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A thaw in relations? Macedonian prime minister sees in the New Year in Greece

Greece has been at loggerheads with its northern neighbor for decades over the name Macedonia. The Macedonian PM headed to Thessaloniki for a New Year visit. While unofficial, it's seen as a sign of rapprochement.

Mazedonien | Proteste gegen den griechischen Außenminister 2014 (Getty Images/R. Atnasovski)

In 2014, demonstrators gathered in Skopje to protest a visit of the Greek foreign minister

Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of Macedonia, is coming to visit Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki. Given the tension that has existed for years between Greece and Macedonia, this sounds like a historic moment. One that should be celebrated – officially, with big receptions, joint public appearances, and the press in attendance.

But Zaev isn't traveling to the province of Macedonia in northern Greece on official business. He's just there as Zoran, come to see in the New Year with his Greek friend Yiannis. The public and the press are not invited.

Zaev's historic visit begins with the arrival of his plane at Makedonia Airport. The fact that this Greek airport bears the name of the country next door is an indication of the conflict potential inherent in an ordinary state visit. Because officially, as far as Greece is concerned, there is no state called Macedonia. This is the basis of the dispute between the two neighbors: It has gone on for 26 years now, and has had far-reaching consequences.

Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev (Press service of the Government of Republic of Macedonia)

Zorav Zaev's New Year visit was private, but nonetheless taken as symbolic

Conflict around both name and culture

After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a new republic was founded in 1991 calling itself Macedonia. In Greece, the neighboring province has long gone by the same name, and Athens took it as an affront. A cultural war has been simmering between the two countries ever since, and is part of the reason why Greece continues to block Macedonia from joining the EU and NATO.

Read more: Aspiring NATO member Macedonia angles for membership invite in 2018

When Macedonia became a member of the United Nations in 1993, it could only do so by agreeing, as a compromise, to be referred to as the FYROM – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This ensured that the country gained international recognition, but it did not resolve the conflict with Greece. 

The nationalistic agitation continues on both sides. Skopje claims Alexander the Great was Macedonian, not Greek. There are even ultra-nationalist voices that describe Thessaloniki as an occupied city. At the same time, the Greek side accuses its northern neighbor of cultural theft, saying it is putting together an artificial cultural identity by stealing bits of Greek history and completely ignoring the fact that it is actually part of the Balkans. You will search in vain for directions to Macedonia on the motorways of northern Greece: Signposts indicating the road to the border are marked instead with "Skopja."

Mazedonien | Flughafen von Skopje umbenannt in Alexander der Große (picture-alliance/dpa/G. Licovski)

The 'Alexander the Great' airport is not in Thessaloniki, but in Skopje

A change of tone in Macedonia

However, since Macedonia's right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was voted out last summer, the tone of the discussion has changed. Whereas Gruevski erected monuments to Alexander the Great in the capital, his successor, the social democrat Zaev, has been conciliatory towards Greece, speaking of an amicable relationship and seeking political and cultural compromise. Naturally, he hopes this will lead to more than just a good relationship. Macedonia's economy is in a bad way. Unemployment is high, and the political situation with its neighbors Albania, Serbia and Bulgaria is also a difficult one. Zaev wants to achieve his country's long-held ambition of accession to the European Union and NATO, in order finally to regain some stability.

Both memberships would presumably clarify the situation in the Balkans. For one thing, NATO membership would definitively bind Macedonia to the West, thereby thwarting Moscow. And EU accession would get the country out of a political and economic rut. All of this would benefit the region as a whole, where cross-border crises keep on flaring up.

Greece, which is still struggling with economic and political crises, ought to show the same degree of interest. However, for the most part Athens still seems to be adamant on the name issue. In particular the leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis of the conservative New Democracy party, hopes that this attitude will win more votes from the national-conservative camp in the 2019 parliamentary election. Yet it was his father, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister from 1990 to 1993, who tried to achieve a workable compromise for both sides by suggesting alternative names for Greece's neighbor, such as North Macedonia.

Thessaloniki as mediator

The Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, is keeping quiet on the matter. For some years Tsipras has at least advocated a policy of openness to the Balkans, in the hope that this would bring economic and strategic advantages. So far, though, he has excluded Macedonia, primarily at the urging of his coalition partner, the right-wing populist Independent Greeks (ANEL), who remain intransigent on the naming issue.

Thessaloniki's Mayor Yannis Boutaris (DW/F.Schmitz)

The mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, pictured at a gay pride parade in 2017

Thessaloniki itself is a good example of what life could be like for Greece and Macedonia as a whole if the two countries were on good terms. The common border is just 40 minutes from the city by car. On weekends, large numbers of visitors cross from Macedonia to go shopping in Greece's second-largest city. In the summer they holiday on the Chalkidiki peninsula. For this reason alone, Thessaloniki's Mayor Boutaris, whose unideological politics are geared toward economic growth, is keen to remain on good terms with Macedonia. Just a few weeks ago he travelled to Skopje to exchange ideas for joint projects. The fact that Macedonia's Prime Minister Zaev is now visiting him in Thessaloniki indicates considerable interest in a long-term rapprochement.

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