Mace­do­nia and Greece fail to re­solve bit­ter nam­ing dis­pute

The Guardian Australia - - World News - He­lena Smith in Athens

Govern­ments in Skopje and Athens have faced a fu­ri­ous back­lash as the chal­lenge of solv­ing one of the world’s most bit­ter diplo­matic feuds hit home just a day af­ter Mace­do­nia an­nounced it was will­ing to change its name.

Hours af­ter the two neighbours declar­ing they had reached a land­mark ac­cord that would see the tiny Balkan state re­name it­self the Re­pub­lic of North Mace­do­nia, the na­tion’s pres­i­dent re­fused point­blank to sign the deal.

“My po­si­tion is fi­nal and I will not yield to any pres­sure, black­mail or threats,” pres­i­dent Gjorge Ivanov, who is backed by the na­tion­al­ist op­po­si­tion, told a news con­fer­ence in Skopje.

The agree­ment had con­ceded far too much to Greece – even if its ul­ti­mate aim was the coun­try’s fu­ture mem­ber­ship of Nato and the EU, he said.

The back­lash came de­spite of­fi­cials in Brus­sels, Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton re­act­ing with un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm to the break­through. Speak­ing to Skai TV late Wednesday, Nato sec­re­tary gen­eral, Jens Stoltenberg wel­comed the ac­cord.

“I hope both coun­tries seize this op­por­tu­nity to solve this lon­grun­ning prob­lem,” he said of the deal due to be signed by the for­eign min­is­ters of both coun­tries this week­end. “This is re­ally an his­tor­i­cal agree­ment by [politi­cians] who have shown courage and great po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship.”

Greece has long ar­gued that the state’s name – adopted when it broke away from Yu­goslavia in 1991 – con­veys thinly dis­guised ir­re­den­tist

claims on its own north­ern prov­ince of Mace­do­nia.

The ap­pro­pri­a­tion of fig­ures as­so­ci­ated with an­cient Greek his­tory – not least Alexan­der the Great – had re­in­forced fears in a re­gion prone to shift­ing bor­ders.

But op­po­si­tion to the deal was also pro­nounced in Greece.

As in Skopje – where prime min­is­ter Zo­ran Zaev’s leftist coali­tion was ac­cused of lead­ing the coun­try to na­tional hu­mil­i­a­tion – prime min­is­ter Alexis Tsipras and his leftist Syriza party was also charged with sur­ren­der­ing cher­ished na­tional rights.

One news­pa­per ran a front-page graphic show­ing Tsipras, the Greek for­eign min­is­ter and pres­i­dent be­ing shot by fir­ing squad for trea­son.

The main op­po­si­tion con­ser­va­tive New Democ­racy party said it would sub­mit a vote of no-con­fi­dence in the gov­ern­ment on Friday.

The mo­tion will test the frag­ile unity of an ad­min­is­tra­tion that has seen Tsipras’ pro­gres­sive Syriza join forces with the small na­tion­al­ist Anel party.

“We are in a sit­u­a­tion that is un­prece­dented in Greece’s con­sti­tu­tional his­tory. A prime min­is­ter with­out a clear par­lia­men­tary man­date will­ing to com­mit the coun­try to a real­ity which will not be pos­si­ble to change,” said New Democ­racy’s leader Kyr­i­akos Mit­so­takis.

But in an in­ter­view on state TV, Tsipras in­sisted the deal would ben­e­fit the two coun­tries and the re­gion.

The tiny re­pub­lic might be known at the UN as the For­mer Yu­goslav Re­pub­lic of Mace­do­nia but in­ter­na­tion­ally 140 coun­tries had al­ready recog­nised it as Mace­do­nia, he said. From now on it would have a ge­o­graph­i­cal qual­i­fier and be called the Re­pub­lic of North Mace­do­nia in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“I think that is an im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ment to have that word in front of it when 140 coun­tries have recog­nised it other­wise,” he in­sisted.

“It is an agree­ment that in two words gives things to us … and it is not a hu­mil­i­tat­ing Ver­sailles agree­ment [for Skopje]. Even if we could, we would never have wanted that be­cause it would not have been vi­able.”

An­a­lysts pointed out that Ivanov’s ten­ure comes up for re­newal in April 2019 and his pow­ers as pres­i­dent are lim­ited.

“He can­not stop the deal but that is not to say he won’t give it a bloody good try,” said James Ker-- Lind­say, se­nior vis­it­ing fel­low at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics. “Ul­ti­mately this is go­ing to go to ref­er­en­dum – and it is go­ing to be the peo­ple who de­cide.

“The dis­pute has done so much dam­age to both coun­tries. What we now have is a fair and rea­son­able so­lu­tion and for a lot of or­di­nary peo­ple they will be pleased.”

Pho­to­graph: Joed­son Alves/EPA

‘My po­si­tion is fi­nal and I will not yield to any pres­sure, black­mail or threats,’ said the Mace­do­nian pres­i­dent, Gjorge Ivanov.

Pho­to­graph: Simela Pantzartzi/EPA

Kyr­i­akos Mit­so­takis, New Democ­racy party leader called the sit­u­a­tion ‘un­prece­dented in Greece’s con­sti­tu­tional his­tory’.

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