Macedonia name issue: Agreement and disagreement

Agora Contributor: Nikos Skoutaris
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos
Photo by Panayotis Tzamaros/Fosphotos

On Thursday, the Greek Parliament is expected to ratify the Prespa Agreement with which Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (fYRoM) aim at resolving the dispute over the latter’s name.

So, how did we get here?

The background

The Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in 1991. However, it was admitted in the United Nations in 1993 with a provisional reference: Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This was because neighbouring Greece demanded the change of the constitutional name of the newly independent republic. The policy of Greece was dictated by the fear that the constitutional name of the new republic pointed to an irredentist/territorial claim over the Greek geographical department with the same name (Macedonia).

At the beginning of the 1990s, Greece imposed a 19-month trade embargo against fYRoM, which was only lifted when it changed its first flag. The two neighbouring states eventually formalised their bilateral relations in an Interim Accord in September 1995. They continued negotiating on finding a 'compound' name with a geographical qualifier that could be used for all purposes (erga omnes). Meanwhile, the newly founded state joined a number of international organisations as fYRoM. In 2008, under the leadership of the then Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, Greece blocked fYRoM's bid for NATO membership. In 2011, the ICJ found that this veto was a violation of the Interim Accord raising serious questions over the overall negotiation strategy of Greece.

The agreement

The agreement that was signed last June by the two Prime Ministers aims at resolving this 30-year-old dispute. The whole agreement has been built around the fact that the Republic of Macedonia/fYRoM should be renamed as Republic of North Macedonia according to Article 1 of the agreement. This new name would not just be used in the international arena. According to the Agreement, fYRoM was obliged to amend its own constitution.

On 30 September 2018, 91 percent of voters voted in favour of the Prespa Agreement and the relevant constitutional amendments in a non-binding referendum. However, the 37 percent turnout was lower than the 50 percent threshold and the referendum was not carried. Notwithstanding, the following month the Parliament of fYRoM approved the constitutional reform with the required 2/3s majority.


One might wonder, however, why a state that has been recognised as Republic of Macedonia by more than 130  countries agrees to amend its constitutional name. The main “carrot” for fYRoM can be found in the second article of the Agreement. According to this, Greece will not oppose the accession of the Republic of North Macedonia to international organisations such as the EU and NATO if the application is made under the new name.

Some commentators have argued that such provision curtails the right of Greece to veto the accession of the Republic of North Macedonia to international organisations and as such the constitutional autonomy of the country. They have failed to mention, however, that even without the Prespa Agreement, Greece has agreed – according to Article 11 of the Interim Accord - not to veto the accession of its neighbouring state to multilateral organisations if it applies as fYRoM. As already mentioned, the ICJ has found Greece liable of breaching that obligation because of the veto it exercised at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. So, the Prespa Agreement markedly improves the content of the obligation that the country has undertaken since 1995.

More importantly, such provisions are quite common in those diplomatic processes that use Europeanisation as a lever to resolve a border conflict. The prospect of the accession of fYRoM to the EU plays the role of the “carrot” in order for the newly-founded state to agree to the amendment of its constitutional name. Similar arrangements have been used in a number of processes. For instance, the Brussels Agreement, that provided for the normalization of the relations between Serbia and Kosovo contains a similar obligation for both those states.

The reactions

Most of the objections, however, that the Greek political elites who oppose the agreement have expressed concern the following: According to the Agreement, the citizens of the neighbouring country will be called Macedonians/citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia and their language will be recognised as Macedonian.

With regard to the citizenship, it is worth pointing out that this dual formulation takes into account the sensitivities of the multinational nature of the neighbouring state. It creates the space for the citizens of both Macedonian and Albanian ethnic origins to feel that their right to self-determination is respected. At the same time, the Agreement does not create a monopoly regarding the use of the terms ‘Macedonia’ or ‘Macedonian’. Article 7 recognises the historical and political reality that those terms are used in both sides of the border and they refer to a different historical context and cultural heritage. In that way, the agreement deconstructs the implicit irredentist claims that have been linked with the phenomenon of antiquisation in North Macedonia.

Concerning the language, it is worth pointing out that the agreement clarifies that it belongs to the family of the Slavic languages and draws again a very clear distinction with ancient Greek civilisation and the historical and cultural context of the region on the other side of the border. Given that the vast majority of the inhabitants of Greek Macedonia speak Greek, there is not much scope for confusion, misunderstandings or even nationalist propaganda and ethnic outbidding.

Dealing with nationalism

Most importantly, however, both countries undertake in Articles 3 and 4 the obligations to respect the common border, the territorial integrity and political independence of each other and not to endorse any irredentist statements and claims. Although, such undertakings are necessary (but not sufficient) conditions for any successful inter-state relation, in the context of a dispute that has been fuelled by the fear and suspicion of irredentism, they are welcome.

Against this background, the last objection to which I will refer, might sound peculiar to the people that are not accustomed to the Greek political vernacular. According to this objection, it is the Prespa Agreement and not the preservation of an unresolved international dispute that fuels the exasperation of the nationalist feelings in Greece. According to the proponents of this position, it is the aforementioned ‘problematic’ provisions of the agreement that made thousands of Greeks to protest against the settlement.

Indeed, one might wonder why the agreement is meeting such a fierce opposition from the public and the majority of Greek political parties when it actually delivers on the declared objective of all the Greek governments for the last 20 years for a 'compound' name with a geographical qualifier. Apart from political opportunism, an additional factor is the following: Despite the official position of all the Greek governments, the Greek political elites have not really explained and thus prepared the public for the compromises that a possible solution would entail.

Maximalist positions for the renaming of the neighbouring state without the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ has always been the equivalent of a unicorn eating pie in the sky. In fact, by accepting fYrOM as a provisional reference Greece has tacitly admitted that there was a federated entity in Yugoslavia called Macedonia. And it is rather unsurprising that the citizens of that entity would expect their country to keep the name it has been using for more than 50 years when it became independent.

Is the agreement perfect? Not really. It is a compromise that entails bitter pills for both sides. fYRoM had to change its constitutional name and Greece has to accept that north of its border there is a country whose citizens (at least some of them) consider themselves Macedonian and they speak Macedonian as their language. Having said that, the agreement marks a significant success because it does resolve the name dispute and allows North Macedonia to consolidate its fragile Statehood within NATO and the EU. For a region like the Balkans this is no small feat.

*Nikos Skoutaris is a Senior Lecturer in EU law at the University of East Anglia. His website focuses on Secessions, Constitutions and EU law. You can follow him on Twitter.

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