The Greek and Macedonian prime ministers, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, are being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize on the deal they reached in June regarding a new name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The two leaders have been working together for the past several months – through peaceful negotiations – to end a dispute that has lingered more than a quarter-century over whether or not FYROM can be referred to as Macedonia. The issue stems from the beginning of FYROM, when it emerged as an independent state in 1991 after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and created a new constitution that included irredentist references to a “Greater Macedonia.” The northern province in Greece that goes by the same name, Macedonia, would presumably be part of this potential expansion.
For years the two countries have been deadlocked. Greece has long demanded that FYROM change its name, blocking its northern neighbor from joining both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization until it does. FYROM, for its part, has refused to budge on the issue in the name of national interests. That is until Tsipras took the reigns of prime ministership in 2015 and Zaev in 2017. Zaev’s election replaced a nationalist prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, and his successor immediately decided to make rapprochement with Greece a priority in order to secure his country’s membership in the EU and NATO.
By January 2018, UN-mediated negotiations between the two countries had gotten underway and resulted in five potential new names for FYROM. High-level contacts between the two countries continued until mid-June when it was announced that the two sides had reached an agreement on the name the Republic of North Macedonia, which would be used for all purposes, one of the Greek conditions for resolving the dispute. An approval on both sides would pave the way for FYROM to enter some of the world’s strongest organisations.
Fast-forward to September, when the next stage in the process played out in a national referendum in FYROM for citizens to approve or disapprove of the name change – a vote that Zaev had promised from the beginning. More than 90 percent of votes cast favored the deal; but there was only around 40 percent participation from the general public – less than the 50 percent required for a referendum to be legally valid.
Still, Zaev has called the referendum result a success and vowed to move ahead with his plan on making the name change formal. Next, he needs a two-thirds majority support from parliament for amending the constitution in order to remove some of the irredentist language, and to get the bilateral name change deal ratified. He has also said he will call an early election if the amendments fail to pass parliament.
The Greek parliament must also give its stamp of approval in order for the deal to go through.
Only time will tell how this all plays out, but with such commitment from the leaders on both sides the odds look good that a deal will eventually be formalised – despite protestors in both countries who claim that their respective countries are giving up too much in the deal or not asking for enough from the other side.
The deal – if finalized – would come at a monumentally important moment in history for FYROM and the EU. With Brexit on the horizon and a wave of increasingly anti-EU parties coming to power throughout the region, the bloc is working to both hold itself together, and increase its numbers. FYROM’s potential accession would bolster the EU and also increase peace in the Southeast European neighborhood, a historically volatile region.
FYROM’s potential NATO membership would be a boon to the organisation and to maintaining peace in a neighborhood fraught with tensions between external actors, like Russia, and internal actors, like Serbia and Kosovo.
Regardless of whether Tsipras and Zaev are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week, the honour to even be considered is immense, and proves that the two have truly managed to lead two nations towards reconciliation, despite the uphill battle facing them both at home.