The Greece-Macedonia name dispute
I spoke at Harvard Friday about the Greece-Macedonia name dispute, along with Matt Nimetz and Boshk0 Stankovski. Here are the speaking notes I used.
1. Thank you for that kind introduction. The opportunity to speak at Harvard Law School is truly an honor. Harvard’s Project on Negotiation is a mecca for all who would like to see disputes managed peacefully.
2. That is what Matt Nimetz has done for more than 20 years. I am honored to meet him. We should not minimize his extraordinary achievement: an issue that in the early 1990s threatened to throw Macedonia into the Balkans cauldron with Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo has steadily lost its saliency.
3. I confess that I’ve even referred to it as the most boring dispute in the Balkans and therefore promise to speak less than 20 minutes more about it.
4. Let’s start with the obvious: this dispute is not really about the name. If it were, Greeks would long ago have accepted my citing the 1257 places in the United States that use the name “Macedonia” as dispositive. They would celebrate, not denigrate, the compliment from their neighbor.
5. Washington, DC was founded explicitly as the “new Rome.” I’ve never met an Italian who objected. The Italian government has even donated a few statues to beef up that image.
6. There were, however, already a lot of Americans dressed in togas adorning statuary hall in the Capitol, a building that is a blatant 18th-century attempt to imitate the glory of the ancients. Not to mention the National Gallery’s rip-off of the coffered ceiling of the Pantheon.
7. No, if this dispute were about the name and the statues, Greeks would be pleased that a non-Greek people who have come to occupy land that was once ancient Paeonia have adopted Greek antecedents as their ideal.
8. But if it is not about the name, what is it about?
9. Like many Balkan conflicts, it is about identity and territory. My inbox and my blog are chock a block full of messages from Greeks accusing modern-day Macedonians of “stealing” their Greek identity and having designs on their territory.
10. It is hard for me to imagine identity theft of this sort. If you are confident of your national identity, no one can take it from you. The official name of Mexico is Estados Unidos…Mexicanos. No one in the United States worries about that, though some Mexicans do. We have a state called New Mexico. Neither Mexicans nor gringos worry about that either.
11. Today, Mexicans and Americans are confident of their identity and unconcerned about designs on their territory.
12. Greeks are not.
13. They have precious little reason to worry about their territory. Macedonia’s constitution now includes a provision ruling out irredentist ambitions. I’ve never met a Macedonian who had any.
14. The problem is more subtle than that. Greece does not want to acknowledge the existence of a “Macedonian” minority on its territory, fearing that would lead to territorial and other claims. Greece feels the same way about Albanians and many other minorities, which are simply not recognized under Greek law and practice.
15. This gives us a hint of the deeper problem: identity. Strong assertions of national identity come from insecurity about national identity. Why do such gigantic American flags fly over car dealerships all over America? Because we are a diverse and varied lot, many of whom drive Japanese and Korean cars. I even have Greek correspondents who have informed me that we are not really a nation because we don’t share a genetic or cultural heritage.
16. The fact is that modern-day Greeks show no more genetic sign of descent from the ancient Greeks than do other peoples in the Balkans. I understand there is only one exception: the Vlachs, a people most Americans have never heard of, who do have DNA that includes modestly more genetic markers from the ancients.
17. The fact is that all the Balkans peoples are mixed, despite their bold claims to ethnic and genetic purity. The barbarian and Slavic invasions thoroughly inundated prior civilizations.
18. What modern day Greece has from the ancients is not descent but rather language and culture. Neither is threatened by Macedonia being called Macedonia, especially as the language of Macedonia is a Slavic one and the country’s official name is the Republic of Macedonia.
19. No one can confuse that with Ancient Makedon, which was not a republic.
20. So to make a long story short, I am not neutral—as Matt Nimetz must be—on this name question. I believe in the right of people to call themselves what they want, so long as that is not used to harm others. I see no harm to Greece from Macedonia being called Macedonia.
21. But life is full of compromises. The original compromise in this case was reached in 1995, when Athens and Skopje agreed in the Interim Accord that the country I call Macedonia could enter international organizations as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, The FYROM. It did just that for ten years and more.
22. So when it was ready to enter NATO in 2008 it was prepared to do so with that appellation.
23. Greece blocked The FYROM’s accession to NATO.
24. Skopje took Greece to the International Court of Justice, whose 15/1 decisions were unequivocal: Greece had violated the Interim Accord, The FYROM had not, and it should be allowed to enter NATO as such.
25. A law-abiding country at this point would yield. Greece did not. Instead it made bogus claims that the ICJ had declined to enforce the decision. That is laughable, since the ICJ has no power to enforce its decisions on sovereign states but made absolutely clear that the decision was legally binding.
26. I will readily admit that the United States does not always abide by ICJ decisions. That is America’s shame. The failure of Greece to abide by the ICJ decision is Greece’s shame.
27. But let’s get real: why does all this matter in a world where we’ve got ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Iran on the verge of nuclear weapons, China challenging its neighbors and Sunni Arab countries intervening against Shia in Yemen? There are a lot more important things to worry about.
28. It only matters because the name dispute, unworthy of your attention and mine, is blocking Macedonia from entering NATO and heightening interethnic tensions there.
29. Macedonian has met NATO’s entry requirements. Its troops have fought—under US command—in Afghanistan, where Macedonians have also guarded NATO headquarters.
30. The merits are clear: Macedonia belongs in NATO.
31. Meanwhile, Greece’s intransigence has brought out the worst in Macedonia. Prime Minister Gruevski seems hell bent on provoking Athens with statues, names, a triumphal arch. Without a settlement, it serves his domestic political interests to do so.
32. The country’s Albanians regret the delay in entering NATO, which they regard as vital to their security, and fear that Macedonian nationalism will someday turn on them.
33. So what we’ve got is a well-managed conflict—Matt Nimetz has done a great job for many years—over an unimportant issue—the name—that arises from a deeper insecurity about identity and is causing serious inter-ethnic tensions within one of the parties to the dispute.
34. The dispute has been so well managed for so many years that it is becoming harder to resolve.
35. But there are consequences. This is no way to run an Alliance. There is a need get beyond the current impasse. My job now is to suggest ways we might do it.
36. I have to question whether the UN mediator is still a good approach to the deeper issues of insecurity and territory that underlie this dispute.
37. Or, alternatively, would we be better off if Athens and Skopje had to resolve the issues—whatever they may be—directly with each other?
38. This is in no way meant to reflect negatively on what Matt has done—and accomplished. We are a lot better off today than 20 years ago, and for that we should count ourselves fortunate.
39. But we haven’t got another 20 years. It is clear enough that this issue is contributing to destabilization of Macedonia, which will get worse if progress is not made.
40. Would a solution come faster if the United States stopped telling everyone that this issue has to be settled before Macedonia gets NATO membership? Washington could instead insist on The FYROM becoming a member at the Summit in Warsaw next year.
41. Would it come faster if Berlin made it clear to Athens that it wants the issue resolved?
42. Would it come faster if the UN came out of its neutral posture and instead came down unequivocally on the side of implementing the binding agreement of the International Court of Justice?
43. Would a solution come faster in direct, face-to-face negotiations?
44. I don’t mean to suggest that I know all the answers to these difficult questions. They are not intended to be rhetorical but real.
45. In a world with many more important issues, we should be trying to wrap this dispute up and move on to other, more pressing matters.