Republic of Macedonia is a country in the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. It declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. A multiethnic society, four official languages are spoken in Macedonia: Albanian, Turkish, Romani and Serbian. Macedonia has an open and market-based economy and is a member of the Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The name of the country, however, has been a source of controversy between Macedonia and its southern neighbor Greece for quite a while. The Greeks are opposed to the use of the name of "Republic of Macedonia" by the country and international organisations, as it implies sovereignty over the Greek Macedonia, saying that there should be a geographical qualifier such as Northern Macedonia for official use.
On Sunday, 17th June, the governments of Greece and Macedonia signed a historic agreement to rename the latter to the Republic of North Macedonia. The agreement inked by the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in the lakeside fishing village of Psarades was described as a brave and essential accord that has the potential to put an end to decades of tension between the two European countries and also pave the way for Macedonia to become a member of the European Union.
I did a brief interview with Prof Dimitar Bechev to discuss the different dynamics of the naming dispute and the agreement which was secured recently. Bechev is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Research Fellow at University of North Carolina. He was a 2015-2016 visiting scholar at the Harvard University's Center for European Studies and is a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera, CNN, Foreign Policy and openDemocracy.
Q: What was the root of the controversy between Greece and Macedonia over the name of the Republic of Macedonia? Why didn't the Greeks agree that Macedonia was entitled to this name?
A: It’s Greece’s vision of national history stressing continuity with Antiquity. Also the rivalry for Ottoman Macedonia from the 1870s till the mid-20th c. Legacy of Alexander was key to Greek claims
Q: Macedonia is an independent nation and a member state of the United Nations. Should it have submitted to pressure by Greece and change its name?
A: Yes, if it wants to join EU and NATO. Ultimately voters will decide at the referendum in September. State name will change but not the nation’s - or the name of the language. There are Greek concessions, too
Q: In your Al-Jazeera piece about the recent deal between Greece and Macedonia, you mentioned that the Balkans region will experience more peace and stability as a result of the settlement of this dispute. What is the real impact of the settlement of this dispute on the Balkans?
A: Reenergizing integration into the West. Macedonia remains a single country as the Albanian community values NATO and EU membership highly. As in Belgium, external frameworks sustain power-sharing internally
Q: The pact, before it is agreed by Greece, should be passed by the parliament of Macedonia and endorsed by a referendum. Do you think the Macedonian parliament and the public will vote positively, given the protests that happened during and before the lake Prespa summit?
A: Parliament already endorsed. PM Zaev will make the referendum issue name change plus EU and NATO. His party did very well in the local elections last October. Together with the Albanians, he can pull it off.
Q: Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greeks said Macedonia's chosen name conveyed some clandestine territorial claims against its own province of Macedonia. Did the newly-founded country really have any territorial claims against Greece and did it ever threaten its neighbor?
A: I don’t think so. It was a symbolic dispute, no real sovereignty issues have been ever at stake. There’s a clear difference with next-doir Kosovo
Q: And a final question; the accession of Macedonia to the European Union is currently on the agenda for the future enlargement of EU. Negotiations regarding Macedonia's accession to the Union have been going on since 2005. Do you see any major obstacle to Macedonia's becoming a new EU member state?
A: No, Macedonia became an official candidate in 2005. Greece blocked starting proper negotiations -- next step, at the end of 2009. As of yesterday, EU said Macedonia can start talks in a year’s time if it implements a handful of specific reforms. Greece lobbied hard on MK behalf - new dynamic.