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What’s in a name: the Macedonian question and the social question

The Macedonian Question will be there for many years to come, easily manipulated by both imperialisms and nationalisms of all kinds.

lead lead Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev in signing ceremony ending dispute over the use of the name Macedonia, June 17, 2018. Dimitris Tosidis/Press Association. All rights reserved.

The accord crafted between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) resolving the name dispute has an energising social potential. It potentially undermines nationalisms in the Southern Balkans, while at the same time fighting neo-liberal economics imposed on the Balkans from outside, which is a form of imperialism. This, nevertheless, is a forbiddingly uphill task given the lack of radical/progressive political subjects to carry out such a demanding process in both Greece and FYROM. In this regard, the accord brings about more NATO and Germany in the region, not good news. Lastly, I should point out that the agreement is profoundly anti-Russian.

North(ern) Macedonia

A number of conjunctural events and agential strategies, both domestic and external, have conspired to produce the agreement between Greece and FYROM, whereby the latter agreed to be re-named North(ern) Macedonia (as long as both parliaments and, in the case of FYROM, a referendum, approve the agreement). What are these events? The most important include:

a)  The strategy of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) under the leadership of Nick Kotzias to create fractures within the right-wing opposition party of New Democracy (ND), which is split between old-fashioned nationalists and liberals at a time when the country is undergoing a period of extraordinary austerity, coupled with economic contraction. It seems to me that the MFA’s strategy has paid off, judging by the defensive and utterly dispirited attitude of New Democracy during the debate in the Greek parliament.

b)  The crisis of the political system in FYROM in which the former nationalist PM, Nikola Gruevski, as well as many others, are in danger of imprisonment, whereas the current incumbent, the ‘socialist’ Zoran Zaev, is attempting to drive a wedge between his nationalist President and the Albanian parties, and all this in a country equally entrapped in a serious social, ethnic and economic crisis.

c)  Massive pressure on both countries on the part of the USA and Germany that want to see FYROM as a member of NATO and the EU. This is part and parcel of Germany’s and NATO’s policy of Drang nach Osten, namely their drive to exclude Russia from the Balkans and push themselves deeper into the Eastern frontier, as they want to displace Russia from the Ukraine. This is directly connected with Germany’s interest in controlling the Axios-Danube water river passages alongside the geostrategic axis Salonica-Belgrade (Salonica’s port and the Macedonian interior are major strategic hubs providing supplies and logistical support for the west in case of war with Russia).        

The so-called ‘modernisation’ of the western Balkans (investments for the creation of infrastructure, modern railways, control of oil and gas pipelines in order to secure the flow of hydrocarbons to western markets, spread of financial and banking institutions etc.) seems to have been taken over completely by German and Austrian interests, whereas NATO is taking care of the security aspect (a ‘division of labour’ that dates back, I would say, to the early 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc). In this equation, Greece has since the late 1980s been slated for a certain role in the Balkans and FYROM, a kind of “Afghanistan of the Balkans”[1]: it cannot be floating East and West; nor can it be left out of the western fold, as the west advances eastwards.

Slavic elements

In this respect, a critique of the agreement can only fully make sense from a left-democratic and radical perspective. The Greek ruling party, Syriza, fully inserted in the pro-NATO camp obeying the German monetary discipline of the bailout agreements, has effectively carried out a state policy on the name. As Kotzias explained in his speech in the Greek parliament, the name “North(ern) Macedonia”, among others, was discussed by all previous Greek cabinets, especially those of the right New Democracy party, now the main opposition party. The same, obviously, applies to Zaev’s ‘socialists’: they simply carried out state policy at what seemed a favourable domestic political conjuncture: at a moment when the USA is on a mission to create dependent geopolitical trampolines aimed at sapping Russia’s posture in the Ukraine and the Black Sea.

I will lay to one side issues concerning the recognition of a “Macedonian language” and “identity”, both of which, as with every nation on earth, are constructed by state elites and their ethnic intellectuals. I would only like to add that the more this construction is delayed historically the less credible it becomes and, in this respect, Bulgaria’s claims are more credible. It would hardly take a good linguist and historian any effort at all to convince an educated audience that the modern Macedonian language that is spoken in FYROM is nothing but a Bulgarian dialect. In fact, had Bulgaria not sided with Germany in two world conflicts, the lands under the sovereignty of the (FY) Republic of Macedonia today might very well have been under Bulgaria’s sovereignty (see also the names of this ‘nation’: Zaev, Gligorov, Ivanov, all rather Bulgarian names, which may well have been changed by dominant state Bulgarian or Serbian policies in the past – precisely because of a lack of a comprehensive Macedonian ethnic ontology at a time when other such ontologies dominated Balkan politics).

In any event, I should not fail to note that all three Balkan state nationalisms – Greek, Bulgarian, Serb – are partly responsible for the creation of this late modern Macedonian ethnic ontology. It takes many hundreds of years for a language to develop naturally. How far has the language of FYROM (Albanian apart) developed since 1944, when a British Special Operations Executive Officer wrote that the language was “corrupt and debased, without a literature or a fixed grammar”.[2] I will resist further temptation to talk about ‘language’ and ‘identity’, as it requires a historically informed perspective and this is not the right place for that. But I am extremely interested in what I call the ‘political depth’ of the name that Greece and the (FY) Republic of Macedonia have agreed erga omnes, that is, for all kind of uses.

The name of “North(ern) Macedonia” has no Slavic element in it and this is historically inaccurate: as if Yugoslavia never existed, or as if modern Bulgaria never had a claim, and rightly so, on this geographical area. This is not a simple matter. “North(ern) Macedonia” sounds like an entity that seceded not from Yugoslavia but from Greece. Greece has three administrative counties called “Macedonia and Thrace”, “Central Macedonia” and “Eastern Macedonia”. What is missing is “North(ern) Macedonia”. This, apart from being a legal oddity, can very well give the pretext for any Greek or Bulgarian government in the future, assisted by the west, especially in times of crisis and conflict between NATO and Russia, to lay irredentist claims on North(ern) Macedonia, abrogating the agreement.

