FYROM: The Macedonian Question over history and the new NATO perspective


The Background

The wider region of Macedonia has been under research and intervention by the World community ever since it became part of the Ottoman Empire. During the two first Balkan wars an international commission, established by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was sent into the belligerent zones in order to inquire the causes and the consequences of that destructing war of the Balkan allies that turned to be enemies in less than a month. There, they registered a good number of the atrocities that took part during the second and most violent Balkan war as the main actors, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria tried to impose their national identity into the diverse ethnic groups of Macedonia and Thrace. The Balkan wars were the long expected final resolution of the historical Macedonian Question in a contest of competing nationalisms and the gradual declining of the once powerful Ottoman Empire. The Carnegie members suggested that as long as there is no international institution to supervise the world peace, people will keep on assaulting each other with the same mania. That conclusion, as well as other proposals held by the commission, fell into obscurity as the World War One broke out only a short time after the publication of the inquiry. The Great War though would not include only the pariahs of Europe as it was the case during the Balkan wars, but also the Great Powers, the ones who had most to lose if dragged into conflict according to the Carnegie members.

UN mission in FYROM: three pillars

The rise of the new Macedonian Question about the modern state of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), internationally known also as simply the Republic of Macedonia, and its struggle for internal peace and international recognition, beginning from 1991, came in a totally different historical and political framework. This time international cooperation through institutions was not the desired target to reach but a given fact and the matter at stake was whether they could mediate effectively over the issues and provide sustainable solutions. Their task was also not to bring peace to an on-going conflict (which was the case of the already mentioned first Balkan wars and the northern parts of Yugoslavia at the time), but to build the conditions under which a war would be avoided in the region. The first international peacekeeping operation held on the soil of FYROM was the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force or UNPREDEP, which would be the first UN operation to assume a merely preventive character. At that time, the war in former Yugoslavia was at its peak and the international community feared that if the conflict was spilling over the entire FYROM then it would be almost impossible for regional powers like Greece and Turkey not to get involved. In fact, the UN received warmly the call of the first president of FYROM, Kiro Gligorov, for an intervention in the country. The mission was based on three pillars, (military, political and humanitarian), related to both the internal needs of the country and the geopolitical dynamics of the region.

The first pillar, and probably the most successful one, was the military side of the operation. The UN deployed troops that had the objective to monitor the borders and particularly the borders with Serbia (Kosovo) and Albania. The military operation was able to meet these objectives and managed to avoid an escalation of the skirmishes between the Serbian and the UN forces at the borders. At the same time the Illegal drain of manpower and weapons from Kosovo and Albania into FYROM was put under control in most of the cases.

The second pillar was the political one. The principal objective was to facilitate a dialogue between the competing ethnic groups of the country and especially the most populous ones, the Slavs and the Albanians. Although some severe incidents between them could not be avoided, during the UNPREDEP operation the situation never turned to an open military conflict as it had been the case of the 2001 crisis when UN’s mandate in the country was over for two years. The third pillar was the humanitarian action. It was – perhaps – the most closely linked to the original Carnegie’s proposals of 1913. UN officials sought to create a minimum of social care and infrastructure across this underdeveloped European country.

1999, a crucial year for FYROM

UNPREDEP met its fate in a rather unexpected way as the new government in FYROM, whose main political force – the nationalistic IMRO (International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) –, took the audacious decision to recognize the republic of Taiwan (FYROM would have receive huge Taiwanese investments in turn according to the plan). China jumped at the chance and vetoed the continuation of the UNPREDEP mandate. As a result starting from March 1999 the operation ceased to exist.

However, 1999 proved to be a crucial year for the Balkans and specifically for FYROM, with the culmination of the conflict in Kosovo and the intervention of the western powers. During the war tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled to FYROM in order to escape the ethnic cleansing operations ordered by Milosevic. The end of the war though found some of them remaining in FYROM, while the NATO intervention in favour of the Albanian reason in Kosovo encouraged the Albanian minority in FYROM to take similar action, which led to an intrastate conflict breaking out in the first months of 2001. At that time NATO tried to fill the gap left from the departing of the UN peacekeeping forces. NATO called the two parties to the conflict to reach an agreement, which resulted into the Ohrid agreement providing a series of constitutional concessions for the Albanians. The Slavic majority in the country perceived NATO and the western organizations as the “protectors” of the Albanian interests in the Balkans and doubted whether the Euro-Atlantic solution would have been the ideal choice for them, given also the disputes with Greece about the name.

