Balkan Breakthrough

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Lindsay Lloyd

The rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia is a set back for Russia, but a win for America and the rest of Europe.

In a 1989 speech in Germany, just months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H.W. Bush called for “a Europe whole and free.”  His vision of the post-Cold War continent has largely been achieved.  And in recent days, one of the few remaining obstacles is finally drawing to a close.  On February 6, the Macedonian foreign minister signed an accord that will lead to his country becoming the 30th member of NATO, fulfilling a decades-old U.S. foreign policy goal.

Since the Republic of Macedonia emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia in 1991, it has been in a bitter dispute with its southern neighbor, Greece.  The clash blocked Macedonia’s ambitions to join NATO and the European Union.  But now, the governments in Athens and Skopje have agreed on a path forward and Macedonia is getting a new name.

Why?  Because both a region of Greece and the independent republic that was once part of Yugoslavia called themselves Macedonia, named after a culture and state that flourished in the region centuries before the birth of Christ.

Ancient Macedonia didn’t correspond with modern borders in Europe.  At times, it encompassed parts of what are now Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Serbia.

Modern Greece gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century. 

What became Yugoslavia formed after World War I, eventually including today’s Republic of Macedonia, with a Slavic majority speaking Macedonian, a Slavic language. 

Meanwhile, Greek Macedonia was mostly composed of ethnic Greeks, speaking Greek. 

This all began to matter in the early nineties, with Macedonian independence.  Greece rejected the new state’s claim to the name and the appropriation of ancient Greek symbols.

While the Republic of Macedonia officially insisted it had no designs on Greek territory, some prominent Macedonians felt otherwise, rallying around maps that claimed land belonging to its neighbors.  Macedonia’s first flag incorporated a symbol long associated with ancient Greece.  Its leaders took provocative steps claiming the heritage of ancient Macedonia as its own, renaming the Skopje airport after Alexander the Great and erecting monuments to historic figures long viewed as Greek.

So while nearby countries like Croatia and Slovenia joined the EU and NATO, Greece blocked Macedonia’s ambitions to integrate into these institutions.  An unwieldy compromise in 1995 saw Macedonia join the United Nations and related organizations as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). 

An American diplomat, Matthew Nimetz, guided off and on negotiations over more than 20 years – first as a special envoy during the Clinton Administration and later as the special representative of the UN Secretary General.  The United States and Europe worked hand-in-hand to support Nimetz’s efforts.

Last June, a compromise was reached that will rechristen Macedonia as the Republic of North Macedonia.  Despite strong and vocal opposition on both sides of the border, both parliaments have now ratified the accord. 

Both sides made what they see as major concessions to get to a deal.  Greece acknowledged its neighbor’s right to call itself Macedonia, albeit with the modifier “North.”  Athens has also pledged to support North Macedonia’s bids to join the EU and NATO.  In addition to changing its name, North Macedonia has agreed to cease using ancient Greek symbols and acknowledge that the modern state has no ties with Macedonian history.  Most importantly, both sides promise to live as good neighbors.

So why should we care? 

The rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia brings greater stability to the Balkans.  Decades after the collapse of communism and the fracturing of the Soviet empire and Yugoslavia, the Balkans still struggle with peace, democracy, and economic growth. 

For America and our European partners, the accord is good news.  It enhances security in a part of the world where American and European troops are still stationed.  It raises hope that other regional conflicts, like Kosovo, can be peacefully resolved.  It paves the way for NATO and perhaps, one day, European Union enlargement, weaving North Macedonia into the fabric of Western institutions.

At the same time, the agreement is a setback for our main adversary in the region – Russia.  Moscow’s aims in the Balkans are cynical – stoking divisions and instability, while fighting the expansion of NATO and the EU.

America and Europe have invested significant time and treasure in the Balkans since the Cold War.  This reconciliation advances a long-term shared goal – bringing peace and prosperity to the region. This breakthrough in the Balkans is worth celebrating.