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Reaching a delicate compromise over Macedonia

AHT07-19950714-ATHENS, GREECE: File picture dated July 1995 of Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou and his wife Dimitra during the Onassis awards. EPA PHOTO/EPA/DIMITRI MESSINIS

With Athens and Skopje now seeking to finally solve their long-running dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav republic, Neophytos Loizides looks back at the creation of the uneasy truce that has existed since 1995


As the result of a US initiative on the Macedonian issue, Greece and its northern neighbour signed an Interim Agreement in September 1995. The agreement called for respect for the territorial integrity and the political independence of each side, the recognition by Greece and the UN of the republic with the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), and a guarantee that the new state would not use the sun of Vergina on its flag.

In the four years before signing the interim agreement, the Greek position objecting to the ex-Yugsolav republic taking the name Macedonia had received very little external support, despite the legitimacy of some of the Greek arguments. In fact, the country’s attitude was seen as incompatible with the country’s position in the European Union and was described at the time as ‘infuriatingly emotional’ and ‘self-defeating’.

Because Greek reactions and fears were expressed in highly nationalistic and maximalist terms, the country became alienated from those able to offer much-needed support. In fact, Greece could have very easily achieved a satisfactory solution in the early 1990s, if public opinion had not prevented a reasonable compromise.

Instead, the two main political parties in Greece engaged in a damaging process of ethnic outbidding. In Nea Demokratia, then Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras opted to oppose any compromise on the Macedonian issue and eventually formed his own party. Andreas Papandreou, who was in opposition after a decade in power in the 1980s, took the same hard line, arguably threatened by the idea that a populist newcomer could have replaced him as the main champion of Greek nationalism. Moderate political leaders acknowledged that the situation was very difficult but none was willing to risk a compromise.

In fact, in a book written by Theodoros Skylakakis, then an advisor to Constantinos Mitsotakis, the Vassiliou government in Cyprus became extremely worried over Greece becoming isolated internationally.

The Greek government went so far as to make significant unilateral concessions (with British encouragement) on Turkish EU accession in exchange for support on the ‘name’ issue ahead of elections. In any event, Greek elites failed once again to calculate the risks properly and led the country into a trap prepared by its own nationalist propaganda.

PRISTINA, KOSOVO, SERBIA – US special envoy Richard Holbrooke during a press conference at the US information centre in Pristina, capitol of Kosovo, after his meeting with Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova. Holbrooke held further talks with Rugova in the latest leg of a shuttle diplomacy mission to end the violence in the Serbian province.

With Papandreou’s return to power in October 1993, all the signs pointed to a continuation of the vicious cycle between majority nationalism and confrontational foreign policy on the issue. In his campaign rallies, Papandreou vowed the name Macedonia represented Greece’s very soul, thus assuring the public of his future tough-resolve approach.

Very soon his government took a risk by introducing a full embargo against FYR Macedonia which further alienated the country. The Mitsotakis government had instituted an oil embargo against the landlocked republic between January 1992 and September 1992, but the Papandreou government’s tougher approach led to a seven-month frontier embargo which only excluded food and medicine. But despite these developments, an interim agreement was reached in 1995 brokered by Richard Holbrooke, one of the most successful US mediators in the 20th century.

Leadership and how leaders were perceived during this crisis were of paramount importance. The interim agreement was an example of Holbrooke’s ‘diplomatic magic’ described in detail in his own memoirs. Holbrooke initially secured the green light from President Kiro Gligorov and offered Papandreou a ‘unique opportunity to make history’.

Holbrooke was not discouraged by Papandreou’s initial intransigence or his reputation among conservative Americans as a ‘turncoat’. Although born in Greece, Papandreou became an American citizen and received a PhD from Harvard, serving as chairman of the Economics Department at Berkeley and chair of Adlai Stevenson’s advisory team during his two runs for the presidency. Yet in his years in power, Papandreou adopted a virulent anti-Americanism, hence the perception of betraying his American connection. Under normal circumstances, this alone would have led foreign mediators to abandon any mediation attempts. Instead, Holbrooke capitalised on Papandreou’s legendary position as the dominant political figure of his era. His following commentary is a textbook example of how reframing the role of ‘intransigent’ actors in peace processes can be a major catalyst for progress:

‘Mr Prime Minister, you and I have something in common’. I began. ‘We both begun our involvement in American politics working for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 – only I was an eleven-year-old distributing bumper stickers, and you were a senior member of Stevenson’s economic team. We both grew up despising Nixon. But we must admit that it took Nixon to go to China, and it took Sadat to go to Jerusalem. History will remember their courage and vision’.

