What’s in a Name?

Macedonia Takes Baby Steps to Improve Transparency, While Squabbling with Greece

News | Lavdim Ismaili | April 2007

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski at a meeting with NATO officials (Photo: NATO)

The Republic of Macedonia has its hands full preparing for European Union membership. And it seems to get more complicated by the month: Hide-bound institutions, internal power struggles, corruption and disputes over the very name of the country show that, despite progress indicated in a recent EU Commission report, Macedonia’s aspirations may be overly ambitious. At least for now.

"The slow-paced and contradictory reforms in the last couple of years have delayed the process of integration into the EU and NATO," said Dr. Ylber Sela, professor of International Relations at the South-East European University in Tetovo, Macedonia, in a recent interview.

He cited the persistence of government corruption, tolerance toward organized crime, and the difficulties in delivering free elections as central issues.

In addition, poor implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, whose provisions for a truce between armed factions, guarantees of minority rights and the strengthening of local governments had been important criteria for EU candidate status in 2005, has put the application at risk.

"Respect for democracy, the rule of law and respect for minorities is the glue that holds the EU together," said Olli Rehn, EU Enlargement Commissioner at a Feb. 8 press conference in Skopje, reiterating the EU’s commitment to the Ohrid Framework Agreement.

The EU Commission sees the mechanisms to fight corruption and crime as largely ineffective, primarily because of an ineffective judiciary heavily influenced by politics. This deters foreign investment and undermines labor and financial markets, leaving official unemployment frozen at 37%. In addition, state agencies lack the needed levels of independence and professionalism.

In its latest report, the Macedonia Helsinki Committee criticized courts as slow and inefficient – a situation that has led to a €90,000 fine from  the European Court – and says rights guaranteed by the constitution are often overlooked.

The budget also often gets used for a kind of judicial blackmail by the administration that  further compromises the independence of the courts. There is some hope that recent efforts by Zero Corruption, an NGO supported by the Norwegian government, may soon begin a process of reform.

In addition, Zero Corruption reports that hundreds of millions of Euros in suspicious foreign investments have flowed into the country since it gained its independence in 1991. According to data from the Macedonian National Bank, this money enters from countries such as Cyprus, the Netherlands Antilles and the British Virgin Islands – regions known for liberal taxation policies and lack of controls over the origins of capital.

An EU mission in the country since Mar. 26 is monitoring efforts to prevent money laundering. A report is expected by year end.

As to unemployment, the official figures may be deceptive. A 2006 IMF report suggested that because of a large grey market, "unemployment is probably less than 37 percent, but still high," particularly among minorities.

Unfortunately, reforms have slowed since last August’s parliamentary elections, as a result of a boycott by the opposition Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), formed by Albanian guerilla leaders after the 2001 conflict. The DUI, unable to form a coalition with the leading Macedonian party of Christian Democrats, blocked negotiations, claiming that, as they had won the majority of Albanian votes, the Ohrid Peace Agreement was being violated.

After months of pressure from the EU, political dialogue between all parties resumed. However, it seems that its success or further stagnation will depend on the commitment of all political parties for the full implementation of the Ohrid Agreement.

The delay of internal reforms is, however, only one part of the problem. The new government, led by the Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), has taken a more assertive stance internationally, most notably with Greece over the name of the country. Greece continues to insist the country be referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," claiming that by using the name Macedonia, the country is "plagiarizing" Greek culture and history.

Earlier this year – in a step most likely taken to show the government’s unwillingness to compromise on the issue – the Skopje airport was renamed for "Alexander the Great," the king of ancient Macedon. This move is likely to have a negative impact on the ongoing negotiations between the two countries, according to UN Special Mediator, Matthew Nimetz.

"The Hellenic Parliament (…) will not ratify the accession of the neighboring country to the EU and NATO if the name issue is not resolved," said Dora Bakoyannis, Greek foreign minister on Aug. 29, 2006.

However, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has countered the Greek position.

"The name of the Republic of Macedonia will never be changed by exerting pressures and resorting to blackmail. I think the right way to reach the final solution is to continue the talks in the United Nations and to restrain from putting obstacles, which by the way, is in collision with the 1995 Interim Agreement," Gruevski said SOURCE .

The 1995 Interim Agreement stipulates that Greece has the right to object to Macedonian accession if the country is referred to differently than as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." The remark by Bakoyannis is perceived by at least some Macedonians as a threat to use EU entry as a means to force a name change.

"Macedonia’s neighbors play a very significant role in the process of integration into the EU and NATO," said Dr. Sela. "Therefore, Macedonia needs better cooperation and resolution of disputes, particularly with Greece, because it potentially risks delays in the EU and NATO accession processes."

Other articles from this issue