• Adrian Waters

The Truth about the Prespa Agreement

Prime ministers of Macedonia and Greece, Zoran Zaev (Right) and Alexis Tsipras (Left) Source: http://meta.mk/en/telephone-conversation-between-tsipras-and-zaev-the-prespa-agreement-is-a-priority/

Disclaimer: The view and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views and opinions of the Institute for a Greater Europe.


The Prespa Agreement is the deal signed between the Macedonian and Greek foreign ministers in the presence of their respective prime ministers, Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras, on the 17th June 2018 as a way of resolving the long-standing name dispute between their countries. The Agreement itself is named after a lake shared between Macedonia, Greece and Albania, as it was signed in the village of Psarades in the Greek-controlled area nearby. Apart from supposedly easing tensions between Macedonia and Greece, the accord stipulates that the former would change its constitutional name to the Republic of North Macedonia in exchange for accession to both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with the permission of the latter. However, the practical implementation of this Agreement depends on the ratification by both Greek and Macedonian parliaments.[1] Three days later, on June 20th 2018, the deal was approved in the Macedonian assembly, but without the opposition parliamentarians who boycotted the session. The Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov stated that he would not support the deal, even after a threat of impeachment. The following days were marked by protests against the agreement involving hundreds of Macedonians in the capital city, Skopje.[2] Similarly, the deal faced fierce opposition in Greece from far-right, centrist and left-wing parties culminating in ultra-nationalist rallies.[3] Only the Western powers have unanimously hailed the treaty as a historic and positive step towards achieving peace and stability in the Balkans, with feelings of satisfaction high among EU and NATO member states who see it as a means of securing the pro-Western orientation of the government in Skopje and minimising Russian influence in Macedonia.[4] At this point, the reader might be asking himself/herself: what are the strengths and weaknesses of the Prespa Agreement? In order to provide a clear answer, a concise historical outline would be appropriate, followed by an explanation of the terms of the treaty.

Macedonia before 1991

The country known as the Republic of Macedonia came into existence in 1991, after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in which it was a federal unit called the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. In ancient times, its heyday was during Alexander the Great’s empire in 336-323 BC, but the territory later fell under the control of the Romans, the Byzantines, the Bulgarians, the Serbs and then by 1395 the Ottoman Turks, who enslaved the Macedonian people until the 1912-13 Balkan Wars.[5] During these conflicts Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria ‘liberated’ and then fought amongst each other for the spoils of war. At the 1913 Bucharest Treaty the warring parties split the lands where ethnic Macedonians lived. Serbia received the area around the Vardar river, i.e. Vardar Macedonia; Greece expanded its borders by seizing Aegean Macedonia (most of present-day Northern Greece), and Bulgaria was left with the mountainous Pirin Macedonia.[6] Albania, which ironically did not participate in the Balkan Wars, was awarded Mala Prespa, Golo Brdo and Pogradec.[7] During the inter-war period the Macedonians were subjected to oppression and a denationalisation process within the four occupying states.[8] In particular in Greece, the Aegean Macedonians were subjected to expulsion to Bulgaria or Turkey, persecution and the proscription of speaking or learning Macedonian, while at the same time colonising Aegean Macedonia with ethnic Greeks and replacing Macedonian toponyms with Greek versions.[9] The situation for the Aegean Macedonians worsened during the Greek civil war of 1946-49 since they supported the losing side (i.e. the Greek Left who promised them autonomy and equal rights). The majority of them were forced to flee to Yugoslavia and other East European countries. After the war, their property was confiscated and allocated to people loyal to the new regime who came mainly from the Greek hinterland. In the early 1980s, the Greek government allowed political refugees to return to their homes, but it only applied to people with Greek nationality.[10]

Vardar Macedonia eventually became a federal unit within socialist Yugoslavia, which acknowledged ethnic Macedonians as a distinct nationality and defended Macedonia’s status as a constituent nation and founding republic in relations with Greece and Bulgaria. [11] According to R. J. Crampton under socialism Macedonians were given a breathing space to develop a cultural identity and national consciousness. The Macedonian literary language was agreed upon in 1947 and an autonomous Macedonian Orthodox Church was founded in 1967.[12]

