Macedonia. Probably a country you’ve never really paid any attention to. It used to be part of the former country of Yugoslavia until it seceded peacefully in 1991 after the fall of communism. That same year, Macedonia wrote its first constitution and established a system of government based on parliamentary democracy.
Why is it in the news?
Well it has actually been in the news a few times recently so I’ll start from the beginning.
Back in the Spring of 2015, some recordings were released publicly that put the government at that time in a bad light. The VMRO-DPMNE, or the Christian Democratic Party, had been in power in Macedonia since 2006. The leaked recordings showed that some members of that party had been involved in corruption and election fixing. Demonstrations ensued amongst the minority Albanian community (around a quarter of Macedonia’s population) and 22 people died.
In July later that year an agreement was reached although it was not without some international diplomatic input. A Special Prosecutor was appointed along with a team to investigate the recordings. The opposition government nonetheless boycotted parliament as they refused to work with a party embroiled in a corruption fiasco. As a result, early elections were called in December 2016.
After the December 2016 elections
The VRMO-DPMNE actually won by a very narrow margin but, like Theresa May in our recent elections, they did not win a majority. They had previously worked with the DUI, their traditional Albanian ally, but the DUI didn’t fancy working with a corrupt team of politicians who were being investigated either, so they pulled their support. As such, the leader of the VRMO-DPMNE was unable to pull together a government.
The opposition party, the SDSM (Social Democrats), came second in the December elections. They managed to pinch the Albanians and form a majority coalition.
A spanner in the works
This should have been straight forward but the Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov, (from the VMRO-DPMNE), wouldn’t let them form a government. He was concerned that the Albanian minority would be granted too many rights and that their support would be used as partial leverage to gain agreement for the Albanian language to be recognised. For months nothing happened.
An attack in the government chambers
On 27th April 2017, protesters affiliated with the VMRO-DPMNE stormed the parliament building while the politicians were in session. The protesters attacked MPs from the Social Democrat Party and Albanian MPs. Their reason? They objected to the appointment of an Albanian as Speaker of Parliament.
What then happened?
I remember hearing about this attack on the radio at home. No one died but people were injured. The incident was condemned internationally and the President was put under pressure to allow the Social Democrats and the Albanian parties to form a government so he relented.
When was a government eventually formed?
On 1st June 2017, some six months after the December elections. The Prime Minister is now Zoran Zaev. He has spoken of economic growth for his country, promised an end to corruption and wants to enter into talks with NATO and the EU with a view to seeking membership.
The most recent country to join NATO was Montenegro. They joined the association on 5th June.
There’s a little issue with Greece before the NATO thing gets any further …
The international community are in favour of Macedonia joining NATO but in 2008, Greece scuppered their previous attempt to do so because in the north of Greece, there is a region called Macedonia. The Greeks don’t like the fact that Macedonia are an independent country who have nothing to do with Greece and yet they adopt a name that they feel belongs to them which they view as a form of territorial encroachment. On Monday this week I read an article in the FT that suggested Macedonia’s new Prime Minister may consider a new name for his country if that helps to ease tension and facilitate their entry. If the parties in the government can agree, that matter would have to be put to a national referendum before anything could actually happen.
And the latest?
According to Greece’s Syriza government which is headed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, they view Macedonia’s new government as more cooperative than the last.
The last government under Gruevski was more nationalist and they deliberately antagonised the Greeks, according to France 24. Under that government they erected a giant statue of Alexander the Great in the capital city, Skopje. Then they named the capital’s new airport after him.
One small problem in the present Greek government is that Syrzia rule with another party in a coalition. The other party is the small right wing Independent Greek Party (Anel, not to be confused with ‘anal’). They are very nationalist and may be less keen to embrace Macedonia’s new government.
Macedonia’s foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, met Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, earlier today. France 24 reported Kotzias as saying the following:
‘We know our neighbours want to join several regional organisations. We are prepared to support any effort they make, once the name issue is solved. That is a precondition’ (France 24, 14.6.17)
The Macedonian foreign minister didn’t deny that the talks ahead would be challenging. His response is also quoted in France 24:
‘This is the first meeting…problems have accumulated. You don’t go and dance immediately after you meet’ (France 24, 14.6.17).
In the image above, Dimitrov is on the right and Kotzias is on the left.
The Greek foreign minister is due to visit Skopje in August.
Are there any precedents for a country changing its name?
I read an interesting article in the Chatham House magazine, ‘The World Today’, around this time last year. The writer was Michael Binyon. He referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that split into two in 1993. Slovakia took its place among the nations of Europe, (although, as Binyon points out, some people mixed it up with Slovenia). The other half were left with Czecho and they thought that sounded a little silly so they chose the Czech Republic as their new name.
For 20 years, Burma has been known as Myanmar, although the international community are only just coming to terms with this. One reason may be that the country was renamed by the military junta who the west opposed.
The case of Macedonia is slightly different. When Macedonia was part of southern Yugoslavia, Greece didn’t care. Since then, Binyon writes, Greece has insisted that ‘Macedonia is irrefutably linked to Hellenic history’. Greece claims a historical right to the term ‘Macedonia’ because the heart of Alexander the Great’s ancient kingdom lies in its northern province of Macedonia. They object to what the perceive to be a Slav republic taking the legacy of Alexander the Great, along with all his flags and symbols, as their own. This didn’t go down well with the Greek nationalists. Binyon says that there were boycotts and blockades and Greece told Macedonia they weren’t allowed to use the same name as that of Macedonia’s neighbouring province in Greece. Here is a map so you can see just how close the Greek region of Macedonia is to the country Macedonia.
In 1993, Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations under what Binyon calls the ‘cumbersome title of ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FYROM’. It is now known more simply as the Republic of Macedonia.
I haven’t provided a link to Michael Binyon’s article for the Chatham House magazine ‘The World Today’ as you need to be a member to access it.
France 24, 14.6.17, ‘Greece and Macedonia resume troubled talks on name row’. This article is from earlier today:
FT, 12.6.17, ‘Macedonia proposes name change in effort to join Nato’:
Politico EU, 1.6.17, ‘Macedonia forms government six months after election’:
Politico EU, 17.5.17, ‘Macedonian opposition gets mandate to form government’:
Politico EU, 27.4.17, ‘EU and NATO urge calm after Macedonia violence’:
Report from Coface, 17.3.17, a risk analysis company, giving some background to the wire tapping scandal:
Balkan Insight, 12.6.17, ‘Macedonian PM renews bid to join EU and NATO’:
The Guardian, 16.12.17, ‘Macedonian PM to open dialogue on name dispute to end a 24 year row with Greece’:
Greece and Macedonia meet. Associated Press image, featured in the Daily Mail earlier today. The slightly more handsome on on the right is the Macedonian one.
The first image is from Wikimedia.
The other image is from www.my-favourite-planet.com. Map of the country of Macedonia and the region of northern Greece that is known as Macedonia. Map by David John, 2004
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