Macedonia must resolve its decadeslong naming quarrel with Greece in order to facilitate EU accession talks. But a new proposal discussed by the countries' leaders still faces a host of hurdles.
Greece and Macedonia have been working for months toward a rapprochement and an end to the name dispute that has dragged on since 1991. "Republic of Ilindenska Macedonia" is the new suggestion; neither side was fully satisfied with alternatives such as "North Macedonia" or "New Macedonia."
The new proposal was put forward during the EU summit last week in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia, where a meeting also took place between the leaders of the two countries. Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of Macedonia, suggested the name, a reference to the Ilinden Uprising, and made it known that his government had given it the green light.
This 1903 uprising against the Ottoman Empire took place in the small town of Krusevo in the territory of what is now the Republic of Macedonia. It was brutally suppressed by the Ottomans. Macedonia's Republic Day commemorates the anniversary of the uprising on August 2.
Opposition parties, whose support Yaev needs, rejected the proposal on Sunday.
"Our two countries have never been so close to an agreement, but there are still important steps to be taken," Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told the central committee of his party, Syriza.
Greeks not optimistic
Tsipras failed to secure support from his coalition ally and opposition parties on Saturday, and the Greek people are also less than enthused. "I get the impression that it's just another suggestion that's being voiced only to be tossed aside in favor of another name," the journalist Georgios Toulas told DW. Besides, he said, only Greeks who were actually interested in finding a solution would accept Macedonia appearing anywhere in their northern neighbor's name.
One such Greek is 25-year-old student Nikos Sykas. Unlike the majority of his compatriots he has no problem with "Macedonia" remaining a part of the former Yugoslav republic's name. But he doesn't think "Republic of Ilindenska Macedonia" is the right solution, either. "That will let in nationalism through the back door," he argues. "And it's precisely this that will inevitably cause new tensions on the Greek side."
Greece accuses Macedonia of co-opting its history to create a questionable national identity. Every nationalist attempt by Macedonia is perceived as an affront.
But it is not only Greeks who could view the supposed breakthrough with skepticism. The 1903 Ilinden Uprising is also commemorated in neighboring Bulgaria, where it helped to sow the seeds of independence. Sofia will reject the idea of Macedonia using it to end the name dispute with Greece. Athens is not the only one to accuse Skopje of cultural theft; Bulgarian officials, too, often deny the existence of a specifically Macedonian culture and history.
When the Ilinden Uprising broke out, modern-day Bulgaria and Macedonia, as well as the provinces of Macedonia and Thrace in northern Greece, were all still part of the Ottoman Empire. The rebellion was organized by parts of the Slavic population in Thessaloniki, namely Bulgarians, Slavic Macedonians and Albanians who banded together in a Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization. They would ultimately fail.
Chance of agreement?
Despite historical reservations, both Macedonians and Greeks are celebrating the move as a significant step toward a final resolution of the dispute. However, Greece's government has called for Macedonia's constitution to make clear that the country does not consider the Greek province part of its territory.
So far Zaev has vehemently rejected the idea of changing the constitution. There would also have to be a referendum. And although many Macedonians would like to see a swift resolution of the conflict with Greece, it's unclear whether they would, if required, approve a more extensive name change.
Tsipras, too, will struggle to persuade ideological hard-liners in Greece to accept the new name. There are elections set for 2019, with a lot at stake for the incumbent prime minister. His rival, the conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has a clear lead in the polls. Support for Tsipras has fallen drastically after he broke his election promise and supported the austerity policy laid out by EU lender countries. So right now he is trying to score some successes. A rapprochement with the Balkan countries, which have all too often been neglected by Greece, is part of this strategy.