Wednesday, 24 October 2018 | News today: 0

Ker Lindsay: Greece has taken an unnecessarily harsh position over name issue

I have to say that I am very disappointed in the way that Athens is blocking the start of accession talks with Macedonia. I think that this is utterly counterproductive. I have often said that, even if Greece remains adamant that Macedonia cannot join the EU (or NATO) until there is a final settlement over the name, Athens should have at least allowed the start of EU accession negotiations. Instead, it has taken an unnecessarily harsh position that I think most observers feel has done a lot of damage to all parties.


What is the prospect of Western Balkans, it is obvious that the west (EU, NATO) is not so much interested in the development of the situation in the region. Or maybe I am wrong?

Lindsay: In terms of the European Union, there is no doubt that the question of enlargement has declined in significance over these past few years. This is obviously due to the economic crisis that the EU has faced, which has been the key focus of political attention. Linked to this, immigration has become a much more prominent issue. This is turn has fed fears about the implications of enlargement. Finally, after the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, there is a lot of concern about the implications of taking in countries when they are not ready for membership. The EU is now becoming much stricter in ensuring that new entrants can meet the demands of membership. So, overall, the environment for candidates has become a lot tougher. However, I do not think that the EU has turned its back on expansion. Certainly, in the case of the Western Balkans, there is still a view amongst senior figures that this is really about completion of the EU, rather than enlargement. These are seen as countries that should be in the Union. I would therefore say that the EU is certainly still interested in enlargement, even if it is less openly enthusiastic about taking in new members than it once was.


Almost two decades after the Dayton Agreement it seems that the region is far away from real stability. Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia are still considered as hot zones where besides nationalistic issues many other problems are present, providing great basis for radical movements.

Lindsay: I think the picture is rather mixed. Certainly there are concerns about the three countries. However, in the case of Kosovo, there is a lot of optimism that the situation there is being resolved. The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina has brought about some impressive results. And while there is still a lot to do, most observers feel that Kosovo does not pose the threat to stability that it once did. As for Macedonia, there are certainly worries that tensions may resurface. The failure to start EU accession talks is seen as a source of potential concern. However, of the three, the biggest problem is Bosnia. This sense of concern is often stated by EU officials. Although few believe that there will be a return to violence, the state is clearly dysfunctional. Something needs to be done, but no one quite knows what to do. As things stand, Bosnia really runs the risk of being left behind as the other countries of the region move towards EU membership.


The story of great countries on the Balkans is present for centuries, what do you think about this option nowadays. We have had last week a leader of Islamic Religious Community in Macedonia indirectly promoting one of these maps on his FB profile. The issue has been mentioned by several Albanian top ranking politicians in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia. Who can stop these ideas if one day they become mainstream political agenda?

Lindsay: The question of borders is one that simply will not go away. There are obviously many people in the region who would like to see boundaries changed. However, there is massive international resistance to this. Look at the objections to any discussion about the partition of Kosovo or suggestions that Republika Srpska could break away from Bosnia. Unless a territory swap is agreed to by the relevant countries concerned, which does not seem to be a realistic option, I simply do not see separatist groups making any headway in their attempts to create a Greater Serbia, Greater Albania, Greater Croatia, Greater Bosnia, etc. They will be told that they cannot break away. Instead, international attention will be focused on forms of autonomy that will allow ethnic communities to have a great deal of room to decide their own affairs within the state in which they live. We saw this in Bosnia in 1995; in Macedonia in 2001; and we are now seeing this in Kosovo.


Bosnia recently reminded us that the situation is more fragile than we all can imagine. Is there anyone who cares about the danger of repetition of Yugoslav butchery?

Lindsay: It is always a possibility. Never say never, as they say. However, I do not think that there is a widespread worry that the region could return to war. People are tired of conflict. The key issue for people now is economic development. And it is economic development that will do more than anything to lessen the risk of a return to violence.


Maybe not on the same scale as Ukraine but Serbia is one more example where the interests of East strongly confront the West. Belgrade speaks about EU membership forgetting to push strongly for NATO. In the same time Russia has installed its Center for Humanitarian action which by many is considered to be a Russian security and intelligence checkpoint on the Balkans? Not to mention the Russian investment in energy sector.

