as blackmail, coercion, and bullying against another sovereign state.

The landmark referendum, slated for the 30th September is surely the first of its kind, where a relatively fledgling state is having to take such a circuitous and onerous route to get to where it wants to go. Cynically seeing a chance for it to get what it wants by dangling the much yearned for carrot in front of Macedonian eyes, Greece does not come out of this with any great credit. It is to be remembered that this is a country that heavily relied upon substantial financial bailouts from the international community, and is surely not in a position to make demand upon other, non-aggressive sovereign states. It is perhaps without coincidence that the Macedonia-Greece question has reached its apotheosis only now that the eurozone member states have struck a deal with Athens, to make the country’s horrendous debt burden more palatable.

Source material and further information:

Balkan Insight: www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/poll-macedonians-increasingly-supportive-of-eu-and-nato-ahead-of-referendum-08-28-2018

Irish Times: www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/macedonia-faces-divisive-vote-on-treasonous-deal-with-greece-1.3621938

World Bulletin: www.worldbulletin.net/europe/us-backs-macedonia-greece-name-deal-h205584.html

RT(Russia Today): www.rt.com/newsline/437879-macedonia-greece-referendum-austria/

Greek City Times: https://greekcitytimes.com/2018/09/04/wikileaks-reveal-fyrom-would-have-accepted-north-macedonia-since-2008/

Ekathimerini.com: www.ekathimerini.com/232389/article/ekathimerini/news/greek-fm-defends-fyrom-name-deal

BBC: www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-11283616

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/stoltenberg-nato-ready-welcome-macedonia-name-deal-with-greece-/29475639.html

The Guardian(UK): www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/22/eurozone-greece-financial-crisis-deal