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Talking about Macedonia before Prespes

Kostas Katsanevas

December 4th, 2012

         This piece is an international legal assessment of the naming dispute between the Hellenic Republic and the FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia). Since 1991 this has been an ongoing bilateral and international issue that has not been resolved. The failure of resolution and its contributing factors, which led to serious international diplomatic exacerbation, will be analyzed. Put simply the entanglement’s main dispute can be defined as follows: Firstly, Greece opposes the use of the term Macedonia or any denomination thereof as it maintains the right to protect its history and heritage and further sees the use of this name as irredentist intentions claiming Greek territory.

Historical Context

            Geographically the term ‘Macedonia’ refers to a wider region extending into the current territory of various Balkan countries, with the largest part of the region belonging to Greece and smaller sections to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania. Nevertheless, the roots of this dispute go back to antiquity. The ambiguity, it seems, of the location and cultural background of the Kingdom of Macedon during the time of Alexander the Great circa. 323BC has brought the two contemporary nations at an impasse.

The modern Greek region of Macedonia relatively matches almost all of the contested ancient kingdom of Macedon, whereas the territory of present day FYROM corresponds to the kingdom of Paeonia, which was located north of ancient Macedonia. After its fall, the Roman empire followed by the Ottomans conquered the region of Ancient Macedon – that of Alexander and Philip.

Since then it has been renamed, remerged, combined and erased several times. The broader region of Macedonia, along with the rest of the Balkans was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and renamed as Rumelia. Borders became vague to the point of the Ilinden Uprising of 1903 where Greeks, Serbians and Bulgarians fought against the Ottomans. The state of conflict led to the Balkan wars in the aftermath of the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the division of its European territory.

Accordingly, competition emerged between Greeks and Bulgarians over the multiethnic region of Macedonia where Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria divided the region - Greece took that largest portion.Consequently after much conflict between the Balkan states The Treaty of London of 1913 placed contemporary FYROM into Serbia. WWI brought about new border shifts for this region making the present day Republic of Macedonia part of Bulgaria between 1915-1918.

            Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, Macedonian state building and development of national identity was under way. The ‘People’s Republic of Macedonia’ was established in 1946 and the issue of the republic’s name was born as it sparked immediate concerns over foreshadowed territorial claims over the Greek region of Macedonia just south of it. US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius in 1944 expressed concern stating, “This Government considers talk of ‘Macedonian Nation’, ‘Macedonian Fatherland’, or ‘Macedonian National Consciousness’ to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece”.

As a state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the republic’s name was changed to ‘Socialist Republic of Macedonia’ in 1963. In September 1991 the Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia yielding an approved vote of 96.4%[5]. This background is provided in order to obtain proper context and illustrate the lack of definitiveness of the borders of the Macedonian region as a whole as well as its evident vagueness to cultural claim.

            The collapse of Yugoslavia, like a catalyst, brought with it, among war and genocide, the re-emergence of Hellenic fear of irredentist intention by the Republic of Macedonia. Evidently, the events that followed 1989 had drastic effects on Greek relations with its Northern members. Originally, Greece supported the independence of the state but contested the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ because of its ethnically Greek origins and further opposed certain articles in its constitution rendering them as irredentist claims.

Adding insult to injury, FYROM appropriated the sun of Vergina, a symbol excavated from the tomb of king Philip of ancient Macedon in Northern Greece, pictured on their newly adopted flag in 1992. The European Commission (EC) and the European Union (EU) responded favorably for Greece in December of 1991 excluding the new state from recognition while during the Lisbon Summit of 1992 the EC reiterated under Annex II, Declaration on Former Yugoslavia that “it expresses its readiness to recognize that republic [FYROM] within its existing borders according to their Declaration on the 16 December 1991 under a name which does not include the term Macedonia”.

Furthermore, the compromise package (Pinheiro Package) organized by the Portuguese presidency, adding an adjective of ‘New’ to the name of Macedonia, resulted in rejection from both sides and a consequent unofficial oil embargo imposed on FYROM by Greece in 1992 further contributing to the discord. The dispute escalated to the highest form of international mediation when in April of 1993 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) admitted the new state under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in United Nations Security Council Resolution 817. The FYROM became the 181st member of the UN.

            By 1995 the atmosphere had improved and optimism arose that a consensus was coming. With help from Washington adoption of a ‘mini-package’ would lift the embargo under concession by FYROM to remove the star of Vergina from their flag and amend their constitution. Moreover, on December 16th 1993 six key EC members recognized the new state under its provisional name and by the end of that same month all EC members had recognized FYROM except for Greece. Under Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of states FYROM had the requirements to become an independent state.

