• George Baines

The Macedonian Question - The Case for Greater European Institutions

Macedonians in Skopje rally in support of changing their country's name on Sept. 16. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

This year we remembered the fallen at the mark of the Armistice Day Centenary. Since the transition from adversarial nation state relations to multilateral cooperation, it has unequivocally benefited the majority of us in continental Europe. But the gunpowder keg, i.e. the Balkans, still plays a considerable role in Europe, as the Macedonian Question illustrates.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a South Balkan state which emerged in 1991, is currently under the gaze of the Western community. A diplomatic spat with Greece over its possible name change has been ongoing, though many hope it will come to a head next year. What this short essay seeks to argue is the extent to which both borders and states play a role in the Balkans, and how international regimes can resolve power struggles in the Balkans.

Indeed, let us compare the territorial arrangements in the early 20th century in the Balkan area. As an area splintered along relict and ethnically incongruent demographic lines, the southern Slavic region was labelled a shatter-belt in the 19th century to describe the countries which were undermining the unity of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans. Later adopted by Anglo-Saxon political scientists, it classified those countries between Europe’s Atlantic periphery and the Eurasian continental core, Russia. Most recently, the phenomenon of Balkanisation has been observed between Germany and Russia. The constant centre of interest has nevertheless been the Balkans.[1] Characterised similarly by tectonic points of contact, shatter zones are characterised by the collision point between poles of power; be it nation states (Russia and Atlantic Europe) or religion (Orthodox Christianity, Catholic Christianity and Islam).[2]


As a shatter zone, the Balkans set the stage for an area of power rivalry between Britain, Russia and Austria-Hungary following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan Wars saw the Balkan League (European states in the Ottoman Empire) rid the Ottoman forces of almost all of its European territory. Greece and Serbia also expanded their territories, eating into Macedonia and robbing it of its historic lands. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was pronounced in 1918, and following World War II, pan-Slavic guerrilla Marshal Josip Troz Tito declared the creation of a Yugoslav Federal Republic which was under a Serbian-led communist system beyond the lifetime of the Soviet Union.

During its bloody dissolution from 1991 onwards, 150,000 people died and 2.5 million were displaced. Every former Yugoslav state experienced economic decline from 1990-1995, and cultural borders remain an ongoing point of contention.[4] The basis of EU and NATO enlargement in the Balkans and their subsequent inclusion in the Western sphere of influence relies on economic, democratic and geopolitical considerations. Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro’s destabilising internal conflicts determined their place at the back of the queue for EU and NATO membership, while Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, states along the former Yugoslav periphery, have since ascended to the EU, by contrast.[5] It is membership of the European Union and NATO, academic Anton Gosar believes, which supply the promise of a stable economy and durable democratic institutions.

Ascension to the EU has proved time and time again to be of infinite economic benefit to the former Communist and Yugoslav republics, while NATO inclusion shelters its participants under the American military and nuclear umbrella. Where Greater European institutional agency has faltered, the organisations must both re-examine and address the geopolitical concerns of state actors themselves to restore international regimes’ traction in the Balkans. This will restore faith in the regimes’ capacity to affect change and foster peace and cooperation.

Greece and Macedonia

As one of the most stable countries in the Balkans, yet always within arm’s reach of flared conflict, it is in Greece’s interest to help resolve Balkan disputes.[6] Unlocalised inner political and ethnic conflict spilled out into surrounding Balkan countries during the 1990s, leading to the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts in our living memory. Although the Kosovo conflict led to the removal of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, prosecuted in The Hague for genocide against Muslim Bosnians and further war crimes during the collapse of the Yugoslav Republic, ethnic violence is still a dormant issue in Greece’s neighbourhood.[7]

The case of Kosovo has been a measured success story thanks to the action of international bodies, the NATO and the UN. The destabilisation of Kosovo, however, and its impacts on the FYROM were a primary security concern for Greece, with refugees considered a significant potential destabiliser.[8] With the politically ambiguous status of Kosovo, whose security is, however, guaranteed by UN forces, the FYROM is not at risk from external stabilisation. The FYROM’s only destabilising potential would therefore come from within the state and its society.

Internal discord between the Slav majority and the Albanian community in the FYROM is what recently posed the greatest security threat to the South Balkans. Supporting a democratic and non-revisionist Macedonia is in Greece’s interest to avoid physical confrontation with the Macedonian Question (the historically larger Macedonia, including territory in Northern Greece) and / or being wracked by the fallout of an inter-ethnic Albanian-Macedonian conflict.[9] As reiterated in The Economist, European integration has prevented the uprooting of national minorities within relict boundaries and has prioritised economic bridge building, instead of rampant cross-border warfare.[10]

It is then seemingly stupefying that Greece has been stalling Macedonia’s inclusion in the open Western community for so long. In fact, the reason for which Greece has consistently vetoed Macedonian accession to the EU and NATO is due to a historically bitter dispute over the FYROM’s name: Macedonia. The Greeks believe that the state’s name is inappropriate as it connotes the historical region of Macedonia broken up following the hitherto mentioned Balkan War over one hundred years ago, which notably consisted of northern parts of Greece.

