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    Here’s what I think: The Macedonia naming issue at Euro 2020

    All the way back in 2019 when I was young and fresh-faced, the first column I ever wrote was about the Prespa Agreement, which had been ratified just a few days prior. As a result of the agreement, the (former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia would become known as North Macedonia – a name agreed on with Greece, who had up to that point taken issue with the name “Macedonia” being shared with the ancient kingdom of Macedon, and the modern Greek region which shares the same name.

    Here's what I think: The Macedonia naming issue at Euro 2020 1
    Tom Cleaver

    The agreement was controversial, with both certain groups on both sides believing that they had lost something out of it. There were large scale protests in Athens, Thessaloniki, and Skopje, some of which turned violent. The agreement was not so controversial, however, that it couldn’t be ratified by the parliaments of both countries, and neither country has thought about touching it since. Its architects, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev both left their posts as Prime Ministers of their respective countries, but neither of their replacements even thought about upending the agreement. Zaev even found himself Prime Minister for a second time after last year’s elections, and has remained in office ever since.

    Agreements in practice, however, are only as good as the will of the respective parties to adhere to them, and this is where the problem lies at the moment. North Macedonia qualified for the football European Championships (or Euro 2020), which due to the pandemic is being played this summer rather than last year. For most of Europe, this is a fun underdog story of a tiny nation punching above its weight on the sporting stage. For Greece, and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, however, this was an opportunity to be outraged.

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    Dendias wrote a strongly-worded letter to his North Macedonian counterpart Bujar Osmani over the team’s shirts bearing a logo with the acronym “FFM” (short for “Football Federation of Macedonia”) and that the score bug on the television feed bared the acronym “MKD”. Greek Sports Minister Lefteris Avgenakis sent a letter to European football’s governing body UEFA, too, expressing his anger. They claimed that these two acronyms were in violation of the Prespa Agreement.

    It is quite obvious that neither Dendias nor Avgenakis have read the Prespa Agreement

    If they truly believe those claims, then it is quite obvious to me that neither of them have read it. Fortunately, I have, and I can report that according to Article 1 Appendix 3e, this usage is absolutely permissible under the agreement. Legally, therefore, there are no grounds for any need for change, and UEFA did not mandate one. Zoran Zaev still offered to take the matter up with the FFM in a written statement, however.

    Of course, the “argument” made it to Cyprus, too. I had the misfortune of watching North Macedonia’s second game, against the Ukraine, on CyBC (RIK) – Cyprus’ state broadcaster, who took until the 85th minute of the match to mention even once the name of the country. Prior to that, they had been referred to as “the slavs” and “the skopians” among other things. Cyprus isn’t a signatory to the Prespa Agreement, as it is a bilateral one between North Macedonia and Greece, but given the Greek Cypriot’s enduring close alignment with Greece, this seems to be an act of pettiness and spite rather than remissness. Ironically, one could level similar accusations at some in Cyprus as regards a “fabrication of a Greek identity”, but I shan’t go there today.

    North Macedonia’s current government is much more amiable than its predecessors

    As far as I’m concerned, this whole episode around the acronym on a football team’s kit is a storm in a teacup whipped up by the Greek government in order to dredge up some kind of an excuse to continue bullying its much smaller, less well-established, and poorer northern neighbour. That’s not to say that the North Macedonian side has been completely innocent – the right wing VMRO-DPMNE party did have irredentist intentions in the early 1990s, and when in government and led by Nikola Gruevski between 2006 and 2016 was at times purposefully provocative towards Greece, naming random things after Alexander the Great, for example. However, North Macedonia’s current government is much more amiable and compromising than that of Gruevski, and even if it wasn’t, Greece’s relative size, influence, and wealth compared to its northern neighbour mean that these sorts of reactions to a (perfectly legal) usage of the word “Macedonia” are wildly disproportionate.

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    You may think I’m overreacting to this overreaction by the Greek government, but this sort of behaviour has been standard practice for the last thirty years. In 1994, Greece imposed a trade embargo on North Macedonia which ended up costing the tiny republic US$2 billion during a time in which most of the rest of the Balkans were at war with each other and North Macedonia was struggling to keep it all together. A year later, the “interim accord” was signed by both countries, which stipulated a change of national flag and constitution in North Macedonia, and the placeholder name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, and that in return Greece would not stand in the way of its northern neighbour’s attempts to join international organisations. Greece effectively went back on that agreement and did block some of those attempts, with then Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni proudly admitting as much in 2007. They had made such little effort to follow the 1995 “interim accord” that effectively the same clause had to be written into the Prespa Agreement 24 years later, and only last year did North Macedonia join NATO.

    Greece needs to learn when to accept victory

    After all I’ve written and all the history I’ve brought up here, my point really is that Greece needs to learn when to accept victory, and stop using diplomatic channels to bully North Macedonia. North Macedonia has changed its flag, its name, and its constitution to accommodate Greece, and is now more than ever looking to extend the olive branch out to its southern neighbour and fully join the European family of nations. Greece, thanks to its long and proud history, has a lot of good will around the world, but the modern Greek state can lose a lot of that good will if it continues to bully its small and young northern neighbour, especially after the concessions to Greece it has made.

    It is time, therefore, that Greece let this go. North Macedonia, with it’s changed name, changed flag, changed constitution, and amiable government is clearly willing to become a friend and ally of Greece. It’s time, maybe after one of them actually reads the Prespa Agreement, that Greece’s government started acting like a better neighbour to North Macedonia.

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