What is the Macedonia issue all about?

The answer lies now in the ambitions of the new government in Skopje to join both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

MADRID: Why now? Why, after 27 years since the creation of the state formally known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), has the use of ‘Macedonia’ suddenly become a point of tension between the governments in Skopje and Athens?

The answer lies now in the ambitions of the new government in Skopje to join both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato).

That government, formed in late May, brought Zoran Zaev of the centre-left Social Democrats to power. He faces the daunting task of restoring normality to a country racked by political divisions, a feeble economy and tense relations between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Indeed, the government was only formed two years after a deepening political crisis marked by a corruption scandal, and Zaev leads Macedonia’s first new government in a decade.

Most people feel relieved about the change of power,” he said in an interview on his appointment. “Some even say that we were ‘too eager’ ” to govern.

“The fact is,” he said, “nothing is further from the truth. We know that the hardest part is yet to come, when we will have to face the damage left” by the previous government, led by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party.

Macedonia, a small, landlocked Balkan country of two million, transformed from a fragile but promising democracy to an authoritarian state under Nikola Gruevski, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2016. During the period, the country witnessed a degradation in the rights of the news media, a heavily biased judiciary system, rampant corruption and abuses of power.

The stability of the country, formerly a republic in Yugoslavia, is strategically important, because it is in the centre of the so-called Balkan route taken by migrants fleeing war-torn countries.

Skopje’s applications to both Nato and the EU are being held up by the long-simmering dispute with Greece over the use of “Macedonia”.

Athens says Skopje’s use of “Macedonia” as its name could imply a territorial claim over the northern Greek province of the same name, and a claim to its national heritage. Skopje counters that Macedonia has been its name dating to the now defunct Yugoslav federation of which it was part.

“Everyone knows what the issues are. There is a time for decision-making, and I think we are there,” said Matthew Nimetz, the UN’s special envoy on the “Macedonia” dispute since 1999.

“I know the (Greek) government is very sincere and energised to reach a solution to the problem … I think there is a will here, and I think also in Skopje, to try to reach a settlement,” he said recently in Athens.

The two countries recently agreed to intensify talks. Still, there is mounting public sentiment in Greece against any deal which could include the name Macedonia. Greece has said a compromise could include a compound name with a geographical or chronological qualifier, and be known only by that name.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has so far failed to secure broad backing from political parties for a settlement which would include the contentious name.

Nato is insisting that Macedonia must resolve the name dispute and build good relations with neighbouring countries before it can join the alliance, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in September.

“Nato’s door remains open,” Jens Stoltenberg said after meeting Zaev and addressing parliament in Skopje. “It’s not easy, but it can be done.”

In 2001 Nato and Western diplomats pulled Macedonia from the brink of civil war during an ethnic Albanian insurgency and promised it faster integration into the EU and the alliance. Both organisations see the Western Balkan region as important for issues from controlling immigration to countering security threats.

The time it takes to go through the EU membership process might give Greece, which has previously insisted that Skopje use a compound name such as “New” or “Upper” Macedonia, enough comfort that process can be halted if needed.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave a boost to Macedonia’s EU hopes, and those of Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Kosovo, in January. “We must maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.”

– With inputs from agencies

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