As autumn comes to Europe, it is time to reap the fruits of months of hard diplomatic work across the Balkan Peninsula. On September 30, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) will hold a consultative referendum that could lead the country to change its name to “Republic of North Macedonia.”
This is no mere linguistic exercise. If the referendum passes, it could put an end to 27 years of bickering between the Macedonian and Greek governments. Greece vehemently opposes its northern neighbor’s use of “Macedonia” without a qualifier, because a region in Greece bears the same name. Moreover, the ancient kingdom of Macedonia has great cultural and historical significance for modern-day Greeks.
If a large share of the Macedonian electorate turns out and votes in support of the name change and related matters, the required constitutional amendments will be more likely to pass in Macedonia’s parliament. In that case, the last word would go to Greece’s parliament, which would also have to vote on the change.
Owing to the name dispute, Greece has blocked the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (a provisional reference used since 1993) from joining the EU and NATO. But, three months ago, the Macedonian and Greek governments finally reached an agreement to resolve their bilateral disputes. The implications of what they agreed to are plainly visible in the wording of the Macedonian referendum question: “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”
Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Matthew Nimetz, the United Nations Secretary General’s personal envoy on the name dispute, both played key roles in ensuring the success of the negotiations. Nimetz, who first started working on this issue in 1994, has warned that the diplomatic stars will not soon align so favorably again.
At a time of resurgent nationalism, the “Prespa Agreement” – named for the lake that spans the borders of Greece, FYROM, and Albania – is a breath of fresh air. Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras have displayed remarkable boldness and responsible leadership in order to conclude the agreement. Both have had to expend a great deal of political capital, confronting domestic nationalist forces and facing down no-confidence motions spearheaded by opposition parties.
The Prespa Agreement offers a viable model for addressing disputes elsewhere, because it embodies a holistic conflict-resolution approach based on the promise of mutually shared long-term benefits. For example, one of its articles states that, “In the age of the new industrial revolution […] the deepening of cooperation amongst States and societies is necessary now more than ever, in particular with respect to social activities, technologies, and culture.”
This statement by long-feuding parties is an inspiration for a region that remains entangled in stalemated disputes over ethnic and national identities. The Balkans – and not only the Balkans – are in need of a new narrative based on people’s real priorities, which is precisely what the Prespa Agreement provides.
As it happens, another frozen dispute in the region could soon thaw enough to move toward a resolution. In 2011, the EU initiated a dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo that has since produced significant benefits in terms of freedom of movement, trade, economic opportunities, security, justice, connectivity, and much else.
Despite this gradual normalization of bilateral relations, the fundamental dispute between the two countries remains unresolved. Both sides are acutely aware that the status quo implies a high cost, by hampering their EU accession bids and imposing an unsustainable burden on their respective economies.
Working with Mogherini, Presidents Aleksandar Vu?i? of Serbia and Hashim Thaçi of Kosovo have accelerated their negotiations over the past few months, with the aim of reaching a definitive, comprehensive, and legally binding agreement. Of course, it is not the EU’s prerogative to dictate the terms of the conflict’s resolution, and it is clear that local ownership will be key to any deal that may emerge from the process.
At this stage in the dialogue, it is essential that caution and moderation prevail. Vu?i? and Thaçi’s legacies will largely depend on their willingness to formulate a realistic proposal that aligns with the foundational values of the EU. Both leaders have an opportunity to eschew maximalist positions and to emulate the sagacity of the Greek and Macedonian governments.
Less promising is the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), where a general election is set to take place on October 7, despite the fact that the country currently lacks an effective electoral law. Having been trapped in a territorial and administrative jumble since the end of the war in 1995, BiH is an exceedingly difficult country to govern. Ethnocentrism continues to dominate its politics, and the current electoral race is no exception.
Complicating matters further, the secessionist politician Milorad Dodik, who just served his final term as president of the Republika Srpska (one of the two largely autonomous entities into which the country is divided), has made the disquieting decision to run for BiH’s tripartite presidency. Let us hope that the more constructive spirit pervading the rest of the region finally seeps into BiH, and that inter-ethnic initiatives gain steam, as a large part of Bosnian civil society has long advocated.
There can be little doubt that the last few decades have brought more frustration than progress to the Balkans. But if the Prespa Agreement shows anything, it is that no conflict is unsolvable when diplomatic creativity and political will are brought to bear. If the coming crucial weeks end well, a region that was ravaged by nationalism at the end of the last century could now defy today’s global lurch toward chauvinism. At a time when so many countries seem intent on building walls, it would be ironic and deeply gratifying to see the Balkans build bridges.