A weekend of political turmoil over FYROM name

Greek Parliament / Deutsche Welle

On Saturday Greek parliament rejected a censure motion, brought by the opposition over Prime Minister Tsipras’s deal aimed at solving a decades-old name dispute with neighbouring (FYR)Macedonia.

It was tabled by the country’s main opposition party, New Democracy just after the government passed the final cluster of the remaining ‘reforms’  the lenders demanded from Greece. New Democracy leader Mr Mitsotakis said the accord “was the final blow for Greeks who have suffered years of austerity“.

Even though the main opposition also supports a “composite name that includes the name Macedonia for the country”, the objections raised were on grounds of language and ethnic identity, grasping the opportunity to exploit public sentiment that is reportedly against the name ‘Macedonia’ being used at all by the neighbouring country.

The opposition, however, seems to be unclear about the difference between ‘ethnicity ‘and ‘nationality’, concepts which for the Greek state seems interlinked and interchangeable, while on the issue of the ‘Macedonian language’ expert opinion appears varied. The consensus leans towards the idea that Alexander’s Macedones spoke Greek and the Macedonian ‘dialect’ bears no resemblance to the language spoken in today’s FYR Macedonia.

The censure motion was rejected by  153 votes to 127 in the 300 seat parliament.

Outside the building, about 3000 protesters, outraged with the government for agreeing to ‘give away (Greek)Macedonia’, briefly clashed with police on the steps of the parliament. 

The result paved the way for what the European officers present, described as ‘a historic signing ceremony’ on Sunday. The EU has been actively encouraging the two countries to come to a settlement over the name issue so that the EU can continue its expansion in the Balkans, and score a political point against Russia who the EU considers hostile.

So Mr Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, who under different circumstances might have preferred to do nothing for a few more years,  reached an agreement that FYROM, currently internationally recognised as the Republic of Macedonia, will be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.

From the Greek side, the aim of the deal was to distinguish it from Greek Macedonia which is and will continue to be part of Greece, and continue dealing with its exit from the financial stranglehold Europe imposed on it.

Internal ethnic tension on the north side of the border, as well as the need for economic growth (FYROM’s economy less than 17 times smaller than Greece’s and its per capita GDP is about 5 times smaller), makes the deal expedient for FYROM as well.

Following the censure vote, the foreign ministers and prime ministers from both countries met on the Greek – Fyrom border and signed the agreement, in the presence of two EU commissioners, while about 5000 protesters clashed with police.

But there is still some way to go before the name change becomes official.

Macedonia’s parliament will need to back the deal, followed by a referendum in September or October.

If voters there support it, the government would have to change the constitution which is a key Greek demand.

The deal will finally have to be ratified by the Greek parliament, a process which may also not be straightforward, as rational discussion appears to be hindered by ‘patriotic correctness’ (similar to political correctness, but wearing bovver boots and very easily offended) and populist political opportunism.