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Macedonia: What’s in a Name?

13 January 2019

The Congo Republic (pop. 5 million) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (pop. 88 million) manage to share their name quite amicably. Russia and Belarus (White Russia) don’t seem to mind either. Sudan and South Sudan don’t get along at all, but their quarrel was never about a mere name. Whereas Greece and Macedonia….

After 28 years of argument and anger, the two Balkan countries signed an agreement last June that changed Macedonia’s name to ‘North Macedonia’, because the Greeks said they couldn’t use the original one-word title. Greece could and did blackball the Macedonians, saying they couldn’t join the NATO alliance and the European Union until they changed their name – and eventually the Macedonians gave in.

The Macedonians jumped through a lot of constitutional hoops to keep their end of the bargain, and last Friday their parliament officially changed the country’s name to ‘North Macedonia’. So the Greeks got what they wanted, and now it is the Greek parliament’s turn to ratify the deal and lift its ban on ‘North’ Macedonia joining NATO and the EU.

But no. A small ultra-nationalist party called the Independent Greeks, whose seven seats Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras depended on for his majority in parliament, walked out of the coalition on Sunday.

Tsipras has betrayed Greece, they say. No foreigners should be allowed to use the sacred Greek name of Macedonia, even in the phrase ‘North Macedonia’, and what those foreigners really secretly want is to take over the whole of northern Greece. So Tsipras now has to hold a vote of confidence, and if he loses it there will have to be an early election.

He may well lose it, because most of the people in the main opposition party, New Democracy, are also paranoid nationalists. Or more precisely, they know that paranoid nationalism is the way to maximise the right-wing vote. Some of them are privately quite reasonable men and women, but they know what they have to say to win, and they will say it.

How has this nonsense come to dominate the politics of two entire countries for more than two decades? When the old Communist regime in Yugoslavia lost power in 1991 and the six ‘republics’ that made it up became independent countries, the southernmost one was called the Republic of Macedonia.

It came by the name honestly. From the Roman empire 2,000 years ago down to the Ottoman empire only a century ago, its territory was always part of a larger province called Macedonia. No other country was using the name, so independent Macedonia kept it.

There was, however, a region in northern Greece that also used to be part of that province, and also called itself Macedonia. No harm in that: the people in the Republic of Macedonia weren’t claiming that the Greek region called Macedonia belonged to them. But the Greeks insisted that they were, and wouldn’t let them join any organisation that Greece belonged to.

So the Republic of Macedonia was frozen out of NATO and the European Union (and all the EU’s subsidies for post-Communist countries in eastern Europe). It only got a seat in the United Nations by agreeing to call itself the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) for UN purposes. And the foolishness dragged on for a generation.

The Macedonians themselves – sorry, the ‘North Macedonians’ – eventually developed their own ultra-nationalist crazies, who insisted that they were the true heirs of the Alexander the Great. Skopje, the capital, is littered with monuments and statues extolling him, put there by the previous government basically to yank the Greeks’ chain.

It’s not clear why you would want to claim descent from Alexander the Great, whose main achievement was conquering a lot of countries, killing a lot of people, and dying at thirty, but then the people of Mongolia take pride in having Genghis Khan as an ancestor. At any rate, the Macedonians did what they did, and the Greeks rose to the bait. It was really ugly for a while.

But finally the wheel turned, and both countries ended up with grown-ups in charge at the same time: Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Zoran Zaev in Macedonia. Both are social democrats who have other fish to fry, and just want to get rid of this issue that the nationalist right exploits endlessly. It hasn’t been easy, but they are almost there.

Zaev had to hold a referendum on the deal in Macedonia, and got 90 percent ‘yes’ votes – but the nationalists boycotted the ballot, and so invalidated the outcome because fewer than 50% of the potential voters took part. That meant Zaev had to get a two-thirds majority in parliament instead, which required him to bribe some shady members of parliament with amnesties for their alleged crimes.

