The Name Game (Foreign Policy)

In Foreign Policy


The future of EU expansion? It all depends on what the meaning of the word”Macedonia” is.

The European Union is a club with a long line out the door. Just ask Croatia,Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, or Turkey. But for one Balkan country, the biggestproblem is showing the right ID at the velvet rope. Seven former communist countrieswere able to enter both NATO and the EU by the end of the Bush years. But last yearthe Greek government blocked the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia fromjoining NATO, citing bad neighborly relations, and is determined to torpedo its EU bidas well. The reason? It’s all in a name.

FYROM, perhaps due to the unwieldiness of its acronym, has tried to enter as just”Macedonia,” the name of the ancient empire of Alexander the Great. But Greece alsohas a northern province called “Macedonia” and worries that Skopje has expansionistambitions.

The United States supports the eastward expansion of NATO in an effort to shrink theRussian sphere of influence and — the name issue notwithstanding — FYROM wouldseem to be a perfect candidate for membership. The Obama administration can helpthe United Nations solve the dispute by abandoning the Bush administration policy ofstubbornly backing the “Macedonians” and talk its fledgling friend into a compromisethat will push it over the Balkan hump.

But doing so won’t be easy. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedoniaunderstandably doesn’t like to be known by its cumbersome post-Titoist tag. “Don’tYou FYROM Me!” is a favorite bumper sticker on the streets of Skopje. In the 1990s,foreign observers doubted the viability of this landlocked country with an explosivecultural makeup and powerful neighbors. Slav Macedonians, Ethnic Albanians, Turks,Roma, Serbians, and Bulgarians are all packed together in a state the size of Vermont.It’s not surprising that such a fragile country would want to cling its oldest and mostrespectable heritage.

The largest minority in FYROM are Albanians, who desperately want to becomemembers of the EU and NATO. Besides the obvious economic benefits, membershipwould ultimately allow these Albanians closer ties with their coethnics in the westernBalkans. They are growing impatient with the recent surge in “Alexandermania”backed by the Slav majority that promotes an exclusively “Macedonian” identity for thecountry. Last month, the government unveiled plans to erect an $8 million, 72-footstatue of Alexander the Great atop his horse, Bucephalus, in the capital square. Nevermind that the historical Alexander’s actual capital was located inside modern Greece.

More troubling are the maps in “Macedonian” textbooks that show their ancestral homeland stretching far into present-day Greece (as well as Bulgaria and Albania) and describe Thessaloniki, the capital of the northern province of Greece, as occupied territory. These are irredentist claims that justifiably worry the Greeks.

Imagine how Californians would feel if Baja California wanted to be called simply”California”? Or how Swedes would react if Norway changed its name to”Scandinavia”? The U.N.’s designated mediator has floated various possible names for FYROM, and Greece has recently indicated it would accept “The Republic of NorthernMacedonia.” But such a solution implies there is a “Southern Macedonia” in Greece inhabited by the same people, as in North and South Korea. But this is not the caselinguistically or ethnically. A more sensible solution would be “Vardarska Makedonija,”named for the river that flows through the region, which respects the dignity and identity of Greece’s northern neighbor but also distinguishes it from the northernGreek province.

It’s no accident that the EU and NATO both require prospective members to have nooutstanding border disputes, but the government in Skopje has exacerbated tensionswith Greece. It has renamed its airport, streets, and squares after Hellenistic heroesand interferes with the internal affairs of Greece by claiming there is a “Macedonian”ethnic minority living there under duress. This week FYROM even brought a case atthe International Court of Justice in Hague against Greece for blocking its NATO bid.

Where does FYROM get its chutzpah? From the United States and its allies. In 2004the Bush administration hastily recognized the country as “the Republic of Macedonia”in return for its support of the Iraq war. It did not expect Greece actually to block analliance with a meddlesome neighbor. Barack Obama’s administration now has theopportunity to encourage FYROM to find a compromise agreeable to both parties.

The move will find support among realistic Republicans and Democrats who want tounclog the NATO bottleneck and undermine the increasing cooperation betweenGreece and Russia. By giving lip service to sovereignty — Georgia — and at other timessupporting ethnic separatism — Kosovo — the Bush administration gave the impressionthat the United States will change its stance on these concepts whenever they suit itsnarrow strategic interests. By helping Greece and FYROM reach a mutually acceptableagreement, the Obama administration can reverse this impression, and moreimportantly ensure the future peace of Europe.