A “national position” on Macedonia’s name and identity?
The government of Macedonia is preparing the public for an attempted change of Macedonia’s name and identity.
Last week Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonian foreign minister and former negotiator on the issue of Macedonia’s name and identity, gave an interview to Reuters on the sidelines of the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste. He touched on Macedonia’s positon with respect to Bulgaria which has demanded that Macedonia sign a “good neighborly relations” agreement. But his most revealing remarks can be found at the end of the article with respect to Macedonia’s name and identity. Dimitrov explained that Macedonia must have a “process” to arrive at a “national position” on the issue. Here’s the exact quote: “Asked if Macedonia would one day be open to changing its name, Dimitrov said: ‘It’s a very complex issue that involves emotions and identity. For us, to tackle the issue, we need to have a process that will create a national position on the issue. There will definitely be a referendum.’”
Let’s first review the Greek position. Greek Prime Minister Tsipras said as recently as last week that the name issue must be resolved before Macedonia can receive an invitation to join NATO or the EU. And the Greek position is well-known. Macedonia, listed under the capital letter “T” on the Greek Foreign Ministry website’s page on bilateral relations with other countries, states that “A compound name with a geographical qualifier for use in relations to everyone (erga omnes)” is “the best possible basis for finding an honest, mutually beneficial compromise.” The geographical qualifier would need to be placed before the word “Macedonia,” and “erga omnes” is Latin for “towards all” meaning everyone, including Macedonia. And last week Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias also chimed in and emphasized Greece’s hard line position telling Euractive “The problem with Skopje is not that it has one or another opinion. The problem is something that Europe itself needs to understand. Europe must “educate”, in the good sense, Skopje’s leadership to the concept of political compromise and the culture of political consensus. When I became Minister of Foreign Affairs, I told all sides that in the way ‘you spoil them’, not only do they not behave properly to us, but they will apply the same concept of politics domestically.” No amount of nice words and fawning statements will overcome an attitude like that.
Next, let’s unpack Dimitrov’s statement. While it is true that it involves emotions and identity, it’s not terribly complex: Macedonia has a name and an identity. That’s quite simple. All countries and peoples do, unless you reject your own identity and call yourself a “citizen of the world” as many of the global elite do. But what troubles me — a non-Macedonian — and what should, frankly, trouble all Macedonians, is his assertion that there will be a “process that will create a national position on the issue.” There are a number of problems with this statement and a number of ways in which the SDSM-led government could “tackle” (his words) this issue.
Now, we know that Macedonia’s Albanians are not wedded to the name “Macedonia” nor the identity so it is vital to remember that the Albanian political parties in coalition with the SDSM-led government are demanding a say in any negotiations over Macedonia’s name. The Tirana Platform clearly states, in point number five, “Resolution of the name issue, in conformity with European values and the principles of international law.” Under that point it further states “Adoption of a Joint Binding Resolution in the Assembly of the Republic of Macedonia which shall oblige the Government of Macedonia to commit to actively work toward a solution to the name dispute,” and “Inclusion of Albanians in the working group for direct negotiations with Greece.” So if we look back at Dimitrov’s statement, this “process” then would involve Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian leaders who demand to be involved but who want the issue resolved “in conformity with European values and the principles of international law.” This is where it gets tricky as “conformity with European values and the principles of international law” can be construed as meaning just about anything they want it to mean. And I promise you — they will make it mean whatever they want it to mean if that means changing the name and identity in order to receive invites into NATO and the EU — and the Western embassies (some, at least) will back them up on this. At the same time however, what they seem to forget — what many seem to forget or ignore — is that there are other minorities in Macedonia who do enjoy living as Macedonians and in Macedonia. Their voices must be heard and they too must have a say.
At the same time we also need to take into account the fact that Zoran Zaev gave President Ivanov written guarantees that his new government would not do anything to jeopardize Macedonia’s sovereignty, unitary character, or territorial integrity. In my opinion, forcing a people to change the name of their country and their identity is tantamount to violating their sovereignty. Though that is not the way it will be sold to the Macedonian people. The government and Western embassies will tell you that you simply have a choice, that you are not being forced. The government and Western embassies will tell you the following: to be fully European, and to be fully a part of Europe “whole, free and at peace,” you must be in these institutions. But this too, is false and plenty of true Europeans do not belong to one or the other or both organizations.
So, creating and agreeing to a “national position” on the issue, assumedly, is going to involve the government, the opposition, all of civil society (not just some), the citizens, MANU, and others. But if this goes forward it should not involve the foreign embassies and their ambassadors and especially not my government represented by the American Embassy and ambassador. The Trump Doctrine, laid out in President Trump’s inaugural speech includes the truism that “it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.” Another part of the Trump Doctrine was enunciated on his first foreign trip when he told the world “We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” For the Trump Doctrine to hold true, the American Embassy in Macedonia and the ambassador, at the very least, should stay out of this discussion.