The Macedonian-Greek name dispute

The Greek establishment was very worried after Macedonia became independent in 1991, because it feared that it would have to recognise its previous policies of “forced Hellenisation” (especially during the Metaxas dictatorship) and mass expulsion of the Aegean Macedonians during the Greek civil war.[13] It accused Skopje of territorial ambitions and objected to the Macedonian flag because it incorporated the Star of Vergina, the resting place of Philip II of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great), which was in Greece. The new country was perceived as a threat to Greek national integrity, mainly because it shared its name with a province covering the Macedonian land they had previously annexed in 1913.[14] This province, however, was only named ‘Macedonia’ in 1988 to replace that of Northern Greece.[15] From then onwards Greek fears led to punitive measures. For instance, in January 1992 tons of humanitarian aid and medicine destined for Macedonia were held in Greece despite a serious influenza epidemic in the newly-born republic. As a result of this dispute, Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in 1993, despite opposition at home. In the following year Greece imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia (except for humanitarian items),which was condemned by the EU. It was lifted in 1995 in return for concessions from the Macedonian government, which changed the country’s constitution to adopt a flag with a yellow eight-branched sun on a red background.[16]

However this did not a stop an extensive propaganda campaign by the Greek establishment and historians to discredit Macedonia and its people. For example, they claimed that ancient Macedonians were akin to their Hellenic counterparts, despite the fact that ancient Greeks never saw Macedonians as equals and that the ancient Macedonians were proud of their nationality and felt contempt for their neighbours. Moreover, ancient Greek, Roman and Jewish historians, geographers and orators wrote about Macedonians as a distinct nation.[17] Because of this dispute Greece vetoed Macedonia’s entry into the EU and NATO until 2018.

Macedonia’s ‘Colourful Revolution’ 2014-2017

It is important to understand that the Prespa Agreement was the product of a tortuous political process that has overwhelmed Macedonia during the past few years. It began, arguably, in late 2014 when university staff and students protested against government-planned, state-supervised exams for graduates, which they saw as unconstitutional and a threat to university autonomy.[18]

In January 2015, the Macedonian prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, who had been in power since 2006 as leader of the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party made an announcement. He was being urged to resign by Zoran Zaev, the leader of the opposition group SDSM, who had been given incriminating information from foreign intelligence services about him. Instead, the VMRO-DPMNE administration prepared to prosecute Zaev and his colleagues for plotting a coup, forcing the SDSM leader to release recordings from a wiretapping operation carried out by the premier against the opposition, which exposed widespread government corruption.[19] This led to mass protests in May-June 2015 and in 2016 when President Ivanov decided to pardon the officials who had been implicated in criminal cases exposed by the wiretaps.[20] When the first demonstrations occurred, Russia’s foreign ministry accused “Western organizers” of attempting to start a “color revolution” in Macedonia.[21] They had a good reason to think so. Gruevski’s government refused to participate in the US sanctions against Russia following the Ukrainian crisis and backed the Russian Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline that was supposed to bring Russian gas to Europe via Turkey. According to Paul Craig Roberts this was disliked by Washington as it would not have any control over the flow of Russian energy and would prefer to have a natural gas pipeline that would supply Europe from Azerbaijan as a way of diminishing Russia’s influence.[22]

Despite the fact that these anti-government protests had had the highest turnout in Macedonian history, a significant part of the general public was indifferent to the political drama. Firstly, because “a vast number of citizens” seemed to be caught up in the corrupt networks.[23] Secondly, since the tapes came from the press centre of SDSM (whose leadership carefully selected and edited some of the leaks), the crisis was considered a struggle between the two main parties. Consequently, many people kept their distance because they rejected the VMRO-SDSM divide and this limited the impact of the demonstrations.[24]

In late 2015 the EU (with US support) brokered a deal between the government and the opposition so that Gruevski would step down in January 2016 and be replaced with an interim administration until new parliamentary elections were held, and that a special prosecutor would investigate the scandal. Although the premier did quit his job at the set time and a provisional government was formed, President Ivanov jeopardised the agreement by pardoning those who were involved in the wrongdoings as mentioned above. Mass protests took place again until July when the EU negotiated a new accord between VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM which led to a general election in December. Gruevski won his fourth consecutive vote and went on to portray foreign embassies and George Soros, the founder of the Open Society Foundation, as enemies of Macedonia.[25] As a matter of fact, VMRO-DPMNE and its supporters pursued a concerted anti-Soros campaign, seeing in the U.S.-based philanthropist a powerful foreign patron of government opponents.[26] While it cannot be denied that many who demonstrated against Gruevski were people who were genuinely unhappy about his government for understandable reasons, it can also be said that some of these protests were manipulated in an attempt to topple a legitimate administration that had lost the support of the West.