The opposite is also true. No-one can prevent North(ern) Macedonia, especially if pushed by its NATO allies, from abrogating the agreement and calling herself what it wants to be called, namely Republic of Macedonia. Greece cannot stop this, as there is no relevant clause in the agreement stipulating that once North(ern) Macedonia becomes a member of NATO and the EU, it cannot disrespect it. In this context, it becomes clear who the real arbiters of the agreement are – none other than the USA and Germany, that is, their problematic and conflictual alliance in the Western Eurasian theatre, as they both expand – the former in the field of security, the latter in business – eastwards, undermining Russian interests and influence in the Balkans. 

The further militarisation of the Balkans

My criticism of the agreement, therefore, concerns the fact that it upsets the balance of power in the Balkans by way of unilaterally undermining Russia’s interests in the region, while relinquishing South Slav political identity. Greece is getting embedded more and more in the west’s system of power. In other words, and especially after the collapse of the Greek-Russian understanding with the shelving of the Bourgas-Alexandoupolis pipeline project in 2015, Russia loses several stakes in the Balkans which constitute an important geopolitical trampoline in defence of the Crimea and Ukraine.

Given the dependence of Greece on the regime of bailout agreements, the accord signed in Prespa Lakes becomes an important stepping-stone for the further militarisation of the Balkans and the dominance of German financial interests. Herein lies the urgency with which Kotzias rushed to visit Moscow straight after the agreement was signed. I doubt, however, if he was in a position to convince the Russian Minister, Sergey Lavrov, that the accord is not meant to damage Russian interests.

From a Greek point of view, the more generic framework of the agreement is located in the new foreign policy of the Hellenic MFA to reverse Greece’s traditional pro-Arab policy and, in its stead, embrace Israel, forging a solid Greece-Cyprus-Israel understanding in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This is not a bad time for Greece, given the grievances NATO and Germany have towards the neo-Ottomanist regime of Tayyip Erdogan and the issue of refugees. Erdogan, who won the election of 24 June 2018, has no intention of changing the foreign policy of his country in the foreseeable future. From this perspective, too, the compartmentalisation and NATO-isation of the Balkans becomes more and more entrenched, whereas the deepening of Greece’s dependency upon the USA, Germany and Israel deprive the country of any meaningful bargaining chips in times of war and peace.

The more Turkey gets embroiled in the quagmire of the Middle East, the more NATO, Germany and Israel, via Cyprus and Greece, want to embed themselves in the Balkans and ignore Turkey. FYROM, in this respect, becomes a key. At the same time, Turkey can at any time shift its terrain of confrontation in the Aegean Sea, engaging Greece. From this perspective, the real threat to Greece comes from within NATO: from a reckless and nervous Turkey unable to administer the crisis of its borders in the interior.

Is it, then, correct to argue that everything is wrong with the agreement, and that it should be scrapped?

The social issue

No. Macedonian society is deeply divided on the issue and western-sponsored media label all those who disagree with the agreement as “nationalists”, which is wholly wrong. But in the event that the agreement is approved by both sides, overcoming the ‘hurdle’ of the referendum in FYROM – then it has the potential to release a new social dynamic in which the primary political element would not be competing Balkan nationalisms but the social issue.

In the medium to long run, the agreement could emancipate Southern Balkan societies from morbid nationalisms and make them concentrate on their real problems, which are none other than unemployment, austerity, lack of sustainable economic development, collapse of social services and unbelievably low salaries and wages. From Sofia to Tirana and from Athens to Belgrade, Banja Luka and Podgorica, the real issue of concern is the class issue, and not whether or not Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect.

In Greece, Syriza, precisely because it is locked into the power-system of the bailout agreements, cannot raise this issue with any conceivable chance of success. Doing so would mean undermining its own position in government. Zaev’s ‘socialism’ in the (FY) Republic of Macedonia, on the other hand, sells the agreement domestically as the achievement of two progressive Balkan governments opening the way to peace, development and reconciliation. No doubt, he receives an enormous boost from various agencies and pro-western ‘NGOs’. But he, too, has no means of addressing the social issue, as he is wholly dependent on EU and other funding, whereas the policies he pursues are those of austerity and cuts.

But, then, who can address the social issue across the southern Balkans and beyond? Well, the ‘other Left’ can, but we are all in search of it. Having said this, then, it seems to me that the Macedonian Question will be there for many years to come, easily manipulated by both imperialisms and nationalisms of all kinds.


[1] There is no intention to offend. I use an orientalist description here because this is how, pretty much, western policy-makers think of landlocked statelets with ‘under-developed’ economic and political institutions. Just have a look at Zbigniew Bzrezinski’s The Grand Chessboard and you will see what I mean.

[2] (Secret) Report on the “Free Macedonia Movement”, BNA-FO 371/43649, file R232039/1009/67, quoted in Mallinson, William and Zoran Ristic, The Threat of Geopolitics to International Relations: Obsession with the Heartland, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2017, p.31.

About the author

Vassilis K. Fouskas is Professor of International Politics & Economics at the Royal Docks School of Business & Law, University of East London and Director of STAMP (Centre for the study of States, Markets & People). Vassilis K. Fouskas and Bülent Gökay are marking over 20 years of collaborative research with the publication of Power Shift. The Disintegration of Euro-Atlanticism and New Authoritarianism, forthcoming by Palgrave-Macmillan in November 2018. 


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