What’s in a name?

Dünya Executive - - COVER PAGE - Ilter TURAN Columnist

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.

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