On Tuesday evening it was announced that the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, had struck an historic agreement over the future name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). For the past 27 years, the two countries have been at loggerheads over FYROM’s irredentist references contained in both its name and constitution. If ratified, this agreement will have significant implications for both countries as well as the EU at large.
The speed at which this announcement has been made is truly remarkable. Speculation has been rife over the past year that a deal between Macedonia and Greece might be within reach. Nevertheless, the fact that this dispute has lingered on for almost three decades inspired a cautious outlook amongst Southern European observers.
The first move towards an accord was made back in January when Macedonia decided to rename its airport. Previously, it had referenced Alexander the Great, which was a sore point for Greeks due to the fact that Alexander the Great had ruled an ancient Greek territory also known as Macedonia. Optimism was further heightened when Tsipras and Zaev held bilateral talks at the EU Summit in Bulgaria last month. Most recently, it was reported that the two had spoken over the phone this past Monday and Tuesday.
What exactly does the deal entail? Most importantly it includes an agreement over the future name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. After tossing out alternatives such as Gorna Makedonija (Upper Macedonia) and Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia), the two leaders agreed on the Slavic name of Severna Makedonija, which translates into English as the Republic of North Macedonia. Of particular significance is the fact that the new name will be used both domestically and internationally.
This agreement is likely to pave the way towards FYROM achieving membership in key international organizations. Previously, Greece had blocked Macedonia’s EU membership ambitions. Shortly after the announcement was made, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat, and EU Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, issued a joint statement saying, “We now look forward to the [European] Council endorsing our recommendation of 17 April to open accession negotiations with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in June”. Similarly, it is also expected that the country will be invited to join Nato.
Taken together, this a positive development for both the EU and FYROM. The country will be able to access the support and clout that comes with membership in both the EU and Nato. For the EU, this will be seen as confirmation of its commitment to ongoing expansion. Additionally, it is hoped that FYROM’s membership in the EU and Nato will contain any ambitions Russia may have in the Balkans.
From Greece’s perspective, this agreement effectively buries any irredentist references that could undermine Greece’s sovereign integrity. Speaking on Tuesday, Tsipras stated that “the Agreement achieves a clear separation between Greek Macedonia and our Northern Neighbours and puts a final end to the irredentism of their current Constitutional name.”
The deal will also enable Greece to turn its attention towards more pressing diplomatic concerns. Specifically, tension has been rising between Greece and its southern neighbour, Turkey. Indeed, earlier this month, Turkish F-16 fighter jets were seen entering Greek airspace. This gesture was made in response to Greece’s decision to release eight Turkish officers from pre-trial detention. The officers have been accused of participating in the failed 2016 coup in Turkey.
While this deal is a huge step forward, it still has a couple of hurdles to pass before it will become official. Tsipras and Zaev are set to meet this weekend to sign the agreement along the border between their two countries. The hope is that the Macedonian parliament will agree to the text so that Greece can then send a letter before the EU Council meeting on June 28th outlining its change of heart over FYROM’s membership in the EU and Nato.
However, the biggest challenge to the implementation of this deal will occur later this year. It is expected that a referendum will be held in the FYROM over the proposed name change. This will be followed by a ratification in the Greek parliament. Nationalists on both sides of the border are expected to campaign strongly in opposition to the agreement, having previously organised protests against any compromise.
The prospect of a truce between Greece and FYROM is now in sight. If, in the coming months, everything goes according to plan, the region could find itself in a stronger, more united position than it has been in over a generation.