1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Solution to Macedonia's name issue 'should be possible'

Interview: Boris GeorgievskiDecember 17, 2015

As Nikola Poposki becomes the first high-ranking Macedonian to visit Greece in 15 years, many hope the two nations find a compromise on his country's name. Analyst Thanos Dokos explains why it won't be easy.

Griechenland Außenminister Kotzias Poposki FYROM
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pantzartzi

DW: The Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki visits Athens on Thursday to meet his counterpart Nikos Kotzias. It is the first visit to Greece of a high-ranking Macedonian official since 2000. What are Greece's expectations for this meeting?

Dokos: The visit of Mr. Poposki is quite welcome because it is a highly symbolic step on the road to the normalization of relations. Neighboring countries, sharing many common interests but also concerns about a variety of issues, should have frequent multilevel contacts. However, expectations for concrete results from the visit are very low. The visit is expected to have a symbolic, not a substantive value.

The dispute over the name of Macedonia has lingered for more than six decades, but many people still can't understand what this conflict is about: history, identity, territory? What is your opinion?

It is indeed an old problem, not easily understood by third parties. It is about history and identity - which makes it even more difficult to resolve - but fortunately it is no longer about territory (except perhaps in the minds of a tiny minority of hard core irredentists in Macedonia). On the other hand, both sides have spent considerable political and diplomatic capital and are not prepared to accept a full retreat. Even if a "win-win" situation is difficult to imagine, it should be possible to find a solution that would be acceptable to both sides.

Griechenland Sicherheitsexperte Thanos Dokos
Greek political analyst Thanos DokosImage: DW/J. Papadimitriou

The main objective should be to avoid the monopolization of the name Macedonia. The current Greek position includes an important compromise, i.e. accepting a composite name that would include the word Macedonia (for example Republic of North or Upper Macedonia). That name should be used for all external purposes. A possible solution for the issues of language and ethnicity could be based on Dr. Evangelos Kofos' proposal of using the local language of each side instead of the English term (i.e. Makedonas & Makedonci for ethnicity and Makedonski for the language).

The agreement would immediately open the way for NATO membership and eventual EU membership and also for strategic cooperation in the energy and other sectors.

The coalition agreement between Syriza and the Independent Greeks stipulates that there would be no changes in Greek foreign policy including the "name issue." So what would be the "red lines" that Greece could cross to allow Athens to move toward solving the problem?

As long as Independent Greeks remain part of the coalition government, it is unlikely that there will be an agreement on the name issue. Even the official Greek position of accepting a composite name that includes the word "Macedonia" is unacceptable for Independent Greeks. Syriza's position - to the extent that there is a common one - is much more moderate, although it should be noted that hard-line nationalism cuts across the political spectrum.

Mazedonien Pro-Regierungsdemonstration in Skopje
Gruevski has pursued a nationalist agenda since taking power in 2006Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Atanasovski

For almost ten years since his party VMRO-DPMNE took power, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has maintained a nationalistic tone and used the name issue as a catalyst for his internal political battles. Now suddenly, only a couple of weeks before his expected resignation from office, he told the "Guardian" that he would like to "open dialog with Greece as soon as possible." Do you think Gruevski is honestly looking for a solution? And is his optimism shared in Athens?

The tone and substance of Prime Minister Gruevski's interview was certainly positive towards finding a compromise solution. But he later accused the "Guardian" of mis-reporting his statements. The impression in Athens is that Mr. Gruevski has never seriously contemplated a compromise and that he has been sacrificing his country's long-term strategic interests - allowing the rift between the two main ethnic communities to widen - to stay in power for as long as possible.

Furthermore, his position on a referendum [which would force Greece to hold one], although it sounds reasonable and democratic, may be an attempt to undermine a possible agreement. After demonizing a compromise solution for so long, it will be difficult for him to be objective at the last phase of the negotiating process and not speak against an agreement, which will most likely doom it to rejection. State-to-state agreements on such sensitive issues should be decided by governments and parliaments. On the other hand, a leader perceived as a hardliner is often more capable of convincing public opinion of the necessity of a painful compromise.

Thanos Dokos is the director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He served as the director for research, strategic studies division, in the Greek Defense Ministry (1996-98) and as an advisor on NATO issues to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1998-1999).