This year there has been considerable progress made to resolve the issue. Greek Prime Minister (PM) Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev decided upon the compromise of renaming the FYROM ‘North Macedonia’. In the works, this nominal change is to meet fierce opposition by nationalists in both countries as the bill passes through both legislatures. In Greece, Tsipras depends on the support of his government’s nationalist coalition partners. The EU has, on the other hand, assured both Macedonia and Albania a start to membership talks in June 2019, contingent on not just the Greek response, but further judicial and political reforms. It is believed that by merely holding EU accession talks Foreign Direct Investment would be bolstered, young Macedonians would be convinced of remaining in their homeland, and populist-nationalist sentiment would be undermined. In the case of failure, however, Macedonia would have to contend with its ethnic boundaries and the malign exploitative nature of Turkey and Russia, who both consider Macedonia, and by extent the Balkans, as their back yard.

In the context of the resurfaced Macedonian Question and the Austrian-Italian South Tyrol question, Moldovans and Serbians, who equally bicker over territorial controversies, should also strive towards EU membership.[11] In the absence of Milošević, whom Russia supported against the NATO campaign during the Kosovo War, Serbia is already looking further westward.[12] In the same light, there have been promising advances in the inclusion of now reassuringly democratic Serbia into the international community in Greater Europe. At a meeting between Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic 5 November this year, European Council Chair 2019 Kurz extended the promise of EU membership to Serbia on the condition of resolving Kosovo’s ten year-old independence dispute.[13] Although realism plays its part, with the notable leverage Russia has over Serbia’ gas supply and its recent historical alliance in the Kosovo War, Serbian ascension to even the EU would be a step further in the EU’s tacit crisis management role.

Greece must act alongside Austria as a European mediator in the Balkans to prevent other EU states catching “Balkan fatigue” in the event of lagging progress.[14] Better still, the EU and NATO should take the initiative themselves and work in conjunction with regional partners to mediate, resolve and establish formal, and eventually contractual partnerships within their organisational structures. Yes, membership.


It has been one hundred years since the folly of primal nationalism splintered the European geography along relict boundaries. At this historic juncture, where the Balkans are treated less like a hot potato, the EU, and to a certain extent NATO, need to redress their objectives in a period where they are facing existential crises. With the trepidation of a Trump withdrawal from NATO and the EU now acting more or less like a supranational law enforcer - note Italy’s 2018 budget fiasco and the triggering of Article 7 for member state Poland - they both now err on the side of caution when it comes to expanding their legal remit; that includes a cessation of enlargement.

As Chatham House recently commented on Macedonia’s shortfall in voter turnout on the referendum, the Macedonian electorate did not mobilise itself for the Greece-brokered name-change due to the EU’s poor image and its stalling of its enlargement policy into the Balkans.[15] I expressly advocate the enlargement of the EU into the Balkans to provide the positive integration of both cultural bridging and the benefits of cross-border economic cooperation. For many of neo-liberalism’s faults, the interdependency of international markets has set the precedent of realpolitik and neorealism; peaceful solutions are found to eclipse the retrograde dogma of aggressive nationalism and revanchism. The EU’s potential agency is promising in the Balkans. Association status or membership of the Union should be adopted as the EU Commission’s intended objectives under the next Presidency, to restore faith and purpose in the promising capacity of the Union.


[1] Gosar, A. 2000. The Shatter Belt and the European Core – A Geopolitical Discussion on the Untypical Case of Slovenia. GeoJournal. 52 (2), p. 107

[2] ibid, p. 108

[3] http://www.historyofmacedonia.org/ConciseMacedonia/timeline.html

[4] Gosar, A. 2000. The Shatter Belt and the European Core – A Geopolitical Discussion on the Untypical Case of Slovenia. GeoJournal. 52 (2) p. 107

[5] ibid, p. 110

[6] Larrabee et al. 2001. Balkan Security after the Fall of Milosevic: Challenges and Implications for Greece. Larrabee et al. Greece’s New Geopolitics. RAND Corporation. p. 40

[7] ibid, p. 39

[8] ibid, p.49

[9] ibid, p. 52

[10] The Economist. 2018. The resurgence of regionalism in Europe. The Economist. November 17 2018. p. 42

[11] ibid

[12] Larrabee et al. 2001. Balkan Security after the Fall of Milosevic: Challenges and Implications for Greece. Larrabee et al. Greece’s New Geopolitics. RAND Corporation. p. 66

[13] RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. 2018. Austria’s Kurz Offers Support For Serbian, Balkan Bids To Join EU. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. November 6 2018

[14] Larrabee et al. 2001. Balkan Security after the Fall of Milosevic: Challenges and Implications for Greece. Larrabee et al. Greece’s New Geopolitics. RAND Corporation. p. 71

[15] Chatham House. 2018. FYR Macedonia’s Name Referendum Is Another Public Setback for the EU. Chatham House. October 2 2018