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The Macedonia Agreement

By on July 8, 2018
Alexander Billinis

by Alexander Billinis

by Alexander Billinis

It is of course premature to call the agreement signed, all too symbolically, at Lake Prespa between Greece and its northern neighbor, “North Macedonia,” as a done deal. National parliaments need to weigh in and, in newly baptized North Macedonia’s case, a referendum needs to be held for this agreement to be binding. This Agreement may be moot by the time it goes to press. However, without going too far into the history of a very complicated issue—the Macedonian Issue—allow me to offer a few opinions.

First, there is the name itself, “North Macedonia.” I have been writing and studying this issue since my college days when I was an East European Studies major at Georgetown University. I have always believed that Macedonia is a region divided between three states, and that no part has exclusivity for the whole—whether in a territorial, cultural, or ethnic sense. As such, a geographic qualifier to the name Macedonia always made sense to me. I would have preferred Slav Macedonia as the name because the former Yugoslav republic is on part of the territory of Macedonia, and because the majority population are indeed Slavs. In this way, the name Slav Macedonia contains an ethnic and geographic qualifier. Having said that, some qualifier is far better than none, particularly where now for over a quarter century most people refer to North Macedonia as simply Macedonia. Further the “Deal” requires that the name be used everywhere, both domestically and internationally.

As such, I give the country’s name a hesitant thumbs up.

Second, there is the nationality and the language. Here I am more concerned. The agreement as it stands simply baptizes the neighbor’s language and ethnicity as “Macedonian” without any qualifier. There is a need to differentiate between a Greek or Bulgarian Macedonian and a Macedonian from North Macedonia, and here we have a problem. By not clearly defining this nationality and language as a separate “Macedonian” from that of Greece or Bulgaria, it implies that Macedonian is only a person from North Macedonia who speaks (Slav) Macedonian. The concept of a Macedonian ethnicity is a contentious one for both Greeks and Bulgarians, and if the North Macedonian side over-interprets this to the exclusion of Greek and Bulgarian Macedonians, the Agreement will be a scrap of paper.

The Slav Macedonians will of course point out, probably correctly, that their 35 percent plus Albanian minority will not like their nationality listed as Slav Macedonian, and that their votes will be vital to passing this agreement in parliament and the referendum. This argument unfortunately has merit. They will often argue that they should not have to “qualify” their nationality with the term Slav, to which I would respond that they and so many other ex-Yugoslavs were happy with the term Yugoslav, and this should pose no problem. Further, while Macedonia does indeed have a long Slavic history—from the times of Slav settlement nearly fifteen hundred years ago, it is historically incorrect to bestow the term “Macedonian” on them without any qualifiers. The agreement contains some mealy-mouthed reference to “Macedonian” as a South Slav language and clearly not related to the Macedonian of the Ancients, yet it should go further.

For the nationality and language issue, I give a thumbs down.

While we are on history, the Agreement makes clear that that the North Macedonia has nothing to do with Ancient Macedonia, which is “a Hellenic civilization” with a “continuity from antiquity to the present day.” For so many people this has been a key sticking point and the Deal/Agreement specifically states that Ancient Macedonia belongs to the heritage of Greek Macedonia and that for each Party to the Agreement (Greece and North Macedonia) the term “Macedonian” refers to “a different historical context and cultural heritage.” This is a clear endorsement of Ancient Macedonia as Greek and of the continuity of Hellenic character of Macedonia from the Classical period to the present. It states, further, that FYROM must change any monuments or public infrastructure in their country “to ensure respect for the said [Hellenic] patrimony.”

For historical issues, thumbs up.

Then of course there is the issue of irredentism either implicit or explicit in the North Macedonian Constitution and policies. The Agreement confirms that the borders are inviolable, and “nothing in either country’s constitution shall be inferred to constitute a basis for changing frontiers, or for interfering in the internal affairs of the other.” This is yet another sore spot for the Greek side, one again, seemingly resolved by the Agreement.

On borders and internal interference, another thumbs up.

It is hard to give each item equal weight and by no means are these criteria the only ones, but I do believe that they are the main points for normalizing the fraught relations between the two neighboring states. I remain bothered by the nationality issue, yet I think that the balance of the Agreement is equitable enough to both countries and may form the basis for improved relations in the future. Of course, no Agreement is worth anything without the buy-in of both parties, and in both countries—and their vocal diasporas—there is considerable feeling that the deal is a sell-out.

Certainly, there is outside pressure to make a deal work, so that North Macedonia can join European and Euro-Atlantic structures. It may be, too, that the Greek government battered by austerity and by some rather disastrous policies at the beginning of the SYRIZA-ANEL government needed an international success by concluding an issue that has largely been a public relations disaster for Greece. I have never respected Prime Minister Tsipras and I would hardly be surprised that he would conclude a deal for cynical reasons. Optimism and trust in politicians is in low supply in either of my countries. And yet seeds sometimes take root even in poor soils.

I think that the key to making this Agreement work is to understand that both Macedonian identities—and a Bulgarian Macedonian identity—exist. All these identities have value and there is a considerable common history. All of Macedonia shares a common primary religion—Orthodox Christianity—and all Macedonians are successors of the Byzantine Empire. During the Ottoman era all Orthodox Macedonians were part of the Rum Mileti, the Turkish term for the Byzantine Community, living together as one people, often multilingual and conscious of our similarities and our differences. We have so much in common, including a beautiful region called Macedonia.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.