US Mediation Key to Solving Macedonia Name Dispute
Kosovo's dispute with Serbia and Macedonia's with Greece need to be solved in tandem - and both require international mediation, says Aleksandar Matovski, former adviser to Macedonia's former prime minister, now at Cornell University.
Q: As the International Court of Justice prepares to issue a ruling on Kosovo's independence, what are the region's big problems?
A: The stalled Euro-Atlantic integration of a few countries in the Balkans is the key problem. Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia were always the most fragile and problematic. Right now, Kosovo is in the focus because its status as a recognized country is still not completed and, most importantly, its relations with Serbia are not regulated.
This problem blocks two countries: Kosovo, and Serbia. Kosovo cannot join the United Nations or other important international institutions. On the other hand, Serbia cannot integrate into the European Union. Not being able to demonstrate effective control over the Kosovo territory that it claims as its own, Serbia cannot enforce the strict jurisdictional requirements of EU's acquis communautaire that are prerequisites to membership.
At the moment, there is pressure on both countries to regulate their relations. Given the entrenched positions of both sides, there is a growing consensus that any such compromise would revolve around negotiated territorial adjustments that would cede Serb enclaves in Kosovo to Belgrade in exchange for removing the blockage of Pristina's independence bid. The theory is that this should satisfy Serbia, and also be acceptable to Kosovo, as it will involve trading troublesome territories which are already under de facto Serb control.
Other formulas are possible for the Serbian churches and monasteries and other territories in Kosovo. These might obtain extra-territorial status. But such eventual developments... could complicate other relations in the region.
Despite the benefits, this will be a difficult compromise for both sides domestically that could unleash radical forces. Regionally, these forces and the precedent could spill over to affect Macedonia and Bosnia.
Q: How should Macedonia position itself, should these developments around Kosovo occur?
A: It cannot participate very actively. The whole situation depends on Belgrade and Pristina. The one thing that Macedonia can do practically is to increase its internal immunity [to internal conflict] and in some way distance itself from these regional developments.
The key to this is Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration and the closure of problems that are blocking the road to NATO and the EU. The key incentive for Macedonia to join NATO at the next alliance summit in Lisbon in November is that membership will fortify its borders and territorial integrity. That is a priority.
The ICJ ruling will probably start some kind of negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina. This process should run parallel with efforts to solve the "name" issue [with Greece]. Whenever there is talk of opening up dialogue with the goal for exchanging territories between Kosovo and Serbia, two countries stand to suffer: Bosnia and Macedonia. Macedonia is closer and more fragile in these matters.
Q: Is it possible to solve the name issue this year?
A: Everything is possible. The most important thing lacking right now has been action on the part of the international community, especially since the NATO Summit in Bucharest 2008 [when Greece vetoed Macedonia's application, citing the unresolved nature of the name dispute].
The US is the key mediator for the name issue. Europe has less capacity for such issues. Greece and Macedonia in the past couple of years have distanced themselves from each other. There is a lot of distrust. Both Skopje and Athens suspect that the other side will not respect any eventual agreement. That is why we need guarantees by the international community. Those guarantees could lead to a solution.
Another problem is that the politicians in both countries are not in a hurry to solve the issue. The name issue is so complex that it can end political careers very fast... As both Greece and Macedonia are essentially dependent on US and European powers for multiple other strategic considerations, a forceful diplomatic effort can catalyze this final leap to compromise.
That is why US and EU as two most important international factors should declare that they are ready to guarantee an agreement, so that both Athens and Skopje can then continue to work on the Euro-Atlantic integration of Macedonia and on good neighbourly relations.
Q: After the last meeting between the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers, the rhetoric changed. This was seen as hopeful. Is this hope realistic?
A: I don't think it gives cause for a lot of hope. The rhetoric has not really changed. There is a lot of communication going on through the media and there are provocations on both sides.
This dance continues until it is too late for compromise before some major milestone and the whole thing gets postponed. The way out of this stalemate is not through bilateral contacts, subtle international arbitration and incremental progress towards compromise. The only way out is through forceful high-level mediation that will confront the two sides with a settlement formula that safeguards the interests of both. Looking at both sides' so-called red lines, I think there is room for "a proposal that the both sides could hardly refuse".