Lindsay: Serbia is now fully committed to EU membership. This can be seen in the way that it has approached the Kosovo question over the past few years. However, it is equally clear that it wants to maintain a good working relationship with Russia. In addition to the important historical and cultural ties that exist, until the Kosovo issue is fully resolved Belgrade needs Moscow’s support in the UN Security Council. Obviously, recent events make it that much harder to have a good working relationship with both the EU and Russia. Nevertheless, Belgrade is trying to take a neutral position. Whether this is a viable strategy in the longer term is open to question. Serbia may find itself facing an increasingly difficult situation. However, ultimately, I think most Serbs understand and believe that their future is in the European Union.

Regarding NATO, I don’t think that Serbia has forgotten about it. It is rather a case that there is simply no appetite for NATO membership at this stage. This is understandable given the events of the late 1990s. However, I do not think that it is out of the question that Serbia will eventually want to join. It is already a member of Partnership for Peace, and the Serbian armed forces have increasingly close cooperation with the armed forces of NATO states and with NATO itself. I can see it within NATO eventually.


In regards to the behavior of Moscow towards  Ukraine (Crimea) on Sunday NATO SG Rasmussen mentioned the UN charter and principles. Why NATO never before used the same wording when it was the case with the Hague ICJ where all 15 judges decided that Greece violated the UN rules and interim accord signed with Macedonia? Why double standards towards Macedonia, knowing that NATO did not accept the ruling of ICJ, which is known to be a UN Body?

Lindsay: Obviously, there are real questions about the way in which Greece has chosen to ignore the ICJ ruling. However, it is important to understand that NATO is a club of sovereign states. Each has a veto over who it wants to join. Greece may have broken its pledge to Macedonia. However, one also has to recognize that it has the absolute right to veto a prospective member for whatever reason it wants. The same applies with the European Union. I think that it is important for people in Macedonia to understand this. I often get the impression that Macedonians think that the EU and NATO could simply bypass Greece if they wanted and that the only reason they don’t is because they actually agree with Greece in some way. This is absolutely not the case. Greece has the right to block and the rules of the club mean that the other members have to respect this, as much as they may dislike it. Ultimately, this means that an agreement has got to be found with Athens.


It is obviously that there is no prospect for quick resolution of the name issue between Macedonia and Greece. What other scenarios besides unsuccessful negotiations under UN auspices might be considered on midterm? Shall we wait additional 20 years, or one day some new US or German administration might start bulldozer diplomacy?

Lindsay: It is quite clear to all observers that a settlement of the name issue is long overdue. However, it is hard to see what new framework could be introduced. Would the European Union want to take on the role of mediator? Assuming it could, would this be something that the Macedonia Government would be happy about? Would people in Macedonia trust the EU to be a neutral actor in a situation where it is mediating between a member state and a non-member state? That said, if this was acceptable, I do not think that it is completely beyond the realms of possibility; although it does seem very unlikely.

As for a ‘bulldozer’ approach, I am not sure what would be gained through this method. I do not think that Greece will change its positions through threats or extreme. Indeed, this could make it even more difficult for the Greek government to negotiate. Then again, sadly, I don’t think that a more softly-softly approach is likely to work at the moment either. Ultimately, the overall picture is very depressing.  Few see a way out the problem without a major show of goodwill by one or both sides.


What can stop the wishes circle Macedonia is right now, without the name issue resolved there is no EU and NATO membership, without being member of EU there is no economic development, with bad economic situation there is no social cohesion etc.

Lindsay: I agree completely. The situation is very bleak. I have to say that I am very disappointed in the way that Athens is blocking the start of accession talks with Macedonia. I think that this is utterly counterproductive. I have often said that, even if Greece remains adamant that Macedonia cannot join the EU (or NATO) until there is a final settlement over the name, Athens should have at least allowed the start of EU accession negotiations. Instead, it has taken an unnecessarily harsh position that I think most observers feel has done a lot of damage to all parties.


I believe that it is not only a biased conclusion if I say that the Government in Athens does not feel like negotiating. The PM Samaras does not want to met his Macedonian colleague Gruevski, probably trying to avoid being seen as soft by Greek nationalists. What to do when one of the sides is misusing its position as member of EU and NATO blocking Macedonia for their own reasons.

