To be or not to be Macedonia? Referendum will challenge a long-running dispute
On September 30, voters in the former Yugoslav republic will be asked if they want to change Macedonia’s name and unlock the door to EU and Nato membership.
It was an image for the ages. Clouds of tear gas and flag-waving protesters on the streets of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, took breaks from the chaos to bless themselves before a large icon of the Virgin Mary carried by an Orthodox priest wearing a gas mask.
For Thessaloniki, a vibrant university city, the September 8 unrest was the latest squall in a perfect storm of politics and nationalism which laid bare modern Greece’s Balkan legacy.
Just over the border, less than 90 kilometres north, voters in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia wrestled with their own divisions. A September 30 referendum on changing the country's name – an issue which has seen it at loggerheads with Athens for 27 years – has raised the stakes.
What unites people in Thessaloniki and Skopje – in name at least – is that they both live in a Macedonia. Greece's second-largest region bears the name, as does the independent country of just over two million people.
Then there is the wider "Macedonia", a historical region which includes both of those territories but also parts of modern-day Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria, running across some of the Balkans' most sensitive ethnic fault lines.
Since 1991, when Macedonians passed another referendum to leave a disintegrating Yugoslavia, Skopje and Athens have endured an energy-sapping standoff over the new republic's name.
Far from being a symbolic dispute – although flags, language, terminology and historical claims are all hot-button issues – the name row saw Macedonia blocked from EU and Nato membership as successive Greek governments used their veto to keep their neighbours out.
Many Greeks resent what they see as the theft of their history and culture, some fearing it could lead to future claims on Greek territory. The Balkans is a land of fantasy maps, and a search for "greater Macedonia" sees Thessaloniki become the largest port in a "unified Macedonia" stretching from the tip of southern Serbia to the Aegean.
Symbolism matters here. In 2011, Macedonia's enthusiasm for adopting Alexander the Great as a national hero saw the building of a 24 metre-high statue of a horse-borne king in central Skopje. Costing 8 million euros and officially dubbed "Warrior on a Horse" it was clearly understood by Greeks and Macedonians alike to be a representation of the youthful emperor. The statue remains but Macedonia dropped the “Alexander the Great” prefix from its international airport in February this year.
Statues aside, the dispute has left another part of the Western Balkan jigsaw languishing outside of European and Nato influence.
Serbia, a EU candidate country, maintains close ties with Russia. In February last year Montenegrin officials accused the Kremlin of organising an attempted coup to stop the country from joining Nato. Croatia joined the EU in July 2013.
But Macedonia has struggled with unemployment and political corruption. In 2015 the then prime minister Nikola Gruevski eventually stood down amid allegations of an illegal wiretapping programme which secretly recorded about 20,000 Macedonian officials. About a quarter of Macedonia’s population are ethnic Albanians and a 2001 insurgency by Albanian fighters in the north has left a legacy of fear and division in Macedonian politics.
On June 17, the current prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece – Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras – smiled for the cameras on the shore of Lake Prespa at the signing ceremony for a deal painstakingly hammered out over months of UN-brokered negotiations, which would see the former Yugoslav republic renamed “North Macedonia”.
In return, Greece would lift its veto on the country joining Europe and Nato, marking a reset in relationships. Mr Zaev even presented Mr Tsipras with a tie as a present, a jokey gift for the Greek leader who had vowed to go without wearing one until his country recovers from its economic collapse.
This referendum is being sold to the Macedonian electorate not so much as a chance to bury the hatchet with Greece but to fulfill wider ambitions of joining Europe. The wording of the question being put to voters is telling: "Are you in favour of Nato and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?"
Despite the applause from UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn, not far from the ceremony, Greek police fired tear gas at enraged protesters. Greece has seen months of street protests over the issue, including in January when more than 100,000 rallied against a compromise deal in Athens.
Much of the international media reported that the two countries had resolved the dispute. Far from it. Mr Tsipras, whose left-wing Syriza party rules Greece in a coalition with a small nationalist party called the Independent Greeks, immediately faced a no-confidence vote in parliament. His defence minister, Panos Kammenos, is a member of this right-wing party and says it does not have “the mandate or the right to hand over the name Macedonia”.
The Greek side has more time to play with, as its MPs might not vote on ratifying the deal until next year. Greece also has less at stake, being a long-term member of the EU and Nato. But 2019 is also an election year in Greece and the main centre-right opposition is hoping to unseat Mr Tsipras and scrap the Prespa deal.
North of the border, there are divisions among Macedonia's political players. Although MPs on July 30 set out the terms and date of the referendum, the main nationalist opposition party, the VMRO-DPMNE, boycotted the vote.
President Gjorge Ivanov refused to ratify the agreement legislation despite it being passed twice by parliament. And reports at the end of August claimed the president would be out of the country on the day of the referendum.
Skopje has also witnessed street protests about the deal by Macedonians as fervent in their opposition as their neighbours in Thessaloniki and Athens. But questions have been raised about how representative this outpouring of cross-border fury is. In July, Greece ordered two Russian diplomats out of the country over allegations they were meddling in the name dispute, with one report claiming the Russians were giving funds to nationalist groups in Greece opposed to the deal.
A Greece-based Russian business tycoon also denied media allegations accusing him of funnelling money to stoke protests in Skopje ahead of the referendum.
There is no doubt that a perception of being bullied for years by Greece irks many Macedonians at home and abroad. Even on the other side of the world, passions run high. In March, Greek-Australians were furious when images on social media showed piles of Greek flags being burned by Macedonian protesters in Melbourne. Images of Macedonia’s prime minister were also burned.
The EU, Nato and leaders on both sides will be counting on a silent majority of voters who want to finally lay the issue to rest and move on.
The US is also in favour of a deal, with Secretary of Defence James Mattis last week using a visit to Skopje to urge Macedonians to vote "yes".
But people have long memories in this region and for the protesters of Skopje, Thessaloniki and Athens compromise remains a dirty word.
Updated: September 20, 2018 05:04 PM