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Greek - North Macedonian Relations: It’s not just about the name

Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the country which is now formally known as North Macedonia has set its goals in joining the EU after successfully applying and being admitted into NATO. However, their efforts may not bear fruits, if their rhetoric, which is dissociated with political reality, will not change.

The new president of the country, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, started off her term on the wrong foot, violating and disrespecting the 2018 Prespa Agreement by referring to her country as “Macedonia” and not as North Macedonia. This diplomatic incident had an immediate response from the Greek Foreign Ministry, which categorically condemned the incident, indicating a fierce opposition to any future talks of North Macedonia joining the EU, if the Prespa Agreement is not respected. Similarly, Christian Mitsoski, leader of the centre-right nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, has repeatedly insisted that he will call his country however he wants, following the footsteps of Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova. The nerve of Mr. Mitsoski did not stop there, as he pointed out that if Greece had any belief that they violated the Prespa Agreement, they should appeal to the International Court of Justice

In my opinion, these untactful statements from both political personas serve only as provocations against Greece, jeopardising the achievements that were made years ago with the Prespa Agreement. By sacrificing a minor detail that would be displayed internationally, the Prespa Agreement successfully resolved numerous problems between the two countries. The term North Macedonia managed to strike down any unreal expansionist politics and bring to a temporary halt the animosity between both countries. The people residing in North Macedonia have zero connection to Alexander the Great of Macedonia or the Macedonian language. This is also indicated in specific articles of the agreement. This was a major historical victory for Greece, not only because the agreement was validated internationally, but most importantly, the agreement stopped any delusions of North Macedonia to expand its ultra-nationalistic ideas of a great homeland that spread all over North Greece, parts of Albania and Bulgaria.

However, we see that five years later, agreements seem to be broken for the sake of a few votes. In these peculiar times, it is important for Greece to do two things. First of all, Greece must solve this problem alone. Running for help to Berlin or Washington, as many Greek politicians wish to do, will only reflect badly for the country. It will show that Greece has zero self-respect and cannot abide by its own decisions. North Macedonia needs Greece in order to even be considered joining the EU. That needs to be understood by the Greek political elite, who seem to be unable to grasp the reality of the situation. There is no need to ask for external help when you have the upper hand, otherwise Greece will be perceived as weak, something that contributes to Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ diplomatic downfall. 

Second, Greece needs to suppress the inner voices inside the Greek Parliament that ask for a suspension of the Prespa Agreement. These populist voices feed on the anger of people but produce zero results. Instead, they prefer ten minutes of political spotlight rather than providing solutions. If the Prespa Agreement somehow is cancelled, then automatically North Macedonia can use any name it wants and it can alter its history as it has done numerous times. The Prespa Agreement is a binding contract between the two states recognized internationally. The best approach for Greece right now would be to apply political and economic pressure to North Macedonia. That means, no talks or even consideration for North Macedonia to join the EU, no Greek investments in the country and higher tariffs on products imported from it. North Macedonia cannot survive this kind of pressure and soon their rhetoric will have to change and adapt to the political reality that was set years ago with the internationally recognized agreement they made with Greece.

In the North Macedonian dilemma, Greece doesn’t need help, it needs experienced politicians dedicated to realpolitik. North Macedonia can become an EU member, which as a result will bear economic and political gains for the country. Greece can be a part of that and demonstrate its ability to resolve situations diplomatically and peacefully. However, the populist revisionist voices coming from both states cannot help resolve the problem. In the end, for both Greece and North Macedonia, sticking to the original Prespa Agreement and letting go of the political rhetoric of populism will only have benefits. To build a better future, one has to focus on the present and let go of the past, otherwise we would be doomed to stay in a political loop of accusations, false claims and bitter animosity. That is something that does not fit in the preservation of EU values, of democratic structures and peaceful coexistence.

Image: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC


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