Well managed conflicts are hard to resolve
This makes sense of course. Why bother paying the high price resolution usually entails if the cost of continuing in conflict is relatively low? We see this happening today in many places: Israel/Palestine, Macedonia/Greece, Armenia/Azerbaijan, Cyprus/Turkey. How should the international community behave in such instances?
Generally the approach has been to continue efforts at resolution, almost no matter what. Depending on how you count, the Israel/Palestine conflict is 65 years old, Macedonia’s conflict with Greece over its name has been subject to mediation for more or less 20 years, the Minsk group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been working on Armenia and Azerbaijan’s dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh for as long, and UN peacekeepers have been in Cyprus for almost 40 years. It makes economic sense to continue because the international community efforts are relatively cheap compared to the potential consequences of ending them.
But does it make sense in terms of getting to yes? Is the international community’s willingness to continue mediation or peacekeeping efforts inhibiting a solution rather than encouraging one?
That is a difficult judgment to make, but I have my suspicions, especially in the Macedonia/Greece dispute. On the surface, it is a fairly simple one: Greece refuses to accept what it prefers to call “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (or the FYROM) by its constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia). This wouldn’t make much difference except that Greece can (and does) block the FYROM from entering NATO or getting a date to begin negotiations on EU membership, in violation of a 1995 “interim agreement.” The International Court of Justice has found Greece in violation of that agreement but it does not have the ability to enforce its decisions.
For almost 20 years, now UN envoy Matt Nimetz has tried to find a solution. Greece has appeared at times ready to accept a modifier (for example, “North Macedonia”) but wants the agreed name used in all circumstances, including every time it is mentioned in the Macedonian constitution. This isn’t very attractive to Skopje, which already enjoys a world in which everyone but Greece and international organizations call the country Macedonia. Skopje doubts that even if it accepted the Greek parliament would ratify membership in NATO, much less the EU.
This is one spat the world could do without, but nothing the committed and inventive Nimetz has done in 20 years has gotten rid of it. So the question is, should we get rid of the UN envoy, hoping that will give Athens and Skopje ample incentive to cut a deal directly with each other?
I don’t know. There is little likelihood of a solution unless they do, but that is no guarantee they would.
Macedonia’s prime minister has enjoyed a great deal of popularity as a result of his nationalist rhetoric and building program. The only people in Macedonia really unhappy with the current situation are ethnic Albanians, who regard NATO membership as the ultimate guarantee of security and would like to end a dispute that has nothing to do with their own ethnic identity. But Albanians represent close to a quarter of the population. Macedonia is a fragile state that cannot afford to alienate its largest minority.
The Greek prime minister, who was one of the originators of the dispute in the 1990s, has likewise little political incentive to settle it. While there are certainly some Greeks who would like to see the issue resolved, if only to stabilize a neighborhood in which the country has significant investments, they are relatively few. Most Greeks regard ancient Macedonia as quintessentially Greek and are unwilling to see the label hijacked by Slavs.
I don’t want to minimize the importance of this dispute to those most directly involved. Macedonians and Greeks alike regard the issue as profoundly important, as it affects their identities. But is this something the rest of the world should be investing to solve? There is not risk of armed confrontation over this issue. After 20 years, it seems to me the UN would be more than justified to pack in the effort and let the parties to the conflict try to resolve it themselves, or not.
More on other well managed conflicts in future posts.