Cutting the Gordian Knot: Settling the “Macedonian” question – Part 3

Part 3 – Getting to Yes

It helps to sit literally on the same side of a table and to have in front of you the contract, the map, the blank pad of paper, or whatever else depicts the problem. If you have established a basis for mutual trust, so much the better. But however precarious your relationship may be, try to structure your negotiation as a side-by-side activity in which the two of you–with your different interests and perceptions, and your emotional involvement–jointly face a common task.

Roger Fisher and William Ury
GETTING TO YES: Negotiating An Agreement Without Giving In, Penguin Books, 2nd ed. p. 38 

Mr. Matthew Nimetz, Personal Envoy of the United Nation Secretary-General

A good day. His 79th birthday. He would celebrate it in a day or two with his family. Now he just wanted to take in the moment, to reflect, to enjoy the festive occasion. Not his birthday, but the signing of the Agreement between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Finally. Since 1991 when FYROM declared its independence, the two countries have been in a diplomatic row over FYROM’s adoption of the name “Republic of Macedonia,” naming its Slavic language “Macedonian,” calling its Slav citizens Macedonians, descendants of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great, and adopting symbols which Greeks claim as part of their patrimony.

Matthew Nimetz had been at it since 1994. He started under United States President Bill Clinton as Special Envoy, playing an instrumental role in the signing of the Interim Accord on 13 September 1995. Since 1999, in between his other professional and personal affairs, he served as Personal Envoy of the UN Secretary-General at an annual salary of US $1.

What a journey. Getting Greece and FYROM to YES has not been easy for Nimetz. It is by no means over. The Agreement signed on 17 June 2018 at Prespes Lake is as good as could be gotten, and as good as it will ever get. As things stand, whether the citizens of Greece and FYROM find the terms of the Agreement tolerable enough were the matter put to a referendum, remains an open question – and a bleak on at that.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Macedonia, fourth from left, offered his tie to his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, after the signing ceremony on Sunday, 17 June 2018. (Nikos Arvanitidis/EPA)

Even before the Agreement was signed, it was being denounced throughout Greece and FYROM – the provisional name under which it was admitted to UN membership pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 817 (7 April 1993). Misinformation over what the Agreement called for and the binding obligations of the two states resulting from the signing of the Agreement has run rampant. One law professor, Georgios Gerapetritis of the University of Athens in an article (link in Greek) went so far as to claim that the mere signing of the Agreement (by the respective Foreign Ministers) bound Greece to obligations under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), even if not ratified by the Greek Parliament, thus exposing Greece to international responsibility. This is patently incorrect. A mere reading of Articles 1.4, 2, and 20 of the Agreement bears this out.

Nonetheless, the head of New Democracy, Greece’s main (conservative) opposition party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was quick to latch onto this false claim to score political points with all the disaffected Greeks who cling on to unrealistic notions that any resolution to the Macedonian question must express a zero-sum gain. Oxford University Professor Antonios Tzanakopoulos, in a measured and thoughtful post, cogently explains why Prof. Gerapetritis gets it wrong. Mitsotakis ought to know better. A sophisticated and savvy Harvard and Stanford graduate, and member of one of Greece’s political dynasties, Mitsotakis, would have been ecstatic to have negotiated the Agreement were he the Prime Minister. In no small measure the terms of the Agreement reflect what his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis would have been prepared to accept in the early 90’s when he was Prime Minister and was willing to accept FYROM to be named Nova Makedonija (New Macedonia), for which, incidentally, he was deemed soft, causing an insurrection within his own party and a collapse of his government.

One need not be a learned law professor from an august university such as Oxford to get it right. The Agreement is clear and uncomplicated. Of course, it helps to read the Agreement – dispassionately and with intellectual honesty.

I discussed the context leading up to the Agreement in the previous two posts (here and here). In this post, the last of the series, I will briefly discuss the Agreement.

The Agreement is divided into three parts, with 20 articles, spanning over 19 pages, inclusive of which is the Preamble which makes reference to UN Security Council Resolutions 817 (1993) and 845 (1993), and the Interim Accord of 1995 – discussed in the previous post.

