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What’s in a name? February 2019 Update from (North) Macedonia

A few weeks ago I arrived to the Republic of Macedonia, “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” in international documents, and in just a few days I will be leaving from the Republic of North Macedonia. Have I changed countries? No, of course not. But the country has changed its name. It all started last year in June, when the “Prespa Agreement” was signed. With the Greek ratification of Macedonia’s NATO accession protocol as well as the publishing of the Prespa Agreement-based amendments to the Macedonian constitution in the country’s official gazette, the name change has become official just now.

The process that started last year has turned into hard facts in February 2019 when Macedonia’s accession to NATO began, following a vote in the Greek government. Until this moment, Greece had blocked accession of Macedonia to both NATO and the EU for years, because of a name dispute between the two countries. Why? Because – deriving from common history – a Northern Greek province is also called Macedonia and Greece has long insisted to being the only region entitled to this name. Borders have constantly shifted in Europe and geography can be confusing if you are expecting history to bring clarity to your territory. People in Europe need to understand that there will always be shared heritage and collective memory in borderlands – and that this should be something to build a fruitful cooperation on, not another battleground.

Anyhow, on February 6th, 2019, all 29 member states of NATO have signed the Accession Protocol of the ‘future Republic of North Macedonia’. This Accession Protocol was ratified by the Greek Parliament on February 8th. With this decision, Macedonia has officially renamed itself. I am writing this article now on the territory of the Republic of North Macedonia. Official signs at borders, official buildings and so forth are expected to be up in spring.

What’s in a name?

Over the past weeks in Skopje I have not met a single person who has eagerly been waiting for his/ her country’s name to be changed. I haven’t met anybody who is now dancing in joy. “Yes, North Macedonia, what I always wanted!” But I met many who have eagerly been waiting for something to change, and this name change is important to begin with.

On the other side, supporters of the former government party (I invite you to read more about the 2016/2017 government change here) even despise the name change, some of my Macedonian Facebook friends put tags on their profile pictures: “Never North”. Here, changing the name is a sign of weakness and Russia seizes the moment to win new friends by emphasizing that they will never call the country “North Macedonia”.

Others might feel some anger against Greece and consider it a childish demonstration of power that “North Macedonia” is the name to go with (without an equivalent South Macedonia). But here, the name is only a name in the end. And changing this name opens many doors which have blocked this small European country from valuable alliances for years. Putting national pride aside and compromising on the country’s name in order to make political progress is a sign of a mature and reality-oriented style of politics and Macedonia has rightly received positive media abroad (Except, obviously, in Russia where the integration of Macedonia into Western alliances is highly criticized).

Ups and downs in Macedonia

In 2018 Macedonia brought the positive headlines from South Eastern Europe the EU was so eagerly waiting for. All this was supported by many pictures of men in suits, shaking hands in front of cameras. The behaviour of Macedonian politicians abroad clearly shows that the Macedonian government has chosen their direction. But how are its chances to become the next – or at least one of the next – members of the European Union?

Let’s wrap up Macedonian politics of the past years quickly. In 2015 a wiretapping affair exposed the corrupt activities of the government which was at that time led by the authoritarian, national-conservative party VMRO-DPMNE in coalition with the Albanian party DUI. This led to a wave of civil protest, including the creative “colourful revolution”. The opposition party SDSM, a self-proclaimed Social-Democrat party, took a crucial part in these protests. General elections were held in December 2016. These were not lost by VMRO-DPMNE, the party however failed to find a coalition partner and after much upheaval and even a violent assault on the Macedonian parliament which sent pictures of opposition leader’s (Zoran Zaev) bloody face through Europe, a new government was formed under leadership of SDSM and DUI in 2017.

This new government was very closely interwoven with the civil protest which led to its power and many opponents of the former government had their hopes high up. The honeymoon which also saw many protesters become part of the new government lasted a few months, before it dawned on the people that it takes more than a new party in power to change the political culture of a country.

Macedonia as the next country to join the EU?

In these politically tumultuous times, the EU jumped in and proposed the country to be considered as candidate country by the European Council. In order to begin the accession process to the European Union, a country must first file an application to the EU (happened long time ago in the case of Macedonia). The European Commission then assesses the country and submits its opinion – in this case a recommendation to consider Macedonia as a new member – to the European Council, hence the heads of states and governments. This might be bound to certain conditions. The European Council, again, assesses the country and makes a decision. If this decision is positive, accession negotiations are opened. In order to be assessed positively, the Macedonian government is structuring their work in ambitious, yet essential plans. The first one was called Plan 3-6-9, the current one Plan 18. Reform progress is, however, not as great as hoped (and needed).

It takes some time to free a state from a corrupted political culture, of informal practices and of a system which is based upon clientelism and nepotism. With the new government in charge, many in Macedonia hoped for greater cooperation between government and civil society. Two years in, civil society organizations and Think Tanks carp at the lack of information and dialogue. Reports reveal a worrying degree of misinformation or disinformation among the citizens of Macedonia when it comes to the reform process needed for EU accession. Concerning is as well a new trend to put an “EU tag” on all legislation for this to be waved through smoothly in parliament. Such habits do not reinstate the trust in democratic procedures of the new government.

The bigger the hopes, the bigger the disappointment

“I don’t think, I would be this disappointed with our politics, if it would still be the old government”, a friend admitted yesterday. “But I was just really hoping for the big change to happen.”

From an outside perspective it is easy to praise the government which clearly had bilateral disputes high up on their priority agenda and their success is wonderful. The government has also proven to be a lot less conservative than the government before. One example is the law on abortions which was relaxed in 2018. It is now legal to terminate a pregnancy until the 12th week without any obstructions, and is – under certain conditions – permitted until the 22nd week (this makes the law on abortion in Macedonia more progressive than the one in Germany, just saying). But people are still waiting for the transformative change in the political culture and standard of living. The habit of VMRO-DPMNE to boycott important sessions in parliament does not help a constructive debate and progress in Macedonian politics.

Corruption and informal practices continue, almost unchanged. High officials who committed crimes enjoy a certain degree of impunity, most prominently former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski who fled the country and obtained asylum in Hungary last year.

On top of that comes a lack of skilled workers in public offices and the administration. Brain drain continues to suck the most talented young people out of the country, nepotism and clientelism make it difficult for those without the right contacts to enter certain positions, and if you’re – despite all that – consider a career in, let’s say, the diplomatic service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs you can expect a salary of 250€ in your first years of training which is extremely off-putting for any well-educated youngster who would like to live independently.

So, how are the chances of EU membership of the country? Most recently, little critical research has been published on the activities on the current government. This leads to a lack in constructive criticism and makes it difficult to fully grasp the situation. Despite all the problems that there are, the country is in a critical moment and nobody wants to ruin that by putting too much pressure on the government.

But, pressure comes anyway. This year, elections in the EU will occupy all institutions from May onwards. The Council should ideally make a decision before that day which means that Macedonia now has to really dig in their Plan 18 and get things done. Their worksheets promise advance on the judiciary, security services, public administration and anti-corruption policy. Fingers crossed that they stay true to their promises and manage to build a transparent, inclusive state machinery which will then go on to transform the country towards a well-functioning, prospering democracy fit for EU membership.

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