Although VMRO-DPMNE emerged as the largest party after the December 2016 elections, it did not have enough seats to form a majority government. It could have returned to power with their former coalition partner, DUI, the main political organisation representing Albanians - the largest ethnic minority in Macedonia. However, DUI chose to join forces with SDSM which had pandered to the Albanians during the election campaign. When President Ivanov refused to give them a mandate, Macedonia was plunged into another political crisis. Ivanov explained that SDSM violated the country’s constitution by agreeing to a platform signed by the Albanian minority parties in the Albanian capital Tirana, whose demands included making Albanian the second official language of Macedonia (even though most ethnic Albanians lived in the western areas of the republic). The EU and the US stepped in again to persuade Ivanov to change his mind, while Russia backed VMRO-DPMNE’s denunciations of foreign interference.[27]

Eventually the President gave in and by June 2017 Zaev became prime minister and promised to hasten accession to both the EU and NATO.[28] However, instead of trying to meet popular expectations, which meant solving economic and social problems, the new premier almost immediately turned to foreign policy matters. Firstly because he was committed to Euro-Atlantic integration in return for Western support, and secondly, for any government in a weak state (like Macedonia) NATO membership is much easier to achieve than bringing prosperity and fulfilling the people’s demands.[29] Since at least 2008 (when Greece vetoed Macedonia entering NATO at a summit in Bucharest, Romania) some Western elites decided that, while acknowledging Macedonians as a distinct nation, efforts for the Balkan republic to become an EU and NATO member should be strengthened. The question then became: which state will be easier to pressure into agreeing a compromise, Greece or Macedonia? The answer was the latter, meaning that it had to modify its name and identity.[30]

The key terms of the Agreement

It is abundantly clear right from the preamble of the Prespa Agreement that Macedonia will have to make the most changes. The document refers to the signing countries as the First, i.e. Greece, and the Second Party which is supposed to be Macedonia but it is not mentioned. According to Article 1 the latter would have to change its constitutional name to the ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ and its people would be classified as Macedonians/citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia. This would also mean that the country’s licence plates would be marked NM or NMK. Article 6 states that the two Parties should discourage and prevent any actions from state agencies or private entities that would incite violence, hostility, irredentism or revisionism against either Party.[31] The problematic aspect of this section is how these possible acts would be defined and how they would be dealt with, as it would depend on the subjectivity of the Greek and Macedonian governments.

The most controversial part of the Agreement is Article 8. It affirms that if either Party believes that any symbols that belong to its historic or cultural patrimony is being utilised by the other Party, then the latter would have to take corrective action. Moreover, once the accord is signed the two Parties would have to establish a Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historical, archaeological and educational matters which would have the power to revise school textbooks and materials (e.g. atlases) used in both Parties if deemed appropriate. Furthermore Macedonia would no longer be allowed to employ in any ways the symbol of its former flag and each Party would have to prioritise endonyms (internal denominations) over exonyms (external denominations) when using geographical names and toponyms in their respective territories.[32]

So in short, although this is not explicitly written in the Agreement, it is evident that Macedonia would have to make more significant alterations than Greece. The former would have to not just change its constitutional name, but also its licence plates, official documents, passports, identification cards, banknotes and coins. Effectively Greece would force the modification and/or removal of monuments, public buildings and infrastructure in Macedonia and amend school textbooks or materials that they consider to have any irredentist or revisionist references. The Macedonian government would have to prosecute anyone who disagrees with the Agreement and prohibit any further use of the Star of Vergina. In addition, Macedonians would have to refer to Salonica and other cities in Aegean Macedonia by their Greek names. For example they would have to say Thessaloniki instead of Solun. The only significant change that Greece needs to make in this treaty is to grant permission for Macedonia to become an EU and NATO member.[33]

The issues regarding the Agreement

As the reader can see, there are some significant issues within the Agreement. It absolves the Greek state of its past crimes against the Aegean Macedonians, which include the forced Hellenization of non-Greek cultures, the liquidation and internment of Macedonian community leaders, the bans on free movement, minority languages and ethnic markings and the expulsion of people from the land where they had lived for centuries.[34] The deal is also an affront to the right to national self-determination and therefore if the state name is determined externally and not internally, it defies the will of the population.[35] As highlighted by the United Macedonian Diaspora, the Prespa Agreement was signed without any serious public debate, involvement from Macedonian academia or transparency in the negotiation process.[36]

If the Agreement is implemented, then Macedonia would have to make adjustments to the constitution, official documents, passports, licence plates etc. All of this will take time and money that could be spent instead on policies that would improve the country’s standard of living. Moreover, the deal ignores the fact that 92% of United Nations members recognise Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia, which already makes it seem worthless.[37] Furthermore, it would deny Macedonia the right to constitutional sovereignty as the final say on the treaty is given to the Greek MPs and the teaching of history would be decided by government bodies rather than by scholars. Consequently, the Prespa Agreement proves that Macedonia has been subjected to arbitrary international engineering against its wishes and with limited public support for the deal within the two Parties, it will only deepen internal divisions, not defuse them.[38]