Part 1 of the Agreement addresses the main issue of discontent: the settlement on the difference on the name and related issues. A total of eight articles, it represents the essence of the Agreement. Briefly:

Article 1 covers many of the main issues of contention: the name of the state, the name of the citizens, the name of the language, what steps need to be taken by the Parties upon signing the Agreement, and the measures to be taken to fulfill certain obligations. Here are the main provisions:

  • Article 1.3 settles the name issue. FYROM shall be officially named “The Republic of North Macedonia” – used erga omnes for all purposes both domestically and internationally. Article 1.3.b settles the dispute over the nationality name – “Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia,” while Article 1.3.c names their language “Macedonian.” Article 1.3.g makes the name change and its usage “binding and irrevocable, entailing the amendment of the Constitution as agreed in this Agreement.”
  • Article 1.4 calls for the ratification of the Agreement by FYROM’s parliament, though it could (and probably should) be put to a referendum. Article 1.4.d imposes an obligation to make the requisite constitutional amendments as envisaged by the Agreement by the end of 2018. Article 1.4.f obligates Greece to “promptly ratify” the Agreement once it is notified by FYROM that its Parliament has ratified the Agreement (and has been passed, if put to a referendum), and has made the agreed constitutional amendments.
  • Articles 1.8 and 1.9 call for the use of the name domestically, in all its bilateral relations, and in all regional and international organizations and institutions.
  • Article 1.12 draws specific attention to FYROM revising the Preamble and Articles 3 and 49 of the Constitution (discussed in the previous posts here and here).

Article 2 is directed towards Greece, imposing the very same obligations Greece undertook when it signed the Interim Accord in 1995, which, unjustifiably, it violated (as the ICJ found) in 2011 when it blocked FYROM’s accession to NATO. Once the Agreement enters into force, Greece agrees not to object to and must ratify any of North Macedonia’s accession agreements to international organizations to which Greece is a member, including NATO and the European Union (EU).

Article 3 puts to rest any real or perceived territorial claims or attempts at border alterations. Not only are the existing international borders inviolable (Article 3.1), but the Parties are to respect each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence (Articles 3.2. and 3.3), to refrain from the use of force, and to refrain from undertaking, instigating, supporting and/or tolerating any non-friendly actions against the other Party (Article 3.4).

Article 4 commits the Parties to not make any claims of border alterations through constitutional amendments (Article 4.1), not make any irredentist statements (Article 4.2), and not declare in their constitutions anything that “will ever constitute the basis for interference with the internal affairs of the other Party in any form and for any reason, including the protection of the status and rights of any persons that are not its citizens.” (Article 4.3)

Article 6 commits the Parties not to use propaganda or to encourage violence, hatred or hostility, and “to prevent activities likely to incite chauvinism, hostility, irredentism, and revisionism against the other Party.” (Article 6.1)

Article 7 deals with perhaps the peskiest issue for Greece: Macedonia: more than a difference over a name, informational pamphlet, Greek Secretariat General for Press and Information, April 1994 (see part 2 of this series).

  • Article 7.1 recognizes the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonians” in the Parties’ “different historical context and cultural heritage.”
  • Article 7.2 provides that Greece’s reference to the terms “Macedonia/Macedonians” denotes the geographical area in the northern administrative region of Greece named Macedonia (Greek Macedonia), as well as their attributes, such as the Hellenic civilization, history, culture, and heritage of that region since antiquity.
  • Article 7.3 provides that FYROM’s reference to the same terms denotes its territory, language, people, and their attributes “with their own history, culture and heritage, distinctly different” from those of Greek Macedonia.
  • Article 7.4 commits FYROM to recognize the Macedonian language as a South Slavic language, and further recognizes that this language and other attributes “are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilization, history, culture and heritage” of Greek Macedonia.

Article 8 deals with the use of symbols, another source of concern and irritation for Greece.

  • Article 8.1 provides for either Party to register its claims of symbols constituting part of its historic or cultural patrimony, requiring the other Party to take corrective actions.
  • Article 8.2 provides that FYROM shall review, within six month of the entry into force of the Agreement, the status of its monuments, public buildings, and infrastructure “insofar as they refer in any way to ancient Hellenic history and civilization constituting an integral component of the historic or cultural patrimony” of Greece and shall take appropriate corrective actions.
  • Article 8.3 commits FYROM not to use in any way and form the symbol of the Sun of Vergina (associated with Alexander the Great, which FYROM displayed on its Flag until it was removed pursuant to the Interim Accord) and shall remove it from all public sites and usage.
  • Article 8.5 mandates the establishment of a Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historic, archaeological, and educational matters one month after the signing of the Agreement, to consider the objective interpretation of historical events. The Committee shall also consider the revision of textbooks, school auxiliary material (maps, historical atlases, and teaching guides), if deemed appropriate and in accordance with the principles and aims of UNESCO and the Council of Europe.