Finally, on the 13 of September 1995 the Hellenic Republic and the FYROM formed a bilateral agreement in an Interim Accord under the auspices of the UN in New York.

Committed to the negotiations, the FYROM removed the controversial symbol of the Vergina Sun from their flag under the condition that the Hellenic Republic would not oppose any application to the further Euro-Atlantic integration trajectory of the FYROM under the condition that it used its provisional name following UNSC Resolution 817.

            The controversial impasse persisted and little to no advancement transpired in the resolution of the dispute until April 2004. This date marks a step forward for the FYROM’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory as The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) between the European Union and FYROM is signed. On the 16th of December of 2005 the EC recognizes FYROM as a candidate state for accession in the EU. Consequently, Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis warned repeatedly that Greece would veto any attempt of accession to the EU and NATO prior to resolution of the dispute.

Following this, FYROM foreign minister Antonio Milošosk replied that if Greece were to veto NATO accession any compromise to resolving the name dispute would be blocked. Tensions grew between Athens and Skopje, time was running out – NATO’s convention in Bucharest scheduled for the 4th of April was lurking. Stalemate – NATO’s Bucharest summit commenced and the Hellenic Republic presented its case for a non-invitation affectively vetoing the FYROM’s accession in NATO.

The compounding result led Skopje to take Greece to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) under the allegation that it violated its obligation set forth by the 1995 Interim Accord under Article 11. Skopje was referring to Greece’s agreement to not ‘object to the application by or the membership of the Party of the Second Part [FYROM] in international, multilateral and regional organizations and institutions of which the Party of the First Part is a member’. The ICJ concluded that “by objecting to the admission of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO, [Greece] has breached its obligation under Article 11, paragraph 1, of the Interim Accord of 13 September 1995”. Since then, talks have resumed but there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

International Legal Assessment

            Neutral assessment of the elements of the discord via the tools of international law can shed light on the issue and further establish a foundation towards greater peace and stability between the two states. Under the context provided it is clear that neither state is willing to yield to the other while a compromise to the dispute is also considered unlikely. For all intensive purposes of the neutrality of this research, the provisional term of the FYROM (Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia) will be used to define The Republic of Macedonia, in accordance with the Interim Accord of 1993 signed by both parties in New York under the auspices of the United Nations. The term Hellenic Republic and Greece are used interchangeably.

The Use of a Name

Greek understanding and perception for their use of the term ‘Macedonia’ follows historical, ethnological and geographical reasoning.  More specifically, according to Demetrius Andreas Floudas, an expert on EU integration policy, the term ‘Macedonia’ “is a Greek word and was used in antiquity to designate the area inhabited by the Macedonians, “the tall ones,” apparently on account of the distinguishing physical height of this tribe”. The use of the name itself by another state breaches the general principle of good neighborly relations, sovereignty and territorial integrity as it is considered a promotion of irredentist and territorial ambitions on the part of the FYROM by Greece.

Contrary to this, the FYROM’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement that one of its priorities is “absolute respect of the international law” and “enhancing neighboring relations and regional cooperation in the South–Eastern Europe" suggests otherwise. Moreover, Article 6 Paragraph 1 of the 1995 Interim Accord declares “that nothing in its [FYROM] Constitution, and in particular in the Preamble thereto or in Article 3 of the Constitution, can or should be interpreted as constituting or will ever constitute the basis of any claim by the Party of the Second Part to any territory not within its existing borders”.

Complimenting this argument, the award winning author and journalist Dusko Doder’s report in the Toronto Star in 1992 suggests that as a sign of good faith the FYROM has adopted some measure of good neighborly conduct - “Desperate to win international recognition and World Bank and EC assistance essential to their survival, the Macedonians promptly amended their new constitution in January to state that Macedonia had no territorial claims against its neighbors and that it would not interfere in their internal affairs”. However and on the contrary, Dr. Axel Sotiris Wallden, the former Counselor to the Greek Foreign Minister of Balkan Affairs (2000-2003) argues that the FYROM’s constitution in fact does maintain irredentist targets - “The Preamble [FYROM Constitution 1991] refers to ‘the statehood-legal traditions of the Krushevo Republic and the historical decisions’ of the 1944 ASNOM [some of which were clearly irredentist]”.

On the other side of the coin, the FYROM’s claim to the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ and all its denominations is derived from the idea that it stands as the only state situated inherently in Macedonian land. Therefore it is completely justified in its use of the term on a pure geographic basis. The FYROM has attempted several times to reiterate that it does not assume exclusive use of the term and that it will not interfere with the affairs of the Greek province of Macedonia. Its sole objective on the basis of the dispute, is to exercise its right of self-determination as underlined in Article 1(2) of the UN Charter relating to the development of “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace”.

