This blog doesn’t usually resound with praise for the far-sighted wisdom and diplomatic cunning of the Bush administration. (Neither does my own blog, for that matter.)
So I thought I’d be a bit contrarian, and point to a recent episode where Bush, or Colin Powell, or undersecretary of state Marc Grossman, or /someone/, seems to have done something wonderfully and exactly right.
Macedonia: small country in the Balkans, former Yugoslav Republic. Gained independence in 1991. For fourteen years, has been officially entitled, not Macedonia, but “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” — aka FYROM. This ugly neologism came into existence purely and entirely because the idea of a country called “Macedonia” drove Greek nationalists gibbering crazy.
(No, don’t ask. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and never did, so never mind. Oh, we could go into stuff like the early-’90