Macedonia’s nationalist leader for a decade from 2006, Nikola Gruevski, tried to put pressure on Athens by manufacturing a spurious ancient Macedonian heritage for his nation, renaming airports and stations and erecting statues of Alexander the Great and Phillip II of Macedon. This crude exercise in nation-building further infuriated Greeks while helping distract Macedonians’ attention from official corruption and mismanagement. The ousting of Mr Gruevski and the election of Zoran Zaev, his centre-left rival, opened the way to a compromise and to his credit, Alexis Tspiras, Greece’s leftwing prime minister, took it despite widespread Greek opposition. In June last year, the two men signed an accord on the shores of Lake Prespa, renaming the country the Republic of North Macedonia, recognising its language and culture, clarifying its lack of ancient Macedonian heritage and removing any irredentist references in school history books.
The name dispute would be treated as an eccentric anachronism were it not hanging over a part of Europe that is still a powder keg of ethnic tensions and geopolitical rivalries. Russia, seeking to rebuild its influence in the Balkans, attempted to stir up opposition to the deal in both countries. In 2016, Moscow was alleged to have plotted a coup attempt in nearby Montenegro aimed at thwarting its accession to Nato. On a visit to Belgrade last week, President Vladimir Putin revealed that Serbia was close to agreeing a pact with the Eurasian Economic Union, a Moscow-led club, which would be incompatible with EU membership.
The US and the EU, meanwhile, have stepped up their efforts to anchor the region more firmly in the west. The EU has opened up the prospect of membership for six Balkan states by 2025. US and European officials filed through Skopje last autumn to support the Prespa accord ahead of an advisory referendum. The vote showed overwhelming support for the deal, though on low turnout. Mr Zaev pressed ahead and the deal was passed earlier this month in Macedonia’s parliament. Now it is Greece’s turn. Mr Tsipras appears to have scraped together the numbers he needs for ratification. Despite howls of condemnation from nationalists and the centre-right opposition, the deal looks set to pass after To Potami, a small centre-left party, said its MPs would have a free vote.
PM Tsipras came to power in Greece as a populist, promising to voters he would rip up painful EU and IMF austerity measures which he then proceeded to implement. His principled support for a Macedonia deal could cost him heavily in elections due later this year. Neither he nor Mr Zaev appears to have established a broad majority among the public or political elites for this deal, which will need strengthening in the years to come. But it is the right choice for Greece, the Balkans and Europe, reads the Financial Times article.