Claiming History

            The side of the Hellenic Republic contends that there is a deeper underlying cause of the impasse – the appropriation of Hellenic historical symbols, national identity and cultural heritage to the alleged FYROM identity, considered of paramount provocation for Greece. Macedonian Greeks classify themselves as descendants of ancient Macedonians culturally identifying as ‘Macedonians’. What holds true it seems, is that the FYROM government has not in fact acted in full accordance with its own constitution.

Article 8 under Basic Provision its constitution, declares the state’s absolute respect for the generally accepted norms of international law, which in turn includes good neighborly relations. Consequently, the national elections of 2006 marked a victory for the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) under the presidency of Nikola Gruevski who immediately pursued a policy of “Antiquisation”. This policy raised statues of Alexander the Great in Skopje, named its international airport after him and further continued to pursue nationalistic intensions that further invigorated the Hellenic Republic. Its Foreign Ministry followed with an official complaint to authorities in the Republic of Macedonia.

Moreover, these actions extend to violate the Greek individual right to cultural life as stated in Part III Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1976. This international covenant further emphasizes that the steps to be taken for the full realization of this and other culture-based rights include “those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture”. Its implication extends justification for all destabilization policies the Hellenic Republic has undertaken against the FYROM since the elapsed time of the dispute in 1991. On the other hand, the constitution of the FYROM declares as one of its fundamental values under Article 8 of Basic Provisions the free expression of national identity. For all intensive purposes then, the FYROM can rationalize the Gruevski administration’s ‘Antiquasation’ policy as falling under its constitutional rights rendering Greek claims void.

EU & NATO Veto

After the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008 the likelihood of future negotiations seemed bleak. In turn, the FYROM’s formalized proceedings against the Hellenic Republic to the ICJ were a fruitless endeavor. Although the court found Greece guilty it did not refrain it from repeating its actions in the future. The article in question justified the FYROM’s allegation as its declaration was mentioned earlier. However the alleged violation is conditional to Paragraph 2 of the United Nations Security Council resolution 817 (1993) which “Recommends to the General Assembly that the State whose application is contained in document S/25147 be admitted to membership in the United Nations, this State being provisionally referred to for all purposes within the United Nations as ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ pending settlement of the difference that has arisen over the name of the State”. This suggests that since the dispute is still pending settlement the FYROM cannot enter into any organization of which Greece is a member.  

In addition, as stated by the European Council Lisbon Summit of 1992 for the likely development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), the CFSP implies with the aim of achieving the objectives set out in Article J.1.2 – the systematic cooperation between member states in the conduct of policy on any matter of foreign policy or security policy of general interest. In light of these two arguments, Greece is justified in vetoing FYROM accession into NATO and the EU due to the formalities of their internal structure.

Nevertheless the FYROM can claim the argument that this is another form of deliberate interference by Greek destabilizing policies that contravene Article 2 (3) of the Charter of the United Nations that states as a principle the preservation of international justice.

For the FYROM this dispute is of paramount importance not only in influencing its foreign policy but also in defining its independence and European status. Thus the Hellenic Republic intended destabilizing policies prevent FYROM integration in the global community and act as a counterproductive measure that impedes many of the FYROM’s constitutional provisions. Yet the Greek initiative Hellenic Plan for the Economic Reconstruction of the Balkans (HiPERB) 2002-2011, suggests that Greece is compliant to assist FYROM in its Europeanization trajectory. It has funded over 74,000,000 euros allocated from its Gross National Income (GNI) as it aims to “carrying out big-scale infrastructure projects, strengthening private initiatives and bolstering cooperation between the countries of our [Balkan] region. 

Concluding Remarks

Twenty-one years after it resurfaced, the naming dispute between the Hellenic Republic and the FYROM remains to date inconclusive. Apparently, the highest forms of international intervention have not been competent enough to put the unyielding conflict to its knees. It is of no surprise then, that this dispute has not been resolved – its legacy is one sought after prize – and has lasted for millennia.  The dispute in its contemporary state, lies on ownership of the Macedonian identity and has been greatly exaggerated by nationalist fervor.

Although there are some positive signs of prospective change in the stalemate, history prophesizes a one step forward two step back track for the entangled states, and unfortunately, its bound to repeat itself. Nevertheless, appraisal of the situation under the unbiased nature of the international network sphere remains the most effective way of settling any dispute along peaceful lines. The Hellenic Republic and the FYROM must continue to negotiate in good faith with the help of the international community.


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