As of Monday, February 10, the little Balkan country north of Greece is officially named North Macedonia and has gained membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For the majority of Greek people, the Prespa agreement, which sealed the change of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia, was a bad deal, a sell-out. Some even went to the extreme of calling Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras a “traitor.”
Since June 17, the day the Prespa Agreement was signed, the Greek government began a campaign to tell its people that the deal would be beneficial for Greece and would resolve a problem that irritated both countries for over a quarter of a century. The Greek foreign ministry issued a pamphlet explaining all the benefits the deal entails.
The list of benefits is debatable, however. Greece’s neighbors, and especially North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, have always failed to put the “North” in Macedonia in public statements at home and abroad ever since the deal was signed.
Considering that the new change should apply erga omnes – for all purposes, both in the country’s interior and internationally – officials at Skopje have not complied as of yet. Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos will try valiantly to ensure that this practice will stop after the country’s accession to NATO.
Name change benefits for Greece, according to the Greek government
According to the prime minister and the Greek cabinet, the most important advantage Greece gained from the agreement is that the United Nations and the international community – about 130 countries – must begin calling the country “North Macedonia” instead of just “Macedonia”.
Out of the nine benefits the foreign ministry lists, the above – the first on the list – is the only acceptable one. Nevertheless, any use of the word “Macedonia” by their Balkan neighbors still leaves the majority of Greeks feeling dissatisfied and even betrayed.
The rest of the arguments presented in favor of the name change and the supposed benefits for Greece are weak, arbitrary and easily deconstructed.
The supposed second benefit listed by the Greek government says that by enhancing the Republic of North Macedonia’s European prospects, the danger of third powers threatening Greece’s northern border is eliminated. But the European Union could have taken the country into its fold under a different name. Greece did not have to back down on the name.
At the same time, if North Macedonia was so eager to join the EU and NATO, they could be the ones to back down and accept Greece’s position to not use the word Macedonia at all. The same applies to the EU, which campaigned in favor of the Prespa deal knowing that the majority of Greek people are very unhappy about it, some opposing it vehemently.
The third benefit, according to the foreign ministry, is that the Prespa Agreement frees up valuable diplomatic capital which could be used to deal with other nationalistic challenges and threats which Greece faces.
This is a very weak argument. With the name issue, Greece had veto power — and gave it up. Overall, Greek diplomacy appeared very soft and conciliatory. The prime minister and (then) foreign minister Nikos Kotzias agreed to give up a great deal, getting next to nothing in return. So the nationalistic threats and challenges previously mentioned could even worsen from now on, now that Greece appears weak and lenient on the diplomatic table.
As for the other powers which challenge Greece’s borders it is crucial to mention that the foreign minister of North Macedonia went to Ankara and “declared his allegiance” during his Turkish visit right after the Prespa Agreement was passed in Skopje.
At the same time, Albania has begun – quietly but steadily – to raise irredentist issues such as claims on the North Epirus borders and Greece usurping Cham lands after World War II. The claims are groundless; nevertheless, they are an indication that Greek diplomacy appears weak at the moment.
The fourth argument in favor of the deal is that the Macedonia and Thrace regions are upgraded and northern Greece becomes a strong economic hub in the Balkans since new trade deals can be signed and Greek companies can export to its northern neighbor.
Thessaloniki – and northern Greece overall – is already a powerful economic hub in the Balkans. Greeks already invest and have businesses in Skopje. Furthermore, North Macedonia is a rather poor nation, and it is extremely optimistic to believe that the tiny country with the new name will boost the Greek economy in any way.
The fifth benefit of the Prespa Agreement, according to the Greek government, is that North Macedonia will have no claims whatsoever in regards to ancient Macedonia’s cultural heritage and history. In particular, its citizens must recognize that the people of the new country are not descendants of Alexander the Great. Constitutional changes in North Macedonia will ensure that historical fact by enshrining it into law.
This, indeed, is a good thing. Provided of course that no future government of North Macedonia will reverse the constitutional amendments agreed to with Greece.
In number six there is the argument that the Balkan country will change the names of all state and public organizations, agencies and institutions. This benefit is also sometimes mentioned as the most important benefit, since the name change is erga omnes.
In their seventh point, the Greek government argues that the constitutional changes agreed to with Skopje will eliminate all the Balkan country’s revisionist and irredentist claims.
This is debatable, because with the acceptance of the “Macedonian language” and “Macedonian identity”, people who come from Northern Macedonia and currently live in Greece, can easily claim that they form a “Macedonian minority” in Greece.
Already there is a non-governmental organization established in Macedonia which teaches the supposed “Macedonian language” to North Macedonia natives living in Greece.
The eighth benefit, the Greek foreign ministry says, is that a bilateral scientific and academic committee will examine North Macedonia schoolbooks to ensure that any irredentist references are eliminated.
Again, even if this committee agrees to remove all such references, who is to guarantee that the chapters in question will be removed from the books. And if so, who can guarantee that they will not appear again in the future? Two generations of North Macedonian residents have grown up being taught that they are descendants of Alexander the Great. How can that be removed from the national consciousness?
Finally, the foreign ministry says that it is beneficial for Greece that North Macedonia will never claim rights of North Macedonian nationals living already in Greece, therefore the new country will never be able to interfere with Greek internal affairs.
This is a variation of benefit number seven and it is part of the constitutional changes required by the deal. Previously, the neighboring country’s constitution stated clearly that the country will support “all Macedonian people living in neighboring countries”.
The losses of the Prespa Agreement
In accepting the Prespa Agreement, the Greek government acknowledged two things that could have – and should have – been avoided: That there is or was such a thing as the “Macedonian language” and “Macedonian nationality”, or citizenship. Both concepts enhance the neighboring country’s nationalism and possible future irredentism.
First of all, why did Tsipras and Kotzias acknowledge a language which does not exist? The so-called Macedonian language is a Bulgarian dialect and belongs to the Slavic language group. Why did they concede?
Second, Greek officials agreed to the concept that there was a “Macedonian nationality”. Macedonia was only a region of Yugoslavia, much like Macedonia is a region of Greece. It never was a nation. Therefore, a “Macedonian nationality” is a rather arbitrary definition. After all, the country is inhabited by Slavs, Albanians and Bulgarians, so “Macedonian citizenship” is not something even all of the country’s citizens identify with.
It is true that the small Balkan country is searching for an identity. With a population of two million people having mixed roots, they have been trying to forge a national identity since Yugoslavia split up.
In both cases, Greece agreed to help the small country gain an identity. And received absolutely nothing in return, while incurring major losses at the same time.
A third major loss was the trademark issue. North Macedonia has been branding products as “Macedonian” for years now. Unfortunately, the Prespa agreement does not clarify whether the northern country’s products will be re-branded as “North Macedonian” from now on.
Only days ago there was a “Macedonian Cuisine” stand at a Berlin hotel and restaurant fair where moussaka was presented as a traditional “Macedonian dish”. Since there is no clause in the Prespa Agreement which will ensure that the Balkan state will amend the origin of place-of-origin products to “North Macedonian,” Greek Macedonian products will face serious problems in international markets.
Overall, the Prespa Agreement will generate many more serious problems in Greece in the future than the minor ones which existed before the deal. As a NATO member, North Macedonia will be considered an equal to Greece.
No one can foresee whether future governments will comply with all the prerequisites of the name change deal. And if that happens, Greece will not have any rights whatsoever to veto acts passed by North Macedonia which are against the interests of the nation of Greece.