Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia: Farewell To FYROM

US recognition of Macedonia as the country’s official title is welcomed locally, but meets hostility from Greece.
By Boris Georgievski

Jubilant crowds gathered in the streets of Skopje on November 6 to celebrate the decision of the United States to call their country Macedonia by that name.


The Americans will now officially refer to the state by its chosen title, the “Republic of Macedonia”, in spite of bitter opposition from neighboring Greece.


The Greeks have blocked international recognition of the “Macedonia” title ever since the republic declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. They claimed its application to a sovereign state signified territorial pretensions towards the region of northern Greece bearing the same name.


The US move, announced on November 4, came only three days before a referendum in Macedonia held to oppose new municipal boundaries – part of a decentralisation package that forms a crucial part of the Ohrid peace deal which ended a bout of ethnic fighting in the republic in 2001.


The decision was interpreted as a bid to strengthen the Macedonian government’s hand ahead of the November 7 referendum, in which a “yes” vote would have upset plans to implement the municipal reorganisation law passed in August this year. The plebiscite failed when only a quarter of the electorate showed up at the polls.


Macedonia has proved an ally in the United States-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.


“We have now decided to refer to Macedonia officially as the Republic of Macedonia,” US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced in Washington, heralding the diplomatic about-turn.


“By recognising Macedonia’s chosen constitutional name, we wish to underscore the US commitment to a permanent, multi-ethnic, democratic Macedonian state within its existing borders.”


Local politicians and analysts said the US move gave a major boost to the country in its diplomatic struggle with Greece, which at times has threatened to spiral out of control.


In 1994, Greece imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia and closed the border. The embargo was lifted the following year, only after Macedonia amended its constitution and changed the design of its flag, which the Greeks felt to be too closely associated with their national hero Alexander the Great.


Under Greek pressure, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations recognised the state as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” – and for the sake of convenience the acronym FYROM entered common currency.


Most Macedonians strongly resented the clumsy terminology imposed on them.


“Goodbye FYROM, Hello Macedonia!” cheered the crowds in Skopje, where President Branko Crvenkovski addressed several thousand people on November 6. After 13 years Macedonia had won “what it deserved”, he said.


Macedonian jubilation has been matched by disappointment in Athens. In Brussels, Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis attacked the move as “misguided and wrong”.


Greece has threatened to veto Macedonia’s membership of NATO and the EU unless a solution to the name dispute can be found that is acceptable to everyone.


“The European Union position remains clear that if FYROM wants to have any hopes of joining the EU, they must find a commonly acceptable solution,” said Karamanlis.


Athens said it would initiate more intensive talks with Skopje over the name issue before the end of November.


Skopje has said it too is ready to resume the dialogue.


“We are prepared to continue to talks at the UN to resolve differences over the name,” said Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva. “We will repeat our stance on the use of our constitutional name - Republic of Macedonia – in international communications, and the need to find a mutually acceptable formula that will be used only in our bilateral relations.”


Matthew Niemitz, the UN envoy mediating negotiations on the name dispute that have been ongoing since 1993, told Macedonian media that the US move would undoubtedly have political ramifications, but that he too expected talks to continue.


In Washington, Boucher stressed that the name-change should not be seen as an attempt to prejudice the outcome to the UN-led negotiations. “We hope those talks will reach a speedy and mutually agreeable conclusion,” he said.


However, analysts in Macedonia agree that the US move, following so closely on George Bush’s re-election, has greatly bolstered the country’s negotiating position.


“With this recognition, the name dispute is practically closed,” Denko Maleski, a former foreign minister and previous ambassador to the UN, told IWPR.


“Justice has always been on our side, as there is no previous case of a country having a name imposed on it when it joined the UN. Now that both justice and power are on one side, it is ridiculous to talk about compromise. The time for compromise is long gone.”


Maleski added that US decisions in the Balkans had historically proved decisive.


“The US stopped the war in Bosnia, ended the war in Kosovo, and now they have recognised our name. When they decide to do something, they stick to it,” he said.


Former foreign minister Ljubomir Frckoski agreed that the UN-led talks now had little to offer Macedonia, “The Americans have de facto confirmed our own formula.”


He suggested that Macedonia should avoid taking part in further discussions in case they devalued the US decision.


“If we enter negotiations now, we’ll be sending a message to the US that we may reach a different deal with Greece and that their recognition was not valuable,” said Frckoski. “If we continue with talks, no European country will follow the US example.”


Kiro Gligorov, the elder statesman who led Macedonia to independence and was its first president, said he expected the EU to follow the US move in time.


“I hope that Greece, which imposed this problem, will reconsider its stance,” he said. “I would like to assure the Greek authorities and people that the name Republic of Macedonia does not present any danger to Greece.”


Boris Georgievski is a journalist with the daily Utrinski Vesnik.


More IWPR's Global Voices