Something remarkable just happened in the Balkans

Something remarkable just happened in the Balkans
© Getty Images

Something remarkable just happened in the Balkans. The governments in Athens and Skopje have completed all agreed measures to change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia, an issue that obsessed both countries for decades. 

The Hellenic Parliament in Athens last week, on Jan. 24, completed the last step in the earlier Lake Prespa Agreement that set necessary measures, centered on the name change, to remove Greek obstruction to North Macedonia’s NATO and EU membership. 

But the successful agreement is not the most amazing part of this accomplishment.

At last, the heads of government in two Balkan countries — Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, 44, of Greece and Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, also age 44, of North Macedonia — have acted in the long-term best interest of their nations rather than bow to pressure from disruptive ethnic nationalists who have caused so much misery and held back major areas of the Balkans for years.

ADVERTISEMENT
         

Tsipras and Zaev accomplished this difficult task without the usual level of international intervention required in previous Balkan disputes. Their decision to overcome extreme, sometimes violent, opposition to this agreement is an act of courageous leadership which creates hope that other young, forward-thinking political leaders in the Balkans will have the same courage.

North Macedonia’s name has been controversial since its independence. The current nation was previously the Autonomous Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia. With independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the national constitution declared the new nation the “Republic of Macedonia,” even though ancient Macedonia included the northeast coast of modern Greece, the largest and second most populated area of that country. This apparent claim to the territory and heritage of ancient Macedonia outraged Greeks, especially those living in the Macedonian region of modern Greece. A bitter and intense confrontation between the two nations ensued.                 

Internationally, the newest nation accepted the awkward title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to enable foreign relations to move forward. But staunch Greek opposition to its constitutional name infuriated citizens of North Macedonia who constantly provoked Greece through heritage-related actions.

Greece vetoed Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership at the Bucharest NATO Summit in 2008 over the name dispute. To find a diplomatic solution, the UN appointed an envoy, American Matthew Nimetz, who pursued a negotiated settlement to the name problem for over a decade without success until the current Greek and North Macedonian prime ministers mustered the will to solve it.

In North Macedonia, the nationalist political party, VMRO-DPMNE, blocked progress on the name while in power from 2006-2016. This same party almost destroyed the country in an unnecessary ethnic war with its Albanian citizens in 2001 that was only prevented by active international diplomatic negotiations which produced the Ohrid Agreement.

The North Macedonia nationalists, led by Nikola Gruevski, used ethnic fear and confrontation to retain power and prevent any hope of a negotiated settlement of the name problem. As a result, North Macedonia stagnated in isolation as the other regional nations moved on. After the public had enough of VMRO and voted them out of power in the 2016 election, Gruevski fled to Hungary to avoid jail after conviction on corruption-related charges.

Meanwhile, the Putin regime in the Kremlin found the Balkans a particularly fertile ground to practice its new strategy of corruption, propaganda and covert internet manipulation to destabilize democracy and undermine NATO, the EU and the United States. Kremlin interference was so blatant on the name issue that Greece expelled Russian diplomats caught buying local demonstrators to protest against the negotiations.

ADVERTISEMENT

The importance of this new agreement to North Macedonia is obvious, but Greece also benefits from the deal. Greece now has a more stable and accepted member of the European and Euro-Atlantic family of nations on its border instead of a hostile, festering and potentially unstable neighbor. The chance for both countries to develop cooperatively is improved. Further, Athens can take significant credit within the EU as a contributing member that helped stabilize and integrate the Balkan region of Europe.

Extraordinary national leadership like that shown by Tsipras and Zaev has been extremely rare in the Balkans, and they deserve full credit for their statesmanship. These young, progressive national leaders have made a difficult but historic decision to move their countries forward. 

The hope now is that leaders in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo will see what forward-thinking, courageous leadership looks like. If leaders in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Pristina can grasp the potential shown by the Greece-North Macedonia example, they can start to dig themselves and their countries out of the quagmire of ethnic hatred and help consolidate democracy and the future stability of the Balkans.

James W. Pardew is a former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of "Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans."