What’s in a name?


This week Greek legislators have a chance to lay to rest an absurdity, though given the historic tinder-dry tensions throughout the Balkans, it would probably be too much to assume that this would be an absolutely final end to the matter.

The parliament in Athens will be asked to accept that the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia should change its name to the “Republic of North Macedonia”. This new title was agreed last June between left-wing Greek premier Alexis Tsipras and his then newly-elected counterpart Zoran Zaev. Earlier this month the parliament in Skopje voted for the agreement which, though it changes the country’s name, accepts that its citizens will still be called Macedonians and their language Macedonian. The problem is that Greece also has a northern province called Macedonia and it has been argued that under its old name, the state of Macedonia might one day lay claim to this Greek territory.

At the weekend there were violent demonstrations in Athens ahead of the Greek vote. There is a suspicion that right-wing nationalist protestors were encouraged by Moscow, which wishes to keep the Balkans sufficiently unstable to block the expansion of the presence of the European Union and NATO. President Vladimir Putin’s high-profile trip to Serbia last week produced the announcement that Belgrade was close to joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union. This would rule out its membership of the EU, the accession to which has long been delayed thanks to the concerns Brussels has over Serbian governance and the rule of law.

To Russia’s annoyance, Macedonia is also an EU candidate state and the resolution of the dispute over its name would advance its eligibility. Two Russians are among locals currently on trial in Montenegro accused of trying to organize an election-day coup in 2016 to prevent the victory of a pro-Western party. The following year Montenegro completed its 10-year accession period to become a full member of NATO.

Pundits in Greece are saying that with the support of minority parties, Tsipras is likely to win support for the deal with Skopje. Last week his government won a vote of confidence forced by the withdrawal of support by a right-wing ally. But with fresh elections due this year, the Greek premier will face a fresh challenge by the rejectionists who, if they triumph, might yet tear up last June’s deal and once more destabilize relations between Athens and Skopje. And Tsipras is not simply vulnerable over the Macedonia name deal. His Syriza party won power in 2015 promising to reject the humiliating terms the EU and IMF wanted to impose on Greece in return for a further bailout of state finances. In the event, Tsipras fired his feisty rejectionist finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and accepted the Brussels deal, ensuring Greeks continued to suffer from crippling austerity and rising poverty. It is this volte-face, far more than the ridiculous row over the right to the name “Macedonia”, that could count against him most tellingly.

There is understandable anger among ordinary citizens at their country’s wretched economic state. But Greeks need to be focusing on fixing their mismanaged and all-too-often corrupt finances rather than expending their energies on protesting angrily about the name of a neighboring state.