(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On Tuesday, an international conflict that had festered for decades approached resolution, and it wasn’t the Korean one. Completely overshadowed by the inconclusive meeting of President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a breakthrough agreement between two leaders who aren’t international celebrities: Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev.
The dispute they agreed to end dates back to 1991, and it involves Macedonia’s name, to which Greece has insisted the former Yugoslav republic had no right because the real Macedonia, home of Alexander the Great, is in northern Greece. The name dispute is not some obscure matter of interest only to toponymists; it is one of the last remaining obstacles to the inclusion of the entire Balkan region in the European Union. If the deal stands despite some formidable political opposition in both Macedonia and Greece, it’ll be a major step toward healing the wounds of the Yugoslav war. In the near future, the former Yugoslavia could be reunited – not as a country but as a group of friendly EU members states with free trade, free movement of people and no borders between them.
The roots of the Macedonia name dispute were planted as Josip Broz Tito was putting together his Communist Yugoslavia immediately after World War II. He apparently hoped the Greek Civil war, which began in 1946, would bring northern Greece into his federation as part of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Thousands of Slav Macedonians in northern Greece formed a Communist-led force to make it happen. They were, however, defeated, and many of them were forced to flee to Tito’s Yugoslavia. There, thanks to Tito’s policies, a Macedonian national identity emerged to unite people, many of whom previously considered themselves Bulgarians rather than a separate ethnic group.
After Tito’s quilt was ripped apart and the borders of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics became real, Greece wouldn’t tolerate a separate Macedonia. In the 1990s, it imposed a bruising economic blockade on the country it would only recognize as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom). It has also blocked Macedonian aspirations to North Atlantic Treaty Organization and EU membership. The new nation, for its part, argued it couldn’t rename itself: The Macedonian identity shaped while Yugoslavia existed was the only one its people had. The nationalist government of Nikola Gruevski, who ran the country between 2006 and 2016, was defiant, naming capital city Skopje’s airport and a major highway after Alexander the Great.
With Gruevski out of government (he was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption in May), the position has softened. Zaev worked to resolve the dispute and clear the country’s path to the Western military and political blocs. Tsipras, for his part, has proved unusually accommodating for a Greek leader. The deal the two prime ministers struck on Tuesday calls on Fyrom to rename itself Severna Makedonija, or North Macedonia in English; crucially, though, its people will be allowed to call themselves Macedonians, and their language will be known as Macedonian – concessions that are unacceptable to the Greek opposition, even to its liberal part.
It’s fitting that more concessions appear to come from the Greek side since in Greece, the deal only needs parliamentary approval, and Tsipras can probably organize it, even though his nationalist coalition partners are no fans of the deal. In Macedonia, the solution requires constitutional change and thus a referendum in the fall, in which Gruevski’s old party will resist the proposed settlement.
If the votes go as Tsipras and Zaev hope, North Macedonia will be free to apply for NATO membership, which makes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg happy because it’s another strike against Russian influence in the Balkans. But, more importantly for Macedonians themselves, the country can also apply for EU accession – something all other parts of the former Yugoslavia except Kosovo have already done.
The EU is negotiating ascension with Montenegro and Serbia. They (especially the latter) still have lots of outstanding issues, but, according to an EU strategy document published in February, they can expect to join by 2025 if they can make steady progress. The document says others – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and potentially North Macedonia – could catch up. Given that the two remaining ex-Yugoslav nations, Slovenia and Croatia, are already EU members, the reunification of Tito’s one-time communist federation on completely new terms, under EU auspices, is now a distinct possibility.
The EU can be criticized for any number of things, but no one could say it’s not fit for its initial purpose – to promote peace in Europe. Membership for all ex-Yugoslav states would be a beautiful ending to a tragic story that includes more than 130,000 deaths.
Post-Yugoslav countries have conflicts even within the EU: Slovenia and Croatia engaged in a border and fishing rights dispute that various EU mechanisms are being used to resolve, so far without a satisfactory outcome. But at least it doesn’t result in armed clashes, debilitating economic embargoes or border closures. The EU has a calming effect on disputes in general: They don’t disappear but, rather, unfold in slow motion. That kind of salve is just what the former Yugoslavia needs 27 years after the last of the fighting died down.
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