This weekend, Macedonians will go to the polls to decide if Macedonia should still be called Macedonia. Assuming the referendum passes – most polls suggest it will – the deal on the Macedonia-Greece name dispute will have one more hurdle to pass to become official: ratification in the Greek parliament. Its approval is much less certain since nearly 60 percent of Greeks oppose the agreement, according to an Ethnos poll from July. Then again, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras survived a confidence motion in June called specifically to question his support for the deal, albeit by a 13-vote margin.
The reason Greece and the probably soon-to-be-called country of North Macedonia are seeking to end the name dispute is actually quite simple: Macedonia wants to join the European Union and NATO – something Greece, a member of both organizations, has long opposed. In fact, on several occasions, it has used the name dispute to block Macedonia’s accession to them. But decision-makers in Athens no longer want to block Macedonia’s accession. They believe it is more important to bring the country into the fold, domestic opposition notwithstanding, than it is to exclude it.
Strategically, this makes sense. With its ethnic Slavic population, Macedonia is a natural regional ally for Russia, which, to Greece, has been worryingly active in the Balkans of late. It’s no coincidence that the normally comfortable Greece-Russia relationship has suffered in recent months over Greek accusations that Moscow was attempting to meddle with the Macedonia name deal. After all, Russia would prefer that NATO, whose origin is as an anti-Soviet alliance, not get any bigger than it already is. Macedonia is, moreover, a potential ally for Turkey, Greece’s centuries-long nemesis and fellow NATO member. Latest estimates from Pew in 2010 showed that 35 percent of Macedonia’s population is Muslim, and Pew projections suggest that the country will be majority Muslim by 2040. This is a demographic transformation that Ankara could take advantage of.
There are also strategic considerations closer to home. As of the most recent census in 2002, 25 percent of the Macedonian population was ethnic Albanian and roughly 64 percent ethnic Macedonian. Greece, like Serbia, has reason to guard against a “Greater Albania.” (Greater Albania is the concept of an ethnic Albanian state that encompasses parts of Balkan countries with Albanian majorities.) By integrating Macedonia into the EU and NATO, Greece can ensure that the full weight of these political institutions is brought to bear against any potential border changes that might increase Albanian power in the Balkans. (Notably, Albanians living in Macedonia support the name-change at a much higher rate than ethnic Macedonians – 90 percent vs. 36 percent – because they believe these institutions and the rule of law they bring will improve their treatment inside Macedonia.)
Then there is Greece’s potential strategic problem with Macedonia itself. Today, the Greece-Macedonia name dispute is often explained as a disagreement strictly about identity, and about the words we use to talk about identity. For Greeks, “Macedonia” denotes regions of Greece populated by ethnically Greek people. For Macedonians, “Macedonia” is the homeland of an ethnically Slavic group whose name derives from where they live. But the disagreement is not just about identity. As so often in the Balkans, it stems from conflicting territorial visions. Throughout the 20th century, there have been Macedonian nationalist movements of varying sizes and prominence that have imagined a “United Macedonia,” with Skopje uniting portions of Greece, Bulgaria and other countries under Macedonian rule. Greeks claim Alexander the Great as a Greek ancestor and resent Macedonia for naming airports and highways after him. But the deeper issue here is that Alexander, Greek though he was, had a kingdom that began in Macedonia and conquered much of the known world, starting with present-day Greece.
As for Macedonia, by far a smaller and less powerful country than Greece, this comes down to a basic strategic realignment. Macedonia has flirted with both Russia and China as potential benefactors to fund the country’s development programs, but neither has shown the willingness or ability to help Macedonia be anything more than a Balkan backwater. By aligning itself with the EU and NATO, two institutions that are hostile to border changes in Europe, Macedonia is tacitly saying it expects some economic development in return for relenting on the name dispute. It can also expect – or at least it can hope to expect – NATO’s support in case the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, or the instability in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, erupts into something bigger. The Balkans are arguably more unstable now than they have been since the wars of the 1990s.
The other obvious benefit to Macedonia would be the preservation of its sovereignty. Its neighbor Albania is up for EU membership too, but its candidacy has been enjoined with Macedonia’s because of the potential for conflict between them. The EU is an organization that promotes integration, so if they are both admitted, Macedonia may have to face its fears of integrating more with Albania. But it also understands that joining the EU when its border disputes are resolved, as they are now, effectively locks those borders into place, reducing the chances of any future Albanian irredentism. This partly explains why, though a majority of ethnic Macedonians oppose the name deal with Greece, more than three-quarters of them want to join the EU. The Macedonian government has chosen to do something unpopular with ethnic Macedonians to achieve something that is wildly popular with Macedonia’s general population – and, in the process, secure Macedonia’s current borders.
For the EU and NATO, there are costs and benefits to admitting Macedonia and Albania. Assuming all goes well with Macedonia, the only remaining non-NATO member states in the Balkans would be Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The long-term viability of Bosnia-Herzegovina has come under serious question with upcoming elections, and the prospects for a Serbia-Kosovo deal are uncertain at best. But if the Macedonia-Greece dispute can be put to bed, the rest of the region would find itself in a state of relative stability, aligned as it would be with the West. Adding even more countries to the EU before Brussels can reform its rules of governance, though, may only add to the bloc’s political and bureaucratic gridlock. As for NATO – the Balkans is one of the regions where its military obligations are most likely to be both invoked and perhaps ignored. The United States affirmed as much when President Donald Trump said there was no reason for Washington to come to the defense of Montenegro, its newest member.
Which brings us back to where we started: Macedonia’s potential new name and this weekend’s upcoming referendum. It’s folly to think a name-change by itself can solve long-standing differences based in regional demographics and disputed borders. Future relations depend on mutual interests, not on what Macedonians and Greeks call themselves. The agreement emerged because a correlation of interests was finally made possible largely by EU and NATO promises. NATO and the EU are writing big checks, and if they can’t cash them, all the handshakes and agreements in the world won’t prevent the situation from unraveling. Arguments in the Balkans are never forgotten. They are only conveniently ignored.