Consequently, the deal does not unite Macedonians but splits them apart since it does not preserve their unique identity and countries with bitterly divided citizens could not contribute to the stability of the EU and NATO. Some commentators, like Jason Miko, think that even if Macedonia does alter its constitution “there is the issue of Bulgaria and Albania (and possibly other countries) who are now emboldened to ask Macedonia for further concessions before ratifying the treaty”.[39] In addition, there is a chance that the Agreement would not be approved by the Greek parliament. Panos Kammenos, the Greek defence minister and leader of the Independent Greeks, i.e. Tsipras’ right-wing coalition partners, has stated that his party will not vote for the accord, hence it might not be ratified.[40]

It seems that the biggest problem with the deal itself is that it was pushed by the US and the EU. The expansion of NATO was reactivated in 2014 when the Ukrainian crisis began, which led to Montenegro joining the military alliance three years later. At the same time attentions turned towards Macedonia, especially after Zaev took charge.[41] The Western powers saw it in their interests to bring the country within the Euro-Atlantic sphere. Tsipras was useful in this task since he was beholden to the West after accepting harsh austerity measures imposed by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) to resolve Greece’s debt problem in contrast to the wishes of his compatriots.[42] Macedonia’s admission into NATO would facilitate the US strategic aim of overcoming Serbia’s neutral foreign policy and curtailing Russian influence in the Balkans.[43] The Prespa Agreement was concocted with this as its principal goal.[44]

Western support for the treaty was crystal clear in the run-up to a referendum on the deal held on the 30th September 2018 in which Macedonians were asked: “Are you in favour of membership in NATO and the European Union by accepting the deal between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?”. By holding a public vote about joining the two organisations, Zaev hoped that most Macedonians would ignore the agreement’s inherent flaws in favour of Euro-Atlantic integration. Again, the West proceeded to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Leading US and EU politicians, such as the German chancellor Angela Merkel and American Defence Secretary James Mattis, visited Macedonia to persuade voters into supporting the deal. The NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg stated that the Macedonian defence minister could sit at the NATO table in early 2019 if the referendum was successful and the EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said that if Macedonia missed this “window of opportunity” [to become an EU member] then it would be “closed for decades...if not forever”.[45] Thus international pressure was applied exclusively to the weakest nation.[46] Instead of admitting this openly, Mattis condemned Russian influence in the referendum. Zaev, surprisingly, rebuked him by declaring that he had no proof to back this claim and stressed that the Russian Federation is against Macedonia entering NATO, but not the EU.[47]

Paradoxically, the landlocked republic is already close to both NATO and the EU. Macedonia has been sending troops on missions to Iraq and Afghanistan (without any parliamentary discussion though).[48] As a matter of fact, the only limitation is that it cannot vote at the North Atlantic Council, i.e. NATO’s decision-making body.[49] The EU is Macedonia’s largest trading partner, accounting for 60 % of the country’s exports and 48 % of its imports. Macedonian citizens are also allowed visa-free travel across the Schengen area (which includes most EU states).[50] Nonetheless, an estimated 100 000 Macedonians have obtained Bulgarian passports in order to live and work within the EU.[51] It must also be mentioned that EU and NATO membership will not necessarily benefit Macedonia. One can simply look at the country’s neighbours to understand why. Bulgaria is chronically poor, has weak rule of law and is being crippled by constant emigration.[52] Greece is suffering from externally-imposed austerity measures, economic stagnation and, just like Bulgaria, the exodus of highly-qualified young people.[53] Moreover, if Macedonia joins NATO it would almost certainly have to increase the defence budget and allow US forces to have military bases on its soil.[54] This would mean less money for the government to spend on its citizens and it would turn Macedonia into another pawn in NATO’s struggle against Russia’s attempt to create a multipolar world. It would be better off staying neutral and acting as a bridge of peaceful dialogue between the two sides.

The referendum and its aftermath

In the end the referendum did not produce the results expected by Zaev’s government and the West. Only 36.91% of registered voters went to the polls. Of them, 91.46% voted ‘For’ the name deal as well as EU and NATO membership, while 5.66% were ‘Against’ and 2.89 of votes were invalid.[55] Legally, a referendum in Macedonia necessitates a minimum 50% turnout in order to pass. In essence this outcome should not come as a surprise. Only the governing coalition parties championed a vote ‘For’ the accord and Euro-Atlantic integration.[56] As always, some people did not vote because of indifference, but at the same time there was a highly-effective decentralised grassroots movement that campaigned for a boycott of the referendum in order to render it illegitimate. It was based on the need to defend the country’s national identity and was driven by a heterogeneous grou