This “process” that Dimitrov speaks of could involve any number of scenarios and the foreign minister — indeed the prime minister — should explain what that process involves. But let’s make this rather simple:
-Current polling of Macedonia’s citizens reveals that they want to join NATO and the EU though the percentages, over time, have been dropping. This drop worries the West. Those same polls show, however, that Macedonians do not want to join either organization at the price of changing their name and identity.
-The Greek position demands that Macedonia change its name and identity in order for Greece to remove its veto on NATO membership or the opening of accession talks with the EU.
-The foreign minister has committed the country to a “process” to “create a national position.”
-That can only mean one thing: a campaign by the government, likely aided and abetted by the Western embassies, in an attempt to change Macedonia’s name and identity. It may be couched in “national security” terms meaning that if Macedonia does not right now get into these institutions that the national security of the country is at risk and threatened, along with regional stability. However, this is demonstrably false and the evidence is the past 25 years. Yes, Macedonia has faced crises, but never because of its name or identity.
At this point the Macedonian public should be asking the Macedonian government — daily — some tough questions: What, exactly, will this process consist of? Who will be involved? What is the goal — to come to a national, unified, position? Will you be holding a referendum and if so, when? What is the nature of that referendum?
It’s important to remember that the previous government led by VMRO-DPMNE knew that Macedonia could not get into the EU or NATO unless it changed its name and identity or the Greeks changed their position because Macedonia prevailed in arguing its case (see below). At the same time, VMRO-DPMNE has been and continues to be pro-Western and wants to see Macedonia in both NATO and the EU. It is a historical fact that VMRO-DPMNE, a pro-Western, pro-free market political party, was the first political party in Macedonia to call for membership in both organizations, long before SDSM did. The party clearly enunciated the benefits of being in both organizations and worked actively to open up Macedonia to EU benefits. At the same time, the party is the historical protector of Macedonia’s name, identity, and sovereignty and cannot allow Macedonia to be humiliated, so governments under VMRO-DPMNE leadership continued the goal of pressing forward on NATO and EU membership, but were not willing to prostrate the country before Greece. And they did this using the tools at their disposal in an attempt to bring justice — reminding the international community about Greece’s obligations toward Macedonia under the 1995 Interim Accord and the result of the lawsuit Macedonia filed against Greece at the International Court of Justice — Greece lost that case and yet refuses to abide by the decision of the court.
The new government of SDSM, the successor to the Communist Party and together with their newly invigorated ethnic Albanian allies is willing to give up Macedonia’s name and identity, because, as is historically true, they (SDSM leadership) are not necessarily wedded to identities or names while Macedonia’s Albanians don’t care much about the name or identity. And this is what the Western embassies have wanted all along because for them, at least, they have been embarrassed and frustrated in having a partner, Greece, in the EU and NATO that insists on its ridiculous and childish position whose collective mind they cannot change. So it is Macedonia that must change, according to them.
The question Macedonians are going to have to answer for themselves if and when a referendum comes up is: what price are you willing to pay for entrance into the EU, an institution whose very existence is questionable and NATO, an organization whose sole raison d’être is to protect its members from outside threats? Macedonia does not face external threats — her neighbors are, in all likelihood, not going to invade and so ultimately, there is no need to join because of outside threats.
Are you willing to give up Macedonia’s constitutional name? The constitutional name of Macedonia — Република Македонија/Republika Makedonija in Cyrillic and Latin, and Republic of Macedonia in English — must remain. There is no need whatsoever to change Macedonia’s constitution even though the Greeks demand it. Likewise, passports and any other official documents issued by the Government of Macedonia must remain with that name both on and in them. The constitutional name, quite obviously, must stay. Similarly, in bilateral relations with Macedonia, most of the world uses that name. The United Kingdom, for instance, states “Republic of Macedonia. This is the name used by the state itself and is used by the UK for all bilateral purposes,” this according to the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names. But even if the constitutional name remained, the Greeks would work overtime to pressure every other country to recognize, in their bilateral relations, the “new” name.
We don’t know what form of question — or questions — will be asked in such a referendum. We don’t know if the government will offer the people this referendum and will consider it binding or merely consultative. But even if the government proposes a referendum that keeps Macedonia’s constitutional name intact, there is then the issue of what Macedonia would be called internationally. Remember, any agreement to change the name will be adopted by the United Nations which will then recommend that all other countries and international institutions accept it.
