Power words: Europe’s stake in the Macedonian name dispute

By Daniel Stefanov and Vessela Tcherneva

Macedonia and Greece have defied the stereotype that the Balkans produce only bad news. Earlier this week, following 27 years of tense UN-led negotiations, the countries made an important step towards resolving their dispute over Macedonia’s name. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, agreed that the name “North Macedonia” will be used erga omnes, or both internally and externally. In return, Greece will allow its neighbour to apply for Nato membership and to open EU accession negotiations. In an era of populist politics and shallow, television-friendly gestures, the move demonstrated Balkans states’ capacity to solve long-standing problems through negotiation. However, for the agreement to become something more than a positive sign, Europe must recognise its important implications for the Balkans and the wider continent.

The name dispute has long deprived Macedonia of a route to membership of Nato and the European Union, creating a persistent uncertainty that makes Macedonian society an easy target for nationalist political strategies. After the demise of Macedonia’s bid for Nato membership in 2008, the government of then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski – leader of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO–DPMNE) – started to capitalise on the resulting sense of isolation. In the years that followed, Macedonia began to backslide on democratic reforms, losing its hopes for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

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Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.