Part 2 (Articles 9-18) sets out aspirational goals and mechanisms for the Parties in fulfilling their respective commitments consonant to the letter and spirit of the Agreement, fostering cooperation in the areas of:

  • intensifying and enriching cooperation;
  • diplomatic relations;
  • international and regional organizations;
  • political and social;
  • economic;
  • education, science, culture, research technology, health, sports;
  • police and civil protection;
  • defense; and
  • treaty relations.

Part 3 (Articles 19-20) sets out the dispute settlement and final provisions. The Parties may call up the good offices of the UN Secretary-General, with the option of submitting disputes to the ICJ should there be an impasse, though the Parties “should first seek to agree upon a joint submission.” (Article 19.3) The Agreement ends with Article 20 which sets a step-by-step implementation process.

My take

The Agreement goes much further than the Interim Accord. It deals with all the contested matters forthrightly, providing useful mechanisms, confidence-building measures, and feasible timetables for commencing implementation of the terms of the Agreement. Notably, obligations arising from the signing of the Agreement are immediately imposed on FYROM to have the Parliament (and/or through a referendum) ratify the Agreement and make the requisite amendments to its Constitution before Greece is required to ratify it. Only after the Agreement is ratified by FYROM and Greece will it enter into force, and only then will Greece undertake not to block Greece the invitation for FYROM’s entry into NATO or accession to the EU.

This effectively motivates Macedonia to move swiftly and earnestly if it is genuinely serious about becoming a NATO member and joining the EU. Greece, on the other hand, need not worry about whether Macedonia would follow up on its commitments to making the requisite constitutional changes (as it had failed to completely do so under the Interim Accord), since the Agreement does not come into force until such and other changes are made, thus giving Greece sufficient assurances that it will not be played by Macedonia by the mere signing of the Agreement.

Articles 7 and 8 arguably contain the most controversial and contentious provisions. For the Greeks, while it may not go far enough in getting FYROM to relinquish all claims related to the use of the name and attributes of “Macedonia,” it adequately addresses their concerns as eloquently perceived by Advocate General Francis Jacobs in his 6 April 1995 Opinion in Commission v. Greece (Case C-120/94):

FYROM, as a newly created independent State characterized by great ethnic diversity, is attempting to foster a sense of national identity, in order to weld together its heterogeneous population, by cultivating among its citizens a Macedonian consciousness and instilling into them a belief that they are the heirs to the ancient kingdom of Philip and Alexander. Greece regards that, rightly or wrongly, as the theft of a part of Greece’s own national identity. Moreover, Greece points to the use of text books in schools showing maps of Macedonia which include, in addition to the present territory of FYROM, the Pirin district of Bulgaria and a portion of Greek territory stretching as far south as Thessaloniki and Mount Olympus. (See part 2 of this series for full quote)

To the Macedonians, the Agreement may appear harmfully skewed against them and in favor of the Greeks. Changing the name of their country from the preferred “The Republic of Macedonia” to “The Republic of North Macedonia” may pose less discontent than were it to have changed to “Slavo-Macedonia.” Though they retain the names by which they identify themselves as (Macedonians), their language (Macedonian), and their county (Macedonia, albeit qualified as North Macedonia), admittedly, the Macedonians are unlikely to view this as a consolation. As I’ve noted in the previous posts, no state (or international organization) has the right to impose upon another state what it should call itself, its citizens, and its language. But for the Greeks, this is no small matter. It is not just a major concession, it is also an acceptance and a validation that its northern neighbors are Macedonians, who speak Macedonian, and live in Macedonia (even if it represents only part of the geographical space of Macedonia). The effects of Greece’s concession are nicely summed up by Zoran Zaev, FYROM’s Prime Minister:

I remain firmly and fully dedicated to demonstrating that this agreement with Greece solves the biggest problem that was preventing our development since our independence. We have a crystal-clear confirmation of the Macedonian language and identity of Macedonians, at home and abroad. Translatable, without any limitations, into all languages in the world, an identity for overall use. Those political factors that cannot see this are creating new divisions. We need to unite around this new historical opportunity. I believe in this, and I will invest all my political integrity and energy to that end.

To the Macedonians, the name issue is likely to be a lesser point of resentment than the relinquishment – however modest – of what the Greeks claim as theirs and which they believe, rightly or wrongly, has been nakedly misappropriated (stolen) by FYROM: their patrimonial heritage and culture, which, along with the name issue, lend to an unacceptable false historical narrative and irredentism that threatens Greece’s sovereignty.