Tsipras will face an uphill fight to win a confidence vote, and if he loses that he may also lose the election. He has spent a lot of his political capital in his struggle to rescue Greece from its financial plight. But these two men deserve to succeed. Maybe they will.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“The Macedonians…while”)

Macedonian Name Game

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare wrote, but it doesn’t smell as sweet in Macedonia. In a display of national insecurity with few parallels, Greece has denied that the country to the north has the right to use the name Macedonia ever since it got its independence when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991.

Athens insisted, with very little evidence, that by calling the new country the Republic of Macedonia (the same name it had as part of the federal state of Yugoslavia), the Macedonians were laying claim to the Greek region of the same name. But recently there were signs that common sense was starting to break through.

The Macedonians were willing to negotiate on the issue, because Greece has blocked its applications to join the NATO alliance and the European Union since 2008, and only let it to join the United Nations under the ridiculous name of ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM). But Athens and Skopje (the capital of FYROM) have been talking compromise for almost a year, and it was looking good.

Interior minister Panos Skourletis, a prominent figure in the Syriza Party that dominates the coalition government in Athens, said:“It is a silly dispute that has to be solved. They [the Macedonians] want to solve it, and I think it will be solved in 2018. If not now, then when?”

The dispute has been complicated by the fact that the Macedonians, a small ethnic group who have inhabited the area they now possess since the Slavic invasions of the 6th and 7th centuries, have claimed Alexander the Great as their founding father. It’s understandable, since they can claim no other historical figures of note, but it has immensely irritated the Greeks.

Alexander, who conquered half the ‘known world’ before he died more than 2,000 years ago at the age of 32, is also seen by modern Greeks as their most important world-historical figure, mainly because they too have no more recent candidates. Homer, Socrates, Euripides, and Plato are all very well, but they lived even longer ago and conquered no foreigners.

So in addition to the preposterous notion that Macedonia lusts after the Greek province of the same name – ‘FYROM’ has only two million people (of whom a quarter are ethnically Albanian), whereas there are ten million Greeks – Greek nationalists are further aggrieved that their neighbours are trying to steal their great national hero. And indeed, there has been some attempted larceny.

Under the last prime minister, an ultra-nationalist called Nikolas Gruevski, the Republic of Macedonia started naming airports, highways and stadiums after Alexander and erecting large and remarkably clumsy statues to the great conqueror. Gruevski lost the Macedonian election last June, however, and the new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has taken a very different line.

“I give up the claim of Macedonia being the sole heir to Alexander,” Zaev said in a TV interview last month. “The history belongs not only to us but to Greece and many other countries.” He has denounced the previous government nationalist binge and even suggested that he will dismantle statues that offend the Greeks.

This is only reasonable, as Alexander really was Greek. He spoke Greek (his tutor was Aristotle), and he was born on what is now Greek territory.

On the other hand, the multi-national empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman, that ruled the entire region for over 2,000 years until the 20th century usually included the territory now occupied by FYROM in their Macedonian province, so that name can be claimed by anyone whose ancestors lived there. And by late last year, reasonable people were working on a sensible compromise.

By this New Year’s Eve Yiannis Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, the capital of the Greek province of Macedonia, was entertaining Macedonian president Zoran Zaev in his city. “For too long we have been obscured by this nationalistic foolishness and populist propaganda,” he said, and the problem looked well on the way to being solved.

The solution, according to sources inside the negotiations headed by U.N. negotiator Matthew Nimitz, would be to rename FYROM ‘New Macedonia’, which implies no claim to ‘old’ Greek Macedonia. But then Pannos Kammenos, the founder of the small ‘Independent Greeks’ party that is in coalition with Syriza, demanded an immediate referendum.

Kammenos’s party is polling so low at the moment that it wouldn’t even make it into the next parliament, so he needed to boost his standing with his right-wing supporters. The opinion pollsters promptly asked the Greek public if they would accept any name for FYROM that included the word ‘Macedonia’, and between 68 percent of respondents (poll of 15 January) and 77 percent (poll of 20 January) said ‘no.

