Earlier this month, the prime ministers of North Macedonia and Greece signed a historic agreement, which brings to an end the 27-year dispute about the name of the former Yugoslav republic.
A few hours after the deal was signed, Alexis Tsipras gave an interview to Greek state TV and recounted the following incident: at the height of the negotiations Donald Tusk, president of the European council, telephoned the prime minister to ask him how the discussions were progressing. When Tsipras told him that the two countries were close to an agreement, Tusk was fulsome in his praise: “if you manage it, it will be unbelievable”. Tsipras replied: “the only reason why we will manage it, is because neither myself nor Zaev (Zoran Zaev, prime minister of North Macedonia) belong to your political family, the European People’s party”.
The Balkan drama
The dispute between Greece and North Macedonia is (let us hope) one of the final acts of the Balkan drama. During the 19th century, the revolutions of Serbs, Greeks and Bulgarians in the declining Ottoman empire created nation-states that did not reflect the actual composition of the population in the region. Linguistic, religious and national minorities were displaced to ensure the coherence of the new states.
The region of Macedonia was a typical case. At the beginning of the 20th century, just over half was devolved to Greek sovereignty, 39% was given to Serbia and 9% to Bulgaria. In the 51% that became part of Greece, Greek-speakers initially accounted for just 10% of the population. After the massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey in the wake of the Greek-Turkish War of 1921, the area was Hellenised. Now, two out of three inhabitants of Greek Macedonia trace their origins to the former Greek communities in Asia Minor. This majority is burdened by the national insecurity of its relatively brief presence in the region. The creation of the independent Republic of Macedonia in 1991 after the break-up of Yugoslavia, triggered Greek fears about potential irredentist aspirations on the part of the new state. Greece does not recognise the neighbouring country’s right to call itself Macedonia. Even now, a geographical designation (North Macedonia) is required so that the Greeks will consent to a mutually acceptable name and lift their veto on the accession of North Macedonia to the EU and Nato.
The response of Greece to this existential question was an entrenchment behind rightwing nationalism. The idea of an unbroken, continuous Greece, from the time of Alexander the Great to this day, is a favourite theme of the Greek right. The ‘great idea’, i.e. the notion that the modern Greek state that was shaped in the 19th and early 20th centuries is but a small part of the ‘real’ Greece, which extends from Asia Minor to Ukraine, is also a concept developed primarily by the right.
The first large demonstrations against the right of North Macedonia to use the term Macedonia bear the imprint of the nationalist politician Antonis Samaras, then minister of foreign affairs in the rightwing government of New Democracy and later prime minister of Greece at the height of the financial crisis (2012-15). In 1993, when efforts were first made for a compromise between Athens and Skopje, a young Samaras caused the downfall of the government led by the moderate Constantine Mitsotakis, father of the current New Democracy leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
The Samaras faction hails the Tsipras-Zaev deal as a disaster. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a centrist reformer, did not take the risk that his father did. With elections approaching in Greece (scheduled for autumn 2019, at the latest), he adopted the rhetoric of Samaras in order to win over the rightwing faction of his party, but also to take advantage of broader popular feeling. 70% of Greeks consider it a bad deal, disagreeing with the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ by the neighbouring country, and a couple of days after the historic deal was signed, Mitsotakis brought a no-confidence motion against Tsipras in parliament.
Zoran Zaev is facing similar pressures from the nationalist right in his own country. His predecessor Nikola Gruevski paid Greece with the same coin. He also appropriated Alexander the Great, erecting statues of the famous commander of antiquity all over Skopje (the Slavs first arrived in the region in the 6th century AD, but historical accuracy is seldom part of the various nationalist narratives). Now Zaev is renaming them as monuments to Greek-Macedonian friendship. But the differences between the current prime minister and Gruevski run much deeper than the statues in city squares. The current centre-left prime minister has also alienated his opponents by forging close ties with the Albanian minority of North Macedonia (which constitutes a quarter of the total population), recognising their rights on issues such as the official use of the Albanian language. He was physically attacked by ultra-nationalists of the opposition in parliament when he voted for an Albanian speaker, so it is not difficult to imagine how the right will react to the compromise he has reached with Greece. When Zaev submitted the agreement to Gjorge Ivanov, president of the country and a Gruevski ally, their conversation lasted barely two minutes.
The agreement a historic win for the centre-left
In Greece things are even more complicated, since the deal does not merely meet objections on the right, it is also divides the centre left. The heirs of the traditional centre-left parties have forged a broad coalition, Kinima Allagis (Movement for Change), to counter the populist stance of Tsipras. The official position of this coalition is to oppose the deal. However, former prime minister George Papandreou, leader of a small party within the coalition, is in favour, as is Stavros Theodorakis, leader of the centrist party, Potami.
The centre-left is not only divided on the issue of the name, but also on the manner in which it must handle the overall swing made by Tsipras towards pragmatism and moderation. The deal with North Macedonia comes at a time of intense discussions in Greece about whether Syriza can be considered a moderate socialist-democratic party. Tsipras is applying a realistic policy of consensus in the Balkans and has demonstrated a willingness to work with Brussels to bring about an end to the era of bailout programmes that followed the financial crisis. Why should the Kinima Allagis not co-operate with this transformed Syriza? Why should its members not assist an ideologically proximate party in its turn towards realism, especially when it has achieved successes such as this deal with Zaev? But no, calls by Massimo d’Alema in 2015 and Udo Bullmann, president of the S&D group in the European parliament, for collaboration with Syriza, have been to no avail.
For the Kinima Allagis, Syriza remains “a Stalinist party with no liberal democratic traditions”. Tsipras’ record is indeed worrying, including controversial attempts to control the judiciary, the persecution of unfriendly media and the devaluation of institutions.
Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza remains a populist party of the left that victimises its opponents. While the negotiations with North Macedonia were ongoing, the party was pushing ahead indictment proceedings in parliament concerning a pharmaceutical expenditure scandal, targeting historic personalities from the centre left and the Kinima Allagis. The farcical process did not yield any findings, but only vilified politicians above suspicion and rigidified the divisions within the centre left. Now it appears extremely doubtful whether a national success will bring them closer together. Indeed, in view of the overwhelming proportion of Greeks who are against the deal, the Kinima Allagis has no reason to retreat.
It is of course an irony of history that the Athens-Skopje agreement leaves the centre left even more divided. Many members of both parties consider as their point of political reference the Rigas Feraios youth movement, representing the most influential and recognisable school of thought in the Greek moderate left, formed in the late 1960s to express a current of new European democratic socialism. Its name refers to Rigas Feraios, a visionary of the 18th century who advanced a new, supranational Balkan identity that would encompass all peoples of the Balkan peninsula and respect minorities.
It is to be regretted that at such a historic moment, the Greek centre left is not celebrating the vindication of its traditional approach to Balkan issues as a united front. But the responsibility for the disunity lies far more with Syriza’s divisive practices than the Kinima Allagis and the short-term benefits it is pursuing. If Tsipras had sought consensus at another time in the recent past, things would be very different today.