The Prespa Agreement Unwrapped

It is a new day in the Balkans, as many have applauded the “historic” Prespa Agreement reached between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece to officially change the name from Macedonia to “North Macedonia”. To many in the United States and other western countries, this agreement has been applauded for being a great example of how bilateral disputes can be overcome. However, before drawing such a conclusion, we should consider the whole picture of what happened, how it happened, and what it truly means for the Macedonian people. Let’s start by looking back at how the Prespa Agreement was approved.

On Friday, October 19, 2018 two‐thirds of the members of Parliament in Macedonia voted in favor of constitutional changes as required by the Prespa Agreement with Greece, which effectively led to changing the name of Macedonia to “North Macedonia” for domestic, bilateral and international use (or “Erga Omnes”). Given that the turnout of the Macedonian referendum failed to reach the required 50% threshold, one would presume that the country’s democratic allies might be puzzled that two‐thirds of parliamentary members took matters into their own hands as opposed to respecting the majority of voters who elected not to participate in the referendum.

In the Macedonian name referendum on September 30, 2018, there were approximately 1,800,000 eligible votes and just over 666,000 people went to the polls, garnering a turnout of just below 37%. Even with this being a consultative (i.e. non‐binding) referendum, there was little excitement from the people for this deal – as shown by the small turnout. These figures present the reality that most citizens (over 60%) had reservations about the Prespa Agreement and did not believe it was in the country’s best interest.

A supporter of the boycott movement celebrates the low turnout of the referendum – Skopje, Macedonia, US News.

Ultimately, lawmakers in any democracy must recognize when the citizens are sending a message. Even with months of intense lobbying and campaigning by foreign officials such as Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn of the EU, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis and several others, the referendum failed. It is also important to mention that all these visitors to Macedonia made a point to say, “There is no alternative, you cannot enter EU or NATO without the Prespa Agreement”. This is not what modern‐day democratic principles should entail. Attempting to influence a referendum outcome by intimidating the people with an ultimatum is the exact opposite of what “European Values” mean. Not only this, but even after the referendum results did not land in the favor of the governing majority and foreign officials, they continued to push for constitutional changes as if the referendum was a success. From a neutral perspective, this is the most difficult aspect to grasp – does this not cross the line of infringement upon a nation’s sovereignty and the will of its people?

Stepping away from the questionable events at the time of this referendum, let’s revert to Friday, October 19th, 2018, when the vote on constitution changes took place. In the week leading up to this vote, there was little belief that the ruling coalition had enough votes, as the SDSM‐led governing majority possessed only 72 votes and required an additional 8 votes from the opposition party, VMRO‐DPMNE, in order to reach the two‐thirds majority required to approve changing the constitution. Then came Friday, when the parliamentary session and vote was slated to take place around 3PM but had been delayed 6 hours until approximately 9PM. Seemingly out of nowhere, the government coalition got exactly 8 more votes to reach the amount needed to approve constitutional revision. There have been suspicions that several of the MP’s were bribed or blackmailed to flip their vote in favor of constitutional changes. A few of these parliamentary members had even been incarcerated for events related to violence in the Parliament the previous year on April 27, 2017, when Talat Xhaferi (Former KLA/NLA commander) was controversially elected as Speaker of the Assembly. More specifically, 3 members of VMRO‐DPMNE, Krsto Mukoski, Ljuben Arnaudov, and Saso Vasilevski who had been charged for their role in events taking place on April 27, 2017, were all released from house arrest just days before this vote. Interestingly, all 3 of them voted in favor of constitutional changes, which their party did not support. All these happenings seem too coordinated to be taken as pure coincidences. It is evident that both externally and internal there was immense pressure to approve the constitutional changes. Even the Defense Minister of Greece, Panos Kammenos, believed this to be the case, having claimed that politicians in Skopje were bribed to push the vote through.

With such important questions asked of the citizens and no mandate provided, it is irresponsible for lawmakers to move forward with changes to the country’s constitution.

Now that we have touched on the controversies surrounding this vote, let’s examine the thoughts and minds of the actual citizens who did vote in favor of the agreement, as they still make up a significant chunk (609,000+) of the nation’s voters and should not be overlooked. For a Macedonian citizen (of any ethnic background), being put to the test of voting to change the constitutional name of the country in exchange for potential EU and NATO membership is not an easy decision. Though most would not accept an Erga Omnes (i.e. for all purposes) solution to the problem that Greece has with Macedonia’s name, there were still a fair number of citizens were willing to make that sacrifice in the referendum. In their position, it is difficult to live in Macedonia under the current conditions; citizens are desperate and trying to find any way to gain economic prosperity – including leaving the country. In other words, some citizens view acceptance of the Prespa Agreement as a ticket out of the country. Given that multiple countries within the EU today experience problems with stagnant population growth and negative migration (i.e. Bulgaria, Romania), this is not a farfetched theory. The true question here is whether Macedonia would fare any better than nearby countries such as Bulgaria and Romania, who are larger economies with bigger populations.