So Syriza, which is currently trailing the opposition New Democracy party in the polls by 10 percent, is unlikely to go any further with this proposal. (63 percent of its own voters said ‘no). The foolishness will therefore continue for some time to come.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“Alexander…larceny”)

Deadlock in Cyprus

There is only one village in Cyprus where Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots live side-by-side. It is called Pyla and the only reason that the two ethnic groups there continue to live together is that it is in the United Nations Buffer Zone that separates the Republic of Cyprus from the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC). It would be in real trouble if the United Nations pulled out.

That could happen. UNFICYP (United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus) is 53 years old, and patience is running out. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned in 2011 that “UNFICYP’s continued presence on the island cannot be taken for granted”, and the current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, has said quite plainly that this cannot go on forever.

But he may have been bluffing. He said that just before the umpteenth conference seeking to reunify the island opened in the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana on June 28. Everybody reckoned that it had a good chance of success – but now that it has failed, we will find out whether Guterres meant his threat or not.

It should have succeeded, because President Nicos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus and President Mustafa Akinci of the TRNC were very close to a deal and it looked like the two communities on the island were both willing to vote for it. (Referendums on both sides would have been required to ratify any deal.) But the talks fell apart at the last hurdle.

When Cyprus got its independence from the British empire in 1960, three countries were given the job of guaranteeing the constitution that laid down how power should be shared between Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots: the United Kingdom and the two “mother countries”, Greece and Turkey. These guarantors had the right and duty to intervene if the terms of the deal were violated.

The power-sharing deal collapsed in 1963, mainly because a large number of Greek-Cypriots wanted union with Greece. The Turkish-Cypriot minority fled into dozens of isolated enclaves and in 1964 the United Nations sent in the UNFICYP peacekeeping mission to protect them. But none of the guarantors intervened.

Ten years later, in 1974, the colonels who ruled in Athens organised a bloody coup in Cyprus that overthrew the elected government and installed a regime committed to unite the island with Greece. When Britain, the other guarantor, refused to act against the coup (Britain had military bases on the island), Turkey sent troops on its own.

Greek-Cypriot resistance collapsed in a few days and Turkey occupied more than one-third of the island. All the Greek-Cypriots in the Turkish-occupied zone fled south and all the Turkish-Cypriots in the rest of the island abandoned their besieged communities and fled north. And that is how it has remained for the past 43 years, with UNFICYP patrolling the buffer zone between the Republic of Cyprus and the TRNC.

Finally, four years ago, both parts of the island managed to have governments that were in favour of reunification at the same time. There was broad agreement between them on a federal republic with wide autonomy for the two communities and so the conference in Switzerland began last month with high hopes.

Why was the Greek-Cypriot side finally ready for a deal? (The last time a roughly similar deal was on the table, in 2004, the Turkish-Cypriots voted in favour by two-to-one – and the Greek-Cypriots voted against it by three-to-one.) The answer is probably money.

A reservoir of natural gas worth an estimated US$50 billion has been discovered on the seabed off Cyprus’s coast, but it cannot be developed so long as the seabed rights are potentially in dispute. Turkey itself has no claim, but it could certainly provide powerful backing if the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus were to demand a share of the revenue.

It was Turkey that killed the hopes for a final deal in Switzerland last weekend. In past years it was never an obstacle to a deal: the various previous attempts at a permanent settlement died for other reasons. But it is a different Turkey nowadays – one ruled by a mini-Vladimir Putin called President Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

Erdogan holds absolute power only by grace of a referendum in April that he won by a mere 1% margin – and he only got that by monopolising the media coverage and fiddling the results.

The 49% of Turks who voted “No” against expanding Erdogan’s powers see him, quite rightly, as the end of real democracy in Turkey, so he needs to wrong-foot them and keep his own supporters mobilised by inflaming public opinion with various nationalist grievances. This time it is Cyprus.

Turkey refused to give up its right to intervene in Cyprus under the 1960 agreement, or to withdraw the 35 000 soldiers it keeps stationed in the TRNC. So the deal collapsed and it will be a long time before anybody tries again.

