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Henry M. Robert

A hot time in Northern Macedonia

Against the background of protests, the parties signed an agreement to change the name of the former Yugoslav republic
20 June, 2018 - 16:18
REUTERS photo

Seven police officers were injured, and 25 demonstrators were detained. These are the results of yet another protest wave in Macedonia which provide an illustration of sorts to the historic agreement regarding the renaming of the country, which was signed on June 17.

On that day, foreign ministers of Macedonia and Greece, Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kotzias, signed an agreement to change the name of the former Yugoslav republic, which, after the completion of all the procedures, will be called the Republic of Northern Macedonia. “Macedonia” without qualifiers will remain an informal name of the whole region, which includes not only the former Yugoslav republic of the same name (for the time being), but also the Greek province with the same historic name.

The solemn signing of the Greek-Macedonian agreement took place on the shores of a lake in the picturesque Greek region of Prespes, on the border with Macedonia. The ceremony was attended by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, UN negotiations mediator Matthew Nimetz, EU diplomacy head Federica Mogherini, and EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn.

After years of nervous negotiations, which eventually ended in a successful agreement, things were almost euphoric in the pavilion near the lake. Prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece set the tone, smiling and delivering vigorous, optimistic speeches.

Zaev seemed especially happy. He confidently talked about the immediate future of Macedonia in the EU and NATO, and at the end of the event, grew so relaxed that he decided to present his festive red tie to his Greek counterpart. (Tsipras, probably because the ceremony was being held on a Sunday, decided not to wear this accessory for some reason).

The cheerful mood of the Macedonian prime minister is understandable: he managed, frankly speaking, to win by putting the squeeze on the Greeks and reach a fundamental solution to the problem, to find a way out of the deadlock, in which the former Yugoslav republic had been stagnating since the beginning of the 1990s, or for 27 years.

Now Macedonia has every chance to begin the process of joining the EU and NATO, which was blocked by Greece because of the “unacceptable” name of the neighboring country.

Macedonian officials hope that with the agreement reached, they will be able to begin accession negotiations with the EU at a summit to be held in late June, and receive an invitation to join NATO by mid-July.

The European Commission has already recommended the start of negotiations on the accession of Macedonia to the EU. The European Council, according to Mogherini, may decide on it in two weeks.

It should be noted that the representatives of the EU also radiated joy at the signing of the Greek-Macedonian agreement. Mogherini, it seems, even put on a bright red jacket, specially to enhance the effect. Next year, she will need to sum up the results of her work in that position, and therefore such a large-scale positive event will certainly be of use in her store of breakthroughs.

As for NATO, the Alliance was ready to invite Macedonia as early as 10 years ago, but this issue was blocked by Greece at the Bucharest Summit in 2008. At that time, NATO countries agreed that Macedonia would receive an invitation after the resolution of the naming dispute with Greece.

However, euphoria is all well and good, but there is still a brutal reality to deal with. Now the treaty has yet to be approved by the parliament of Macedonia and confirmed at an all-Macedonian referendum, after which the document has to be ratified by the Greek legislators.

The present governments, both Macedonian and Greek, have slim majorities in the parliaments of their countries. Moreover, it is unlikely that most Macedonians will decide to vote against joining NATO and the EU by blocking the name change. But one can safely predict that the situation in both countries will be gravely destabilized during the consideration of these issues.

Protests in Greece against the preservation of the word “Macedonia” in the name of the neighboring country were more than just massive – they gathered hundreds of thousands (!). Greeks rallied on the agreement’s signing day as well. Several hundred protesters gathered around the Greek village within 25 kilometers of which a solemn ceremony saw the treaty on the new name for the former Yugoslav republic being signed.

Flying the Greek flags, the demonstrators tried to march to the lake shore. However, the police blocked all roads, and therefore the protesters could not get to the event itself, but still tried to break through by throwing stones at law-enforcement personnel. The police had to use tear gas and stun grenades. According to the protesters, at least eight people were injured as a result of the clashes.

The protests in Macedonia were even more intense.

On the evening of June 17, a protest took place in the capital city of Skopje. Several hundred protesters opposed to renaming the nation tried to break into the parliament building. The protesters threw firecrackers, bottles, and stones at the police who guarded the building, and tried to dismantle the fence. Law-enforcement personnel responded with stun grenades and tear gas, which, as the Macedonian Ministry of the Interior said in a statement, was aimed “to prevent escalation of the situation” and seizure of the parliament building. As already mentioned above, 7 police officers were injured, and 25 demonstrators were detained.

Protests were also held in some other cities of Macedonia, in particular, in the small city of Bitola near the border with Greece, 50 kilometers away from the place where the agreement was signed. The protesters told journalists that they wanted to be Macedonians, and not “northern Macedonians,” and would not change their stance.

The referendum on changing the name of the country is scheduled for September in Macedonia. One could write that this fall would be a hot season in the Balkans, but it is always hot there, due to the peculiarities of the local climate.

By Natalia ISHCHENKO

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