This reframing was not merely unfounded flattery, however. Although Papandreou played the ‘nationalist card’ in the previous elections, he was certainly aware of the more fundamental aspects of the Macedonian issue on both sides. Not only was he an experienced politician, but he had spent considerable time in North America, including Toronto, and he knew the Slav Macedonian diaspora first-hand. Anecdotal references from Slav Macedonians in Toronto, some of whom refugees from civil war Greece, suggest that he was at least aware of the arguments of the other side, if not sympathetic.

While in power in the 1980s, his government quietly allowed the return of minority Slav Macedonians, provided they declared themselves Greek and kept their identity private. Papandreou’s wife, Dimitra, hailed from a border area in the Florina region and was even denigrated as a ‘Skopjian’ by the extreme right-wing Greek press.

Holbrooke suggests she might have had an influence on her husband during mediation. British newspapers at the time such as the Daily Mail run editorials titled ‘Is Mimi the woman now running Europe?’

Mrs Papandreou, who welcomed the American mediators in the couple’s private house in ‘an almost transparent silk pyjama suit that barely concealed her impressive anatomy’, showed ‘no interest in the details of the issue, but seemed focused on her husband’s welfare and his place in history’, according to Holbrooke.

While leaders are important, it is rare to find such larger-than-life personalities as Papandreou matched with Holbrooke-type mediators capable of seeing beyond the obvious. A certain amount of luck may have been involved as well: Gligorov, a moderate with a clear understanding of his nation Slavic character and no connection to Alexander the Great, was in power when American diplomats were most anxious to pacify the Balkans. In addition, the moderates and pro-government press described the outcome as positive and the amount of pressure exercised on Greece was insignificant as Holbrooke focused on pressuring its neighbours instead.

What is more relevant for conflict resolution, in general, was that the type of arrangement between the two nations required significant constituencies on both sides to accept it or to learn to live with it. The agreement aimed at delinking the name dispute from the overall relationship between the two counties. The Republic was to be referred to as FYROM internationally until the two countries agreed on a different name. According to UN mediator Matthew Nimetz (another senior US diplomat with long connections to Greek and Cypriot politics), ‘two people or two nations could have a difference but agree that that difference will not interfere with other areas of cooperation’.

Nimetz’s smart mediation strategy combined two basic innovations: first, the delinkage of the issue of the name from the wider prospect of a political settlement and second, the gradual improvement of relations between the two nations. The timing of the agreement was extremely important. Even a few weeks of delay would have led to yet another protracted deadlock in the Balkans. Papandreou was hospitalised two months later (he died the following summer) and Gligorov faced an assassination attempt weeks after signing the agreement.

Importantly, with the interim agreement, a new paradigm emerged in Greece’s foreign policy. Policymakers, especially during Prime Minister Costas Simitis’ administration following the resignation and death of Papandreou, attempted to delegitimise confrontational policies by pointing out policy failures in such issues as the Macedonian and other crises, thus introducing a moderate approach into Greek public discourse that led to the unprecedented success in Cyprus’ EU accession.

There was a wider realisation that unless Greece cooperated and coordinated its policies with fellow EU members’ principles and interests, it would never enjoy the political advantages of being a member state. Alas, the interim agreement with FYR Macedonia failed to address the name issue comprehensively, and as with the fiscal reforms of the Simitis era, blind spots came to chase Greece again and again when the country was least prepared to take action.


Neophytos Loizides is a professor in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. The text is adjusted from his book The Politics of Majority Nationalism: Framing Peace, Stalemates and Crises (Stanford 2015).


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