If ever. But in the circumstances, it is very unlikely that the UN will pull its peacekeepers out.

Cyprus: Waiting for Edogan

It would be an excellent thing to reunite the island of Cyprus after 42 years of heavily armed partition, but it’s probably not going to happen this year.

They’re all meeting in Geneva this week – President Nicos Anastasiades of the Republic of Cyprus and President Mustafa Akinci of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus, plus the new UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, and representatives of all three countries that guarantee Cyprus’s independence, Britain, Turkey and Greece. The talk is all upbeat:
“Best and last chance for peace,” says Guterres. But don’t hold your breath.

There are three reasons why reunification is probably not about to happen, and the first is that Greek-Cypriots simply don’t want it as badly as Turkish-Cypriots. The Greek-Cypriot majority has twice the average income of the Turkish-Cypriot minority, mainly because the Greeks live in a universally recognised country that belongs to the European Union. They can trade and travel everywhere.

The Turkish-Cypriots live in utter isolation, their ramshackle state recognised by no country except Turkey. And although they are a well-educated, secular population, they may already be outnumbered by the ill-educated, socially conservative immigrants who have been flowing in from Turkey. No wonder the Turkish-Cypriots voted two-to-one in favour of reunification in 2004, the last time a peace deal was attempted.

The Greek-Cypriots, by contrast, voted three-to-one against the deal – not because it was really such a bad deal, but because many of them don’t feel much need to compromise. The status quo is quite bearable, and the United Nations troops will be happy to stick around and enforce the ceasefire for another 42 years if necessary. Or so the Greek-Cypriot ‘no’ voters seemed to believe last time.

Then there is the sheer complexity of the negotiations to put the country back together again, but this time as a bi-national federal republic. How will the territory be divided up? (The Turkish-Cypriots currently hold 37 percent, but the maps the two side have tabled give them between 28.2 percent and 29.2 percent.) Will there be a ‘rotating’ presidency, held sometimes by a Greek and sometimes by a Turk?

How many of the refugees who fled during the 1974 war (an estimated 165,000 Greeks and 45,000 Turks) will be allowed to return to their former homes in the “other” part of the island? Will they be allowed to evict the current occupants?

And above all, who will guarantee that both sides will observe the terms of the deal? This is the point at which things fell apart in 1974.

Cyprus got its independence from the British empire as a bi-national republic in 1960. The power-sharing constitution was guaranteed by Britain and by Greece and Turkey, the two “mother countries” of the local populations – but then there was a military coup in Greece.

The Greek military regime conspired with a local Greek-Cypriot terrorist organisation called EOKA B to carry out a bloody coup in Cyprus in 1974 and unite the island with Greece. So the Turkish prime minister flew to London to beg Britain (which has military bases on the island) to carry out its duty as guarantor, stop the carnage and roll back the coup.

When London refused to act, Turkey itself invaded to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority, and the territorial division it imposed on the island in 1974 has lasted ever since. Getting the right kind of guarantees this time is crucial to a successful deal, but it’s probably not going to happen this year.

The deal itself is ferociously complex, and the fine print certainly cannot be settled this week. With enough good-will on both sides, it could be done in the next few months, but the real obstacle now is Turkish politics.

Nobody knows what Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan really wants in Cyprus. But his one fixed goal is to change the Turkish constitution in order to turn his office into an all-powerful “executive” presidency. Like Putin’s in Russia, for example.

That is politically tricky. It takes 60 percent of the votes in Turkey’s parliament to change the constitution, and on the first reading he barely scraped through. In the final vote, he might lose. And even if Erdogan gets the change through parliament, he must then win a national referendum on the question next autumn.

Since Erdogan restarted his war on the Kurds last year, he has lost the votes of pious Kurdish voters. The only way he can replace them is by winning the votes of right-wing nationalists.

So Erdogan can’t afford to back the Cyprus deal right now. It would alienate Turkish ultra-nationalists who just want to annex northern Cyprus. Maybe next year, after he has total power. But not now.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“How…occupants”; and “Since…nationalists”)