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 the head of ECFR’s Wider Europe programme and a senior policy fellow at ECFR. She is the co-founder of Sofia Platform, a venue for dialogue between members of NGOs, the media, and politics from Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. From 2010 to 2013 she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of the political cabinet of Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov.She has been the head of the Bulgarian office of the European Council for Foreign Relations since 2003, as well as programme director for Foreign Policy Studies at the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia. Between 2004 and 2006 she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato. She has been a supervising editor for Foreign Policy – Bulgaria magazine since its launch in 2005.