Below are the Total Populations, Net Migration, and Population Growth Rates for the three countries mentioned above. A positive net migration indicates there are more people entering than leaving a country, while a negative net migration shows that more people are leaving a country than coming in within the year. The population growth rate is annual population growth shown as a percentage (regardless of legal status or citizenship).

2017 estimates, derived from The World Bank.

As displayed in the table above, two countries situated near Macedonia who are also EU and NATO members continue to struggle with negative net migration and shrinking populations.  In fact, when considering the figures above, Bulgaria and Romania appear to be in slightly worse condition than Macedonia when it comes to these two statistics.  Net Migration and Population Growth Rates tell only part of the story, but certainly offer a benchmark to compare the overall population stability of these three nations. When considering population totals, Romania (nearly 10x larger) and Bulgaria (approximately 3.5x larger) both have greater bandwidth to tolerate negative net migration and a diminishing population than does Macedonia. Moreover, this evidence does not suggest that entrance into the EU and NATO will keep people in Macedonia, and neither do the motives of Macedonian citizens who supported the Prespa Agreement, as a number of them are trying to escape the stagnant economic conditions at any cost. Now, there are potential benefits to joining the EU and NATO, such as better prospective long-term stability and potential for greater trade and investment opportunities, but it should not come at the cost of Macedonian national interests – especially when citizens did not provide a mandate through the referendum.

So, many of you are probably wondering what is in the “Prespa Agreement”. Thus, we should take a moment to analyze its most critical contents, which have been highlighted below (*Please note that the “First Party” in the agreement is Greece and “Second Party“ is Macedonia).

Within Article 1, Section 11 the agreement states the following:

As one can see, this section states “…ratification of this agreement by its Parliament or following a referendum, if the Second Party (Macedonia) decides to hold one.” Because Macedonia decided to hold a referendum, the results undoubtedly hold merit – but this was ignored by members of the Macedonian Parliament and other global actors. 

The clause shown above, within Article 1(3)(b), notes that the nationality of the citizens for all travel documents will read “Macedonian/Citizen of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”. If the identity of Macedonians was protected, as many defenders of the agreement have claimed, then why must there be the addition of “/Citizen of the Republic of Northern Macedonia”? This is a clear case of Greece seeking to minimize Macedonian self‐identification. When denoting nationality in a travel document, stating that a person is a “citizen of…….” does not make logical sense in this case. If the Macedonian identity were truly intact, the travel documents would continue stating “Macedonian”, as no other people in the globe call themselves Macedonian in an official manner, and there is no other state name that contains the word “Macedonia”.

Greeks from the northern portion of Greece (also known as Aegean Macedonia) are no exception – their passports state “Greek/Hellenic” under nationality, not “Macedonian” or “South Macedonian”. Because of this fact, there is little confusion nor is there an actual need for additional verbiage after “Macedonian”. This is one of many reasons why the Prespa Agreement does not solidify the Macedonian identity, but fragments it.

Article 1(3)(e) above is a technical clause that is simply designed not to provoke Greeks when Macedonian vehicles enter Greece. If the country code remains MK or MKD, what is the purpose of the name change in the first place? This section suggests that the country is to be informally called “Makedonija” or “Macedonia”. It appears to be somewhat open-ended and could lead to future disputes due to name use at sporting events like the Olympics, World Cup Qualification, or Handball Championships. Greeks could very well cite provocation by Macedonia for using banners, signs, or apparel that says “Makedonija” or “Macedonia”. Overall, it seems unlikely that the Prespa Agreement has fully solved this aspect of the issue.

The above paragraph, within Article 4(3), may seem like basic rhetoric, but is quite crippling to those of Macedonian descent in Northern Greece. With this paragraph, Greece has effectively erased the connection between Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia and in Northern Greece. This is important because of the ethnic suppression that took place against Macedonians in Northern Greece since the Balkan wars concluded in the early 20thcentury. To put it into perspective, most of these folks were either forcibly assimilated (i.e. names changed, forced to speak Greek instead of Macedonian), tortured or killed. Keep in mind that this was all before Macedonia had a country of its own, and thus, citizens of its own. This clause provides Greece with a clever way of evading the reality that there is a Macedonian minority in Greece, because it eliminates the Republic of Macedonia’s right to fight for protection against discrimination of the Macedonian minority in Greece. Keep in mind that vast majority of ethnic Macedonians in Northern Greece are not Macedonian citizens, therefore cannot be protected as a minority within Greece because of this portion of the agreement.

