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Macedonia: What's in a name - and behind it?

EU enlargement / COMMENTARY

Date: 16/07/2009
The Republic of Macedonia was the first Western Balkan country to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union, on 9 April 2001, following a worryingly rise in domestic ethnic tensions between the Slavic majority and the Albanian minority. It was then granted much-coveted “candidate” status for EU membership as early as 2005 – yet it is still waiting for the beginning of accession negotiations.
The bilateral dispute with Greece over the country’s name continues to block the country’s accession to NATO and is often referred to as a stumbling block along its path towards EU membership.
But Skopje is facing several political challenges well beyond the name game – from the process of harmonising the country’s legislation with the Union’s standards (in relation to both starting accession negotiations and liberalising the visa regime) to the continued implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement; from the overall effort to achieve full inclusion of the Albanian community in the social, political and economic fabric of the country to the struggle to maintain the constitutional separation of powers between church and state. (The centre-right government remains unhappy with the Constitutional Court ruling banning religious teaching in public schools.)
The recent “Accession Watch” Report produced by the Macedonian Centre for European Training concluded that there is progress to be made in the seven remaining benchmarks identified in the last European Commission Progress Report: political dialogue; police laws; judicial reform; anti-corruption legislation, public administration; employment; and the business climate. (One benchmark - “fair and democratic elections” - has just been met.)
Many of these benchmarks can realistically be reached before the Commission’s next Progress Report, due in October 2009, since they involve procedural matters that can easily be tackled by both the executive and the legislative branches. However, some concerns persist as too many laws are hastily adopted, only to fall later at the constitutional level.
But there are also some grounds for optimism despite the challenges outlined above: in contrast to the violence of last year's parliamentary polls, which stoked fears that the country’s EU membership would be further delayed, voting in Macedonia's presidential and local elections in March and April 2009 took place peacefully.
Many saw this as a milestone on Macedonia’s EU path, with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn himself welcoming “the overall satisfactory conduct of the presidential and municipal elections in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, although the outcome leaves a number of questions unresolved. A relatively low turnout (42%) – particularly in the run-off presidential ballot in the west, where most of the Albanian community lives – has raised concerns about the government’s ability to integrate the country’s largest domestic minority and hardly strengthens the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
Since it fulfilled all the necessary conditions, Macedonia also tops a list of Western Balkan countries expecting to be, but not yet, granted a visa-free regime with a majority of EU countries (those in the Schengen free-movement area) by early 2010. This will significantly boost the development of people-to-people contacts between the EU and Skopjie, and help soften the regional impact of the global economic crisis. However, visa liberalisation should not be understood as a consolation prize replacing the long-awaited beginning of accession negotiations.
Whether this happens by the end of 2009 will not only depend on the EU, but also on the government’s ability to achieve the remaining seven benchmarks.
Meanwhile, the stand-off between Athens and Skopjie over the name issue continues. After last year’s NATO Summit in Bucharest, it became clear that Greece would only agree not to block Macedonia’s bid to join the alliance if it changed its official name. For their part, Macedonian politicians (and the public, judging by recent opinion polls) will not back down on the name issue even if this means sacrificing future EU membership.
After christening the country’s largest airport “Alexander the Great” in December 2008, the Macedonian government decided to rename the main north-south motorway “Alexander the Macedonian”. This was the latest in a long list of sites and buildings given ‘antique’ names since 2006, when the VMRO-DPMNE party came to power. In part, this is clearly a response to Greece’s obstructionist stance. However, private conversations with leading politicians from the governing coalition suggest that the so-called process of “antiquisation” of Macedonia is also seen as giving Skopjie an extra bargaining chip in its tug-of-war with Athens.
Not only is this somewhat naïve, but it also damages Macedonia’s standing with its allies. While a majority of EU and NATO members are sympathetic towards the situation the country finds itself in, European public opinion overwhelmingly regards the image of Alexander the Macedonian as intrinsically linked to the Hellenic (i.e. Greek) identity. A claim by any other state but Greece to this historic and cultural legacy is considered, to put it mildly, illegitimate.
In the context of the process of building a distinctly Macedonian (non-Hellenic) national identity, which began in 1991, and cementing the state’s territorial integrity, its “antiquisation” risks becoming a liability. Worse still, a nationalistic agenda may help to consolidate consensus internally in the short term, but undermines the process of fostering the inclusion of minorities and may well become an alibi to postpone much-needed reforms by blaming others for the current stalemate.
Srdjan Cvijic is an External Expert working with the European Policy Centre on the Western Balkans.

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