This may be a bitter pill for the Macedonians to swallow, and it could prove to be a deal-breaker. Unsurprisingly, however, many Greeks are equally disturbed. The notion that Greek textbooks may need to be adjusted to accommodate these so-called Macedonians, is insulting. Why should Greece bend, when it is FYROM that created a myth that lays claims to the use of term “Macedonia” and its attributes as of antiquity? An understandable visceral reaction, which, in my view, merits little sympathy. If the objective is to amicably resolve incorrect and specious historical facts that invariably exist in the school textbooks in FYROM and Greece (a possibility that cannot be outright rejected), then there is no other option.

In the end, it will be up to FYROM’s parliament (the representatives of the electorate) and/or its citizens (should it be put to a referendum) to decide whether it wishes to make these adjustments for the sake of the greater security and economic prosperity likely to be ushered in through NATO and EU membership. Perhaps here is where the negotiating process of the Agreement could have been more inclusive on both sides of the border, though inclusiveness of opposition political parties without genuine political will and commitment towards finding mutually acceptable solutions (Getting to YES) generally results in divisiveness and obstructionism.

Is it right to compromise on such matters as the names, use of symbols, acknowledgement of their respective heritage and culture, and patrimonial rights? I think yes. Correcting or re-calibrating long-held historical truths created during a time and under a regime (Tito’s Yugoslavia) where it was fashionable to simplify history and to transmute the identity of the entire population for geopolitical and domestic reasons (see part 2, reference to historian Norman Davies’ observations), is hard to fathom and is inconveniently unpleasant. The Agreement provides for a sensible process. Good faith willing, this process can yield acceptable results. Indeed, the implementation of the envisaged process, if properly established and sincerely followed, will bear its own fruits – fruits that are the by-product of any long-term project, such as that envisaged by Article 8.5 with the establishment of a Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts.

There are provisions that will face resistance from Greeks and Macedonians. Finding acceptable solutions required by the Agreement, such as finding respective historical narratives acceptable to both Parties, will be as challenging as it will be time-consuming. No doubt, Greeks and Macedonians will find intrusive, if not offensive, the notion that their heritage and culture will be negotiated and potentially altered by a group of experts. How meddling of the Greeks telling the Macedonians what they should teach their children and vice versa?

Consensus will be hard to find at times. But then the issues to be resolved are difficult and emotive. So what? Historians who are expected to be objective rarely fully agree, and sometimes diametrically disagree even when considering the same historical evidence. Usually, the historical truth is elusively resting somewhere in between. Here is where good will and open-mindedness will be required of those sitting in the various committees, eschewing dogmatic “truths” for more nuanced alternative plausible historical narrative, based on reasonably acceptable, though not necessarily indisputable, evidence.

Expectedly, there will be instances of irreconcilable difference, where reasonable minds can reasonably disagree, so long as such disagreements are not expressed disagreeably. To pull this off, both Parties will be required to carefully select the members of the committees to ensure that inflexible and obdurate ultra-nationalists – fixated with myopic historical narratives based on specious or incomplete evidence – are not included so as not to highjack the process, which, in my opinion, is as important as any yielded substantive results.

In parting, it would be presumptuous of me to pass judgment on what is good for the Macedonians and whether they should embrace the Agreement – however flawed it may seem to them. Their destiny is theirs to decide. As someone of Greek heritage and someone who has an abiding appreciation of my culture and historical roots (and an affinity for the Macedonians whether of Greek or Slavic origin) I take the liberty to offer my opinion on whether this Agreement sufficiently addresses most if not all of the real or perceived concerns that Greece and Greeks have had since 1991 when FYROM declared its independence.

I find the Agreement acceptable and highly beneficial to Greece, FYROM, and the region. It may have its shortcomings, but all things considered, there is no such thing as a perfect agreement. A sustainable friendly, productive, and mutually beneficial relationship between Greece and FYROM – which I believe is desired by their respective citizens – will not be achieved if either Party pursues an uncompromisingly nationalistic winner-take-all /zero-sum-gain agenda. It will only come about if Greece and FYROM recognize each other’s concerns and try to address them honestly, appreciatively, and respectfully.

The Agreement is an excellent start. Now comes the hard part: informing, explaining, and educating the citizens on both sides of the border: what the Agreement stands for and how it will impact their respective domestic, regional, and international relations if ratified – or not.

Nimetz should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize if the Agreement is ratified and enters into force.

About Author


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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