Lindsay: To most outsiders, it does seem incredible that there has not been a solution. Without wishing to diminish the importance the issue has for people in Greece and Macedonia, it does seem extraordinary that Serbia and Kosovo are able to speak to one another and reach major agreements and yet Athens and Skopje cannot. Speaking honestly, I think that both sides must bear a burden of blame for this situation. Both Greece and Macedonia hold positions that, I feel, prevent a solution from being reached. For example, I simply do not accept that Macedonia can have two official names. To try to do so would create all sorts of legal problems and anomalies. There is not a country in the world with two official names. If an agreement is reached, then the new name must be used in all circumstances. (Although there is of course nothing to stop people form using Macedonia as the shorthand version, in rather the same way as the HellenicRepublic is usually known as Greece.) The argument that it is not easy to change a name is not true. It happens. On the other hand, I have also been very sympathetic to the Macedonian view on the use of adjectives. If the name of the country has to be changed, then Greece should show some goodwill and permit the language, for example, to be known as Macedonian.


How long this false solidarity can go on. It is still secret why German Chancellor Ms. Merkel suddenly requested to see the UN mediator Mr. Nimitz several months ago. Do you believe that the Macedonian argument  and fulfilled criteria for membership might one day be stronger than the traditional partnership between the strategic EU ally?

Lindsay: Each country has its own national interests that it defends as best it can. In the case of Greece, it does so by blocking Macedonia’s EU accession process. This is regrettable and counter-productive, but there is nothing that other states can do to bypass this veto. Solidarity has little to do with it. This is just about how the rules work within the Union.

Meanwhile, Macedonia must continue to reform as best it can. It is important not to slip behind, but to instead concentrate on going forward. There is a lot that the country could and should be doing to prepare for talks, just in case Greece suddenly decides to reverse its position and allow accession negotiations to begin. The more work that is done now, the faster talks will be able to proceed once they begin. Even if negotiations don’t start, many of the reforms needed for accession are actually good for the country. For this reason, I would certainly urge the country to keep to the EU path.


Can we expect that a political leader who once publically stated (Samaras on Greek national TV in 2009) that Greece should wait for dissolution of Macedonia due to interethnic conflict, might one day seat and discuss the name issue?

Lindsay: I can well understand the suspicion that people have about Prime Minister Samaras given his past. However, it is also worth remembering that very often it is the people who have played a key role in the development of a problem that are best placed to sort it out. There are many examples of this. Perhaps the most obvious one for from the Balkans is the current dialogue between Hashim Thaci and Ivica Dacic. Both of them were protagonists in the conflict in the 1990s, and yet both are playing an important role in trying to build a new relationship between Serbs and Albanians. Indeed, there has even been discussion that they will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. This is not to say that Prime Minister Samaras is going to suddenly present a solution to the issue. However, it is nevertheless important to keep an open mind and remember that usually it is the hawks who are better placed to deliver peace than the doves.


There are several scenarios about the countries located on the European continent that for various reasons cannot become full-fledged members of EU in the course of the next decade. One of them says that there is a plan for special “partnership status” given to those countries which due to economic, security or other issues such as the name isse will be part of this kind of scenarios. How viable is that?

Lindsay: Personally, I do not see this as a particularly desirable option for Macedonia. The idea of a privileged partnership has really been discussed in the context of Turkey (and perhaps the UK if it chooses to leave the European Union). However, it is really only suitable for those countries that have an important strategic role to play in Europe and have a certain degree of power to shape EU policies. Another option that has been suggested would be for Macedonia to emulate Switzerland and Norway. But this too is not really an appropriate model. These countries are able to thrive outside due to other factors, such as oil wealth in the case of Norway. And yet many people in both countries will readily admit that their relationship with the EU is far from ideal. They have to pay to be able to benefit from the single market and then have to follow rules laid down by the EU. And yet they have no say in how those rules are made. Finally, I know that there are those who say that Macedonia should forget the EU altogether and focus on other major powers, such as Russia, China and India. Again this is simply not feasible. Can Macedonia really expect to be some sort of island in South East Europe, pursuing ties with distant parts of the world while all the countries around it pursue EU membership? It just doesn’t seem realistic.


By: Goran Momiroski

Photo: Aleksandar Ivanovski