The path towards accession in the EU and the row with Greece over the name

Nevertheless, Skopje policy gravitated towards Europe and in 2001 there was the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement between the EU and FYROM (in force since 2004). FYROM submitted its application for EU accession in 2004 and after corrections and revisions it became an official candidate member in 2005, as of today though official negotiations have not begun due to the objections of Greece. When it comes to Greece, since the very beginning Athens refused to recognize FYROM by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia as it claims that the use of the term Macedonia constitutes a cultural, historical and political claim unto the Greek region with the same name. The culmination of the tensions of the first years after Skopje’s independence was partly settled with the UN intervention and the signing of the Interim Accord in 1995. As stated in the Accord, Greece would not object the inclusion of Skopje into the international organizations under the provisional name of “FYROM” while Skopje should renounce its irredentist policy as well as the use of historical symbols such as the Vergina Sun. Greece shortly after the Interim Accord became one of the main economic investors in FYROM, especially during the years of its “economic imperialism” in the Balkans. The rise in power though of the ultranationalist Gruevski (president of IMRO) in FYROM in 2006 hardened the relations between the two states. Gruevski launched his notorious “antiquation campaign” during which Skopje and other cities in the country were filled with gigantic statues and monuments representing ancient Macedonian figures. This campaign escalated with the project “Skopje 2014” and a huge amount of money was spent on it. Athens, as expected, was infuriated by its northern neighbour’s behaviour and accused Gruevski of usurpation of the Greek history. As a result, Skopje did not have the Greek permission to enter the NATO alliance in 2008, during the conference at Bucharest.

Gruevski’s policy though was not disputed only by Greece but also by the opposition of the country which considered those projects as huge economical scandals and organized protests against IMRO’s corrupted government. Finally in 2016 the Socialist party of the country along with two Albanian parties formed a new government which promised to enhance Skopje’s liberal and European profile.

Macedonia and Greece: Deal after 27-year row over a name

Since January 2018, the Greek government along with their new counterparts from Skopje have been being on discussions in order to find a final solution about their name dispute.

In a time when the West seeks to defend and neutralize the so called “Russian aggression”, the accession of the country to NATO seems more crucial than never. Technically, after the inclusion of Montenegro into the Alliance, FYROM’s membership would isolate the most Russian influenced pole in the Balkans, Serbia, and will leave Kremlin out of possible targets of influence. The ousting of Gruevski’s government over the last year was a severe blow for Moscow, as it based the diffusion of anti-western sentiments on the irredentist and anti-liberal policy of the IMRO party. Now the new government, formed by the Socialistic SDSM and the support of the Albanian parties, is asked to convince citizens in FYROM that Europe and NATO is the only alternative for the country.

The solutions proposed for the name dispute was not expected to be anything new but rather a “re-cooking” of the older ones (Republic of New Macedonia/Northern Macedonia/ Upper Macedonia to name a few).

Finally, after 27 years of talks and protests, Greece has reached a deal on the name of its northern neighbour on 12 June 2018. They have settled on the name Republic of North Macedonia, or Severna Makedonija in Macedonian. Indeed, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev met on the sidelines of an EU summit in Bulgaria in May 2018, prompting reports that a deal was close.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg praised the two prime ministers for their “willingness” to solve the dispute.

According to the schedule, Macedonia’s parliament is to back an agreement before EU leaders meet for a summit on 28 June. Then, Greece should send a letter to the EU and Nato, withdrawing its objection to accession talks. However, Mr Tsipras and Mr Zaev will have to face down opposition within their own countries as well as beyond, but it’s frankly difficult to see how another accord could work.

Against this backdrop, Skopje’s inclusion at the EU does not seem to be a fast track procedure, even if the name dispute will be resolved. NATO by its part though has already made clear that there is an open invitation for Skopje to become a part of the Alliance as soon as the agreement with Athens will be completed. For Athens that would mean that it would share its borders entirely with NATO members and perhaps raise its influence in the southern Balkans reassuming the role it had before the debt crisis.

Aris Bilinis

M.A. in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs, University of Bologna


References

Siani-Davies, Peter. International Intervention in the Balkans since 1995. Routledge, 2003.

Sokalski, Henryk J. An Ounce of Prevention Macedonia and the UN Experience in Preventive Diplomacy. United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003.

Ackermann, Alice. Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia. Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Bideleux, Robert, and Ian Jeffries. The Balkans: a Post-Communist History. Routledge, 2007.

Mulchinock, Niall. NATO and the Western Balkans: from Neutral Spectator to Proactive Peacemaker.