A new name, a new Republic have entered the comity of nations with Sunday’s agreement between Greece and Macedonia to rename the latter as the Republic of North Macedonia. The development in the Balkans will hopefully end the row that has soured relations between the two countries since 1991.
The grandstanding that marked the signing of the pact has promptly been greeted with a signal of intent by Macedonia’s Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev.
“Our two countries should step out of the past and look to the future,” he said. “Our peoples want peace We will be partners and allies.” If indeed the agreement has been a “brave, historic and necessary step for our peoples” as the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, has assured the Balkans and Europe, it will be hard not to wonder whether Greece, convulsed by economic turmoil, has responded rather late to a geopolitical imperative.
“We are here to heal the wounds of time, to open a path for peace, fraternisation and growth for our countries, the Balkans and Europe.” A new chapter thus opens in the Balkans which has over the centuries been roiled by bouts of ferment. The historical factor is profound.
The accord is embedded in one of the world’s longest diplomatic disputes, which began 27 years ago with Macedonia’s declaration of independence, but whose roots date back centuries. It was, on closer reflection, an echo of the ferment in the Balkans, indeed a distinctive feature of its history.
What turned the tide was the election of Zaev in 2017, replacing nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, that brought Greece and Macedonia closer to an agreement. Rapprochement with Greece has been uppermost in Zaev’s agenda, pre-eminently to secure his country’s membership of the European Union and NATO, an entry that has been blocked by the government in Athens for years.
This conciliation ought to have been attempted long ago, but Tsipras’ predecessors never had the nerve to try and not least owing to the genocide in a swathe of the Balkans in the mid-Nineties. Since 1991, Athens has objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has its own northern province of the same name, which in ancient times was the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire ~ a source of intense pride for modern-day Greeks. The two Prime Ministers have ignored strong hostile reactions at home to push ahead with the agreement.
More and more countries are mending fences ~ North Korea and America on the one hand, Greece and Macedonia at another remove. The issues at stake are of course radically different. Yet the fact of the matter must be that two momentous developments in two very different parts of the world have happened in the span of a week. Why not India and Pakistan, we are tempted to ask. Why not?