There is some fear that this approach will expose the compromise solution to refusal, which will in turn delay settlement in the long run. This fear is largely irrelevant - the absence of a solution that will unblock Macedonia's NATO and EU integration by the end of the year will produce the same outcome anyway.
There are also a few key problems about the packaging of the solution. The analysis of the ESI [the European Stability Initiative], published a few weeks ago, may be useful. It says that any eventual solution [to the name dispute] should only be valid once Macedonia enters the EU - in other words, after it gets its reward for solving the name issue.
Q: There is not much information about the name issue process. Does the will exist in Macedonia to solve the issue?
A: It is difficult to assess because we don't have much information or insight into what the government people are thinking. The negotiations, if there are any, take place behind closed doors. The key thing in the process is the distrust that each side feels for the other in the process. Secondly, there is the lack of key mediation that will reassure both sides. Another dimension is the degree of internal confrontation within Macedonian society.
Q: Without internal consensus isn't a solution almost impossible?
A: The lack of any internal cohesion in Macedonia over this question is a problem. In Macedonia the [name] question has not only been turned into a key weapon of confrontation, it's become a question of political survival. It is very difficult for anyone to solve this issue when there is such internal pressure present. The thing is, I don't see any efforts being made to reach cohesion over the name issue.
Q: If there is no solution to the name issue this year, is maintaining the status quo possible?
A: Aside from the regional sensitivities we also have internal sensitivities. Again, it is hard to anticipate possible scenarios. But I must repeat that unless we strengthen our internal immunity [to conflict] by solving the name issue, the chances of problems will increase. Maybe the worst scenarios are not to be said [aloud] now, but the possibility of problems in Macedonia will grow as long as the issue drags on. The key point for any mediator is that any eventual solution must be confirmed by referendum. But if the referendum is unsuccessful, the whole process will then be put on hold for a long time. A combination of the regional dimension, a possible internal crisis and eventual delays over the name issue form a pretty bad prognosis. I don't want to sound pessimistic, but with every delay to a solution [of the name issue], bad results are likely to be created by themselves.
Q: Government critics insist the country is heading for isolation and catastrophe. Yet the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party enjoys stable popularity ratings of around 30 per cent. Why?
A: The biggest group of voters are those that are undecided. This is a key point. VMRO-DPMNE (rulling party) is successful in keeping its voting support, despite all the country's problems. When we speak of the difference in levels of support between VMRO and the [opposition] Social Democrats, the point is that these undecided voters are still waiting to transfer their support to the opposition. VMRO's ratings may be falling, but there is no transfer of support to the opposition.
Meanwhile, we don't have an election date set, so until it is officially announced, many things can happen. The most certain prognosis for the next elections is that all parties will win fewer votes than they did last time. There probably won't be a distinct winner. The hard phase of building coalitions and political bargaining will then start, which won't make solving the name issue any easier. In other words, if there are elections in the near future, the next person winning a mandate will have a smaller mandate than the present leader has, and, [if the name issue is not solved], he will have to manage a situation that will be much more complicated, both internally and internationally.
Q: What do you think of the government's populist policies?
A: Populism is OK as a tactic. The key is a long-term strategy. If there are no results of your rule during the period when this tactic is used, you will not be able to retain power through such means. So, the question is whether there's been any progress on the economy, on employment and on public services, such as health and education, which are the normal concerns of most people. If these matters have stagnated, no [populist] campaign will change the directions of things. Populism works beyond the short term only if moderated in its expenditures and if combined with achievements in substantive policy areas. Populism is extremely expensive. It may succeed [long term] in countries that have large natural resources, which have lots of oil and so on, but is not sustainable for governments of small countries like Macedonia, which have no resources.
Aleksandar Matovski is Director of Studies at Forum Center for Strategic Research and Documentation, in Skopje, Macedonia and former National Security Adviser to the Macedonian Prime Minister (2004-2006)