On September 30th 2018, Macedonian citizens will vote in a referendum on the change in the country’s name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia. The referendum is intended to affirm a bilateral agreement achieved earlier this year between Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers.
Ever since it became independent from former Yugoslavia in late 1991, Macedonia has been engaged in a dispute with its southern neighbor Greece over the country’s constitutional name. Athens believes that the name Macedonia is both appropriation of Greek cultural heritage and a potential territorial pretension to the Greek territory of the same name. This has led Greece to block Macedonia’s path towards NATO and the EU, and forced Macedonia to use the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in international forums. However, the referendum is relevant not just for the sake of the deal, but also for the wider region.
When the international community talks about potential hotspots in the Balkans, they usually talk about Bosnia or Kosovo. What many experts miss is the fact for more than one hundred years, Macedonia has been in the heart of regional geopolitics. Macedonia is the geographic heart of the Balkans, bordering Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Albania. Macedonia also controls the river Vardar which connects with Serbian Great Morava river. The valley formed by the two rivers is the corridor through which Central Europe and the Balkans connect through to the Aegean Sea. Local nations were aware of this in their own twentieth century rivalries. The key battles of the First Balkan Wars (1912-1913), in which Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece formed the Balkan League in order to expel Ottoman Turkey from the Balkans, by no accident took place in Macedonia. The Second Balkan War in 1913 occurred because of a Serbo-Bulgarian spat over their borders in Macedonia. The Bulgarian war efforts against Serbia and Yugoslavia in the two World Wars concerned Macedonia. The disputes that Tito’s Yugoslavia had with Greece, Bulgaria and Albania (25 percent of Macedonia’s population is Albanian) also prominently featured Macedonia.
When Yugoslavia was collapsing, one of the main reasons that Macedonian independence did not result in conflict was because many prominent thinkers (including Henry Kissinger) were awacoere that a war there could easily flare into something much bigger, something that could potentially suck in Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, and even Turkey. These concerns, coupled with lessons learned from foot-dragging through the worst of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, led to the deployment in 1995 of a very effective conflict prevention mission, the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP). Unfortunately, the mandate of this mission ended in 1999 when China vetoed the extension of its mandate to punish Macedonia for its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. Conflict followed soon thereafter, when in 2001 Macedonian Albanians armed with weaponry smuggled from their compatriots in Kosovo launched an insurgency against Macedonian security forces. The conflict came to an end with the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which provided more autonomy at the local level for the Albanian population, as well as guaranteeing certain language rights. The conflict highlighted the fragility of Macedonia. While Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Croats have a history of fighting, they also have a long history of coexistence, as they are divided by religion but still speak the same language, broadly draw on the same South Slavic culture, and share many local customs. In Macedonia, the Slavic, Orthodox Macedonians, and most Muslim Albanians are divided by ethnicity, language, and religion.
Macedonia’s relations with its neighbors also carried a sense of unease. Kiro Gligorov, the first president of independent Macedonia, once stated that Macedonia is surrounded by “four wolves”—Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia. The relationship with Albania was fraught because of the Macedonia’s large, at times restive, Albanian minority. Serbia recognized both Macedonia under its constitutional name and the Macedonian nation, but it does not recognize the independence of Macedonia’s Orthodox Church. Bulgaria was the first to recognize Macedonia as a state, but refused to recognize the Macedonian nation and the Macedonian language (although this dispute has mellowed significantly due to the friendship treaty the two countries signed in 2017).
But the relationship that has burdened Macedonia the most was the name dispute with Greece. Though it was initially a champion of EU expansion in the region due to its being the first Balkan country to conclude negotiations in 2001, Greece dug in its heels over Macedonia’s EU bid. Macedonia’s path to NATO was also blocked at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 by Athens. From that point forward, Macedonia has existed in a kind of limbo. Nikola Gruevski, Macedonia’s Prime Minister between 2006 and 2016, seized on the impasse to stoke nationalism among his backers. He actively promoted narratives about the ancient Macedonian nation that drew its roots from the legacy of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian capital of Skopje is now overflowing with kitschy statues evoking Greek motifs—a grotesque testament to Gruevski’s relentless drive to irritate Athens.
Under Gruevski, Macedonia’s democracy markedly regressed, with the government exercising stringent control over the judiciary and media, and its intelligence services becoming notorious for surveilling just about everyone. Ethnic tensions within the country also made a comeback in 2015 when 22 people were killed in a confrontation between Macedonian police forces and alleged Albanian terrorists. Internationally, Gruevski strengthened ties with Russia, Turkey and China, while domestically, he built a formidable patronage machine that helped keep his hold on power.
That era ended in 2017 when Albanian parties, who used to support Gruevski’s VMRO-DPMNE, jumped ship and formed a government with the opposition Social-Democrats, who in turn promised to grant official status to the Albanian language. Macedonian Albanians showed a good deal of pragmatism during the tense negotiations during government formation, especially while Gruevski and his partisans threatened violence. They staked out a pro-Western position while publicly distancing themselves from the kind of Albanian irredentism that has been a feature of their politics for decades. The resulting government immediately capitalized on the moment, moving to grant the Albanians their desiderata. It also actively began pursuing talks with Athens and finally signed an agreement over the name earlier this year.
While it might seem overdramatic to predict Macedonia descending into chaos in case the referendum fails, a “no” vote would put the country back in the kind of domestic and international limbo that led to the flourishing of Gruevski’s grubby kleptocracy. And given that expectations have been raised, a failure could portend further polarization and splintering along political and ethnic lines. The logic that kept Kissinger awake still applies today. Albania may be tempted to boost the irredentism among its countrymen; Turkey, which likes to see itself as a key player in the region (and generally finds it hard not to take positions that make life more difficult for Athens), could also get involved; Greece, Bulgaria, and even Serbia may be tempted to play as well. A full-blown third Balkan War may be unlikely, but a roiling cauldron of intrigue, instability, and bursts of political violence, often fomented from outside, is all too easy to imagine.
The international community and the Macedonian government appear to be aware of the dangers. The Macedonian Parliament set the following referendum question: “Are you in favor of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?” The change in the country’s name is thus tied to its Euro-Atlantic integration, creating a strong incentive for voters, who still strongly support joining the West, to vote yes on a difficult question.
For that very same purpose, the European Union started a pre-accession screening process for Macedonia three days before the referendum. Numerous high ranking Western officials including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence have expressed support for the name change. Let us hope Macedonia’s citizens will do the same. It sure beats testing the validity of worst-case scenarios.