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Wednesday 23 January 2019

What’s in a name?

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is trying to change its name and move closer to Nato and the EU. Many Greeks violently object to the plan, and they have a powerful ally: Vladimir Putin

By Giles Whittell

After 25 years of strife and statue-building, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is poised to change its name to Northern Macedonia. It would be easy to glaze over and dismiss this as a little local etymological wrinkle. Easy, and wrong.

The question of Macedonia’s name has been burning slowly since the end of the Cold War. If it burns more brightly before being finally resolved, that is because in some minds the Cold War is still being fought, and Macedonia is on the front line.

To the people of FYROM, Macedonia is the rugged and ancient land where they live and where Alexander the Great, the Emperor Justinian and Mother Teresa, among others, were born. To many Greeks the use of the name by their northern neighbour is unacceptable because it implies a territorial claim on the northern Greek province of Macedonia, known for its regional capital, Thessaloniki, and the beaches of the three-fingered Chalkidiki.

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A man watches as thousands of Macedonian nationalists backed by right wing nationalist party VMRO-DPME march to the parliament.

Is that why protesters have been on the streets of Athens again?

It is. Recent polls suggest 60 per cent of Greeks still object to the plan for FYROM to change its name. The plan was drafted last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos and ratified last week by the Macedonian parliament in Skopje. But it remains to be ratified by the Greek parliament, in which the government of Alexis Tsipras is hanging by a thread having survived a vote of no confidence last week by a single vote.

The latest anti-name-change demonstrations were smaller than their organisers hoped. Police said 60,000 people took to the streets of the capital (there were buses for ten times as many). But the protesters have a powerful ally elsewhere – in the Kremlin.

Why is Putin involved?

He is not involved directly, but he is acutely interested in the fate of the name-change plan because, once ratified by both parliaments, it would remove the last remaining obstacle standing in the way of Macedonia’s pending applications to join Nato and the European Union. And Putin regards any eastward expansion of either organisation, especially into Russia’s Slavic brother nations in the Balkans, as anathema.

Is Russia managing to hold the line in the Balkans?

Not really, but not for want of trying. Three years ago a group of Russians was deported from Serbia, accused of plotting a coup in Montenegro. If successful it would have installed a friendly jurisdiction for Russian oligarchs at one of the most spectacular super-yacht havens on the Adriatic. It would also have prevented the tiny coastal state joining Nato. It failed, and Montenegro has since joined.

Next in line for membership after Macedonia is Serbia, which, not coincidentally, Putin visited last week. He received a lavish red-carpet welcome from a nation that on present reckoning admires him even more than his own. More to the point, his presidential jet was escorted in to land by a squadron of MiG-29 fighters donated to Serbia by Russia.

“You can rely on us,” Aleksandar Vucic, the nationalist Serbian leader, told his visitor. This is not strictly true. Vucic is trying to have his cake and eat it, keeping Russia onside while bidding for Nato and EU membership by backing a land-swap deal with Kosovo that would normalise relations between the two. Russia has a veto over that deal in the United Nations Security Council, so for the time being Vucic is making a virtue of necessity by exuding warmth towards Putin. The feeling is mutual. In return for the gift of a Serbian puppy, Putin admitted Vucic to the Order of Alexander Nevsky, the highest honour the Kremlin can bestow on sycophants.

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Macedonian special police forces control the departure of migrants to board a train to reach the Serbian Macedonian border.

Is Russia trying to sabotage the Macedonia name-change deal?

Sabotage is a strong word. Suffice to say that in Greece, Tsipras’s defence minister, Panos Kammenos, who triggered last week’s vote of no confidence by leading his Independent Greeks party out of the governing coalition, enjoys close ties with Moscow. Tsipras is nevertheless confident he will get the deal through the Greek parliament with votes from other parties.

In Skopje, the ratification process has been more straightforward because Macedonia’s current social democrat-led government is more stable. It has even started taking down some of the more provocative statues of Macedonian heroes erected by its nationalist predecessor.

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People walk in Macedonia Square in front of a statue of Alexander the Great.

Who else is involved?

No account of this negotiation would be complete without mention of Matthew Nimetz, an American diplomat who has worked tirelessly to resolve it successfully since 1994. When given the role of UN Special Representative for the naming dispute of Greece and FYROM by the Clinton administration in 1994, Nimetz was 54. The former Rhodes scholar is now 79 and evincing signs of weariness. Last week he said it was time to “break through on this issue, solve it finally, [and] move forward in the region with the two countries in friendship and co-operation”. If it happens, he should take a bow.