The above clauses within Article 7 dangerously attempt to make historical assertions in a political agreement – assertions that are not well‐grounded. Macedonia is far from being “One and Greek” – just ask Greek parliamentary representative Nikos Filis, who explicitly said this when addressing the Greek assembly on January 22, 2019, stating“When it is heard that Macedonia is one and is Greek, it is perceived as irresponsible. Maybe it does not sound good but it is a reality. And to be more specific, Macedonia became Greek because Macedonian population up to 1912‐22 that came to refugees had a majority Greek only in some zones in the South”. Ultimately, this clause in the agreement displays a negligent attempt by the Greeks to monopolize ancient Macedonian history.

Article 8, parts 1, 2 and 3 shown above are some of the most inflammatory portions of the agreement, whereby the old Macedonian national flag symbol (the 16‐ray sun) which has been a historic symbol of Macedonia for centuries, cannot be used in any public space. Further, the agreement makes note that “Archaeological artifacts do not fall within the scope of this provision”. In other words, though there may be historical artifacts, symbols, findings and other indications that this symbol is connected to the very land it sits on – the 16‐ray sun cannot be shown in public. If readers want to truly get to the crux of the name issue, Macedonian identity, and bilateral dispute with Greece, this is where it lies. At no juncture has the Republic of Macedonia claimed exclusive rights to ancient Macedonia, its symbols, or its history. The stance of the Republic of Macedonia has always been that the country is one part of that rich history, and therefore has a right to celebrate it.

Let us use an example. There is a Macedonian man named Marko. He was born in Bitola, just a few miles from the ancient Macedonian city of Heraclea. He is proud of this fact and feels he has a connection to ancient Macedonia. The real question is: Does Marko, or any other Macedonian citizen who feels a connection to ancient Macedonia, have the right to proudly express these symbols and lineage? Any scholar, lawyer, judge or even the writers of the Prespa Agreement would say “Yes”.

If this is the case, then why does the country where many people like Marko live not have ITS right to be proud of that history?

This is the heart of the problem. While Greece seeks to control Macedonian history from antiquity to present, it is destroying its neighboring country’s future. Many Macedonians understand that they have a significant Slavic element in their culture and are mixed between Slavic cultural heritage and that of the ancient Macedonians in some way. It is through no fault of their own that the Ancient Macedonian language was not fully written and standardized.  It is through no fault of their own that they have been ruled over by Turks, Bulgarians, Serbians and others, undoubtedly undergoing assimilation just like many other ethnic groups throughout the Balkans. It is through no fault of their own that Macedonians in Greece had their names forcibly changed and were tortured or killed. No, none of this is the fault of the Macedonian people. Even with all these challenges, it is impossible to negate one thing – that Macedonians exist. No one can take away the fact that Marko and his family live on the very soil where Filip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) ruled and where his statue lies.

Article 8(5) shown above is yet another provocation within the agreement. This clause is a prime example of Greece exerting pressure to extract additional concessions. The Prespa Agreement IS about identity, no matter how much Nikola Dimitrov, Zoran Zaev, Radmila Sekerinska or anyone else denies it. If all of this is simply about renaming the country and accepting that Macedonians are allowed to self‐determine, then why are all these additional stipulations included from a historical, education, and symbolic standpoint? Teaching children an altered past of their own country and changing the materials they learn from sets a dangerous precedent. It will be interesting to see if there will be any alterations to Greek textbooks, though that seems quite unlikely…

Article 19(2) – Greece’s trump card. The true meaning behind this paragraph is to say, “If they don’t hide the old flag, change schoolbooks, change all official documents and government buildings to state “North Macedonia”, then the deal is off and the doors to EU and NATO are closed.”

There are several troublesome sections within the Prespa Agreement, and it seems to raise more questions than it answers. It is about much more than switching the name from “Macedonia” to “North Macedonia”. If that were the case, the document would have been a single page in length. To an average person trying to make sense of this issue, please remember the international rights of self‐determination and the right to name one’s own state. How would you feel if a foreign nation was taking a vote to verify the name of your own country? Most would feel embarrassed, as many Macedonians currently do. 

Nonetheless, the final step towards ratification of the Prespa Agreement took place when Greece’s Parliament narrowly approved of the agreement with 153 members voting in favor out of the 300‐seat assembly. This changed Macedonia’s official name to “North Macedonia”.

Though this agreement has passed and it may take decades to reverse it, we must all be aware of the conditions under which it was approved, its inflammatory contents, and most of all, understand that this was not what the majority of Macedonians both in Macedonia and around the globe wanted. It is imperative that all political and social actors respect the will of the Macedonian people and continue referring to the country as “Macedonia” – the name which has been recognized by nearly 70% of U.N. states.

Any opinions or views expressed in articles or other pieces appearing in UMD Voice are those of the author or interviewees alone and are not necessarily those of the United Macedonian Diaspora and its young leaders’ program Generation M; the appearance of any such opinions or views in UMD Voice is not and should not be considered to be an endorsement by or approval of the same by UMD and Generation M.

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1 Comment

  • Slavica
    May 29, 2019

    Thank you for your writing, very much appreaciated

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