What’s in a name?
A name change for Macedonia is causing geopolitical headaches.
Why does it matter?
Some of the most intriguing moments in international politics play out behind the veneer of seemingly banal events. Last week, Macedonians failed to get enough voters to vote in a referendum over changing the name of their country to North Macedonia. It was not simply a question of disinterest: the name change carries with it huge geopolitical consequences and the battle over it has become another example of how the world order is shifting. What’s behind the controversy?
►So really th s comes down to add ng a s ngle word – “North” – to Macedon a. Why s t so mportant?
It is a rather interesting case that the name of a country has become a topic of negotiation. When the Yugoslav federation broke up into its component units and Macedonia became independent, the government of Greece of the time said that Macedonia was actually a part of Greece. Therefore, a neighboring country taking the same name would simply be stealing the name of a Greek province; and they would not recognize this country. Instead, they referred to it as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, which is a somewhat unusual way of naming a country. Unfortunately however, the debate did not remain simply as an emotional outburst on the part of the Greeks, it had repercussions throughout the world because Greece is a member of the EU and NATO. It has the power of vetoing new members in both organizations, thus standing in the way of integrating Macedonia into western economic and security structures. This problem has been around for decades. Finally, the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, reached an agreement with the Macedonian government that the country could be named North Macedonia. Even then, there was a strong reaction among Greek and Macedonian nationalists. In the end, the Greek government ratified the agreement while in Macedonia the decision necessitated a referendum. It was expected right up until last week that the Macedonians would accept the new name. In order for the outcome to be valid, however, 50 percent of voters had to participate in the poll. In the end, only 37 percent cast their votes and a clearcut majority of those voting favored the change. So, although the change has been approved, the vote is not valid.
►It seems so s lly. Why s th s so mportant for the Greeks?
It seems that this is more of an emotional response, something that we observe in small states in international politics. Small states often possess a strong sense of insecurity irrespective of the prevailing conditions that sometimes manifests itself in unreasonable behavior as in the case of the Macedonia problem. Behind this thinking is the Megalo Idea, popular among some Greek nationalist circles, that any place that historically belonged to Greece should be Greek. Second, these circles also perceive the name as a threat. If a country with the name Macedonia exists, it might at some point put forth claims on the Greek province of Macedonia. The whole thing appears to be unreasonable. If Macedonia joins the EU and NATO, it would pose even less of a territorial threat to Greece. We have to understand, however, that we are dealing not with facts but a psychology that is sometimes observed among small and not particularly strong states.
Unintentionally, this matter has become truly international. The debate about the name, because it relates to Macedonia’s relationship with Europe and the western defense community, sets the stage for a struggle between the western alliance and the Russian Federation. During the Cold War, the Russians enjoyed a very strong presence in the Balkans. Then, some of these countries such as Slovenia and Croatia became members of the EU. Serbia is negotiating and if it joins the EU, the Russians will have even less influence in the region. They don’t want to let go of Macedonia to the western alliance. During the referendum campaign, a rather interesting set of developments took place. Greece declared two Russian diplomats personae non grata apparently because they were instigating the Greek nationalists to oppose the agreement.
►There’s an obv ous nat onal st element at play here. Russ a, and
Put n n part cular, represents th s new k nd of nat onal sm we’re see ng r s ng around the world. Could t be that Ts pras s worr ed about th s nat onal st trend n Greece?
Obviously, these developments have very strong domestic components; and in turn, these domestic components have influence on international politics. Tsipras’s government has an ultranationalist organization as a partner so it was a considerable act of courage and reasonableness on behalf of Mr. Tsipras to take the risk of negotiating a solution to the name problem. But now, with this sort of outcome, I wouldn’t be surprised if the nationalists in Greece say, “See, the nationalists in Macedonia are more nationalist than us, so we should be at least as strongly nationalist as them. Tsipras was wrong in agreeing to the name change.” In this way, the whole thing may become an issue of national contestation among political actors in Greece. Of course, the rise of extreme nationalism is present in many other countries as well. This period of nationalism is going to enliven a number of old problems or exacerbate some of that already exist in various parts of the world.
►You’re n Mex co C ty r ght now attend ng a conference on democracy n Lat n Amer ca. Are these k nds of nat onal st ssues cropp ng up there as well?
The central concern here is democracy. Populist movements tend to use the instruments of democracy to achieve power but they then use that power to undermine democracy. Often, they are against the limitations placed on power that democratic systems impose on governments. They want the executive branch to be stronger; they want the judiciary and legislators to be supportive of the executive. It seems that in a number of Latin American countries the populist movements are rising and threatening democracies.
►We see th s all the way from Greece to Braz l: governments react ng to these popul sts. We ne ther can gnore or confront them. What can we do?
They are becoming stronger and legitimate because the ordinary right wing parties feel obliged to incorporate some radical nationalist items on their agendas so as not to lose votes to right wing populists. On top of that, if there is a fragmentation of the vote, some right-wing populists become partners of coalition governments or candidates for partnership. We are faced with a universal problem and I’m afraid I’m not in a position to offer any wisdom on how it can be solved at this particular time.