And then there’s the issue of identity. Are you willing to give up your identity? A major problem arises when it comes to the adjectival use of “Macedonia” — if this is not addressed in any final agreement between Macedonia and Greece, the United Nations and its various bodies will develop their own — and they will then “encourage” the rest of the world to adopt these. You will either become known as “a citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia” (or whatever the name might be) or, even more likely knowing the Greeks, “a northerner” or some such nonsense. Whatever it is, the Greeks will continue to put international pressure on you so that you are never called Macedonians, for the simple fact that they don’t recognize you as Macedonians and cannot abide the rest of the world recognizing you as Macedonians.
Right now, as the issue heats up once again, there is renewed interest from many quarters. The European Stability Initiative, a think-tank whose major start-up funding came from George Soros and his Open Society Foundation network is now re-floating, on social media and in policy circles, an old proposal of theirs from 2012 titled, “Breaking the Macedonian deadlock” which proposes, among other things, “RM changes its constitution to say something like this: ‘From the day the Republic of Macedonia joins the European Union, the international name of the country will be XYZ, used erga omnes in all languages other than the official languages of the country.’” Bizarrely, if not gratuitously, the authors then suggest “Leaders in RM replace one name their citizens do not like (referring to a state that has disappeared decades ago, Yugoslavia) with another name they do not like, both used in the same way.” Expect to see more of this rubbish in the coming months from others who want to dictate to you your name and identity.
But there is one more, final issue to be discussed: the indisputable fact that Greece is wrong, both legally, and morally. The pressure is all on Macedonia and forcing Macedonia into a false choice of its name and identity or membership in the EU and NATO proves this — Macedonia should be able to retain its name and identity and join, without hindrance, if it meets all of the other requirements, institutions of its choosing. Greece is the only country on planet earth that disputes Macedonia’s name and identity. It has already been clearly established that bilateral disputes (and this, in my estimation, is really a unilateral dispute) should have no bearing on Macedonia’s entrance into either the EU or NATO. In this, both the EU and NATO have failed, and failed spectacularly. But their moral and legal failings should not prevent Macedonia from taking its rightfully earned seat at the table.
Therefore, shouldn’t the Macedonian Government be working to put pressure on Greece? There appears to be absolutely no push-back from them. Dimitrov has failed to push the issue of the ICJ ruling in Macedonia’s favor and the issue of the 1995 Interim Accord in which Greece pledged not to block Macedonia’s membership in international organizations if Macedonia applies under the provisional and temporary reference (and this is important because so many media outlets, politicians and others get it wrong: the current reference used in the United Nations is just that — a reference and not a name. And it is provisional, meaning “for the present.” And it is “for purposes within the United Nations” meaning it is not obligatory for other countries or institutions).
The current strategy of the government, it appears, is all nice words and agreeing to agreements Macedonia never asked for. The government wants to portray itself as reasonable and as a good guy, as opposed to the former government which it has worked hard to portray as a bunch of troglodytes. In presenting itself this way, and in using kind words and pleasant rhetoric, it hopes to win the favor of Greece (and Bulgaria) and change their minds about their positions toward Macedonia. The problem with this strategy is that the current governments of Greece and Bulgaria, and all past governments, as well as much of the elite and intelligentsia (and not too few of the citizenry), won’t buy into this for one simple reason: they do not believe that a Macedonian people exist. Therefore they must do whatever they can to eradicate these so-called Macedonians. This is why, especially in the case of Greece, they will insist on a name change before there is any talk of lifting their veto. And now that Dimitrov has said “there will definitely be a referendum” why should Greece change its position?
There are, of course, other options. There are numerous countries in Europe not in the EU or not in NATO. Granted they are ahead of Macedonia, economically speaking, but then they have completely different histories. There is also the issue of the Declaration of Strategic Partnership and Cooperation signed between Macedonia and the United States in 2008: this document should be ramped up to include security guarantees for Macedonia if it does come under attack (there are numerous examples of such guarantees offered by the US). This could be the basis of a new and enhanced relationship as Macedonia continues to wait for NATO membership. At the end of the day, however, it is not 100% necessary for Macedonia’s survival — or even for Macedonia’s success — to be in both or even one organization. It’s a false to choice to say Macedonia in or Macedonia down and out. And yet another option is to keep fighting using the tools you have — remind the world of Greece’s obligations under the Interim Accord and the ICJ decision and engage in a full court press on these issues. And there is always the faint hope that a more reasonable government will come to power in Greece. After all, Greece has had 185 prime ministers in the past 194 years. The current government, a far-left, Maoist party with deep Russian ties whose party goal has been to remove Greece from NATO, won’t be there forever. This last option to keep fighting and using the tools you have, in my opinion, is the best one.
If I was forced to make the false choice between keeping my name and identity or joining organizations whose very existence is dubious and who offer nothing more than less sovereignty….well, that choice would be easy: my name and identity are not for sale because some things in life are simply more important.
You’ll always be Macedonians.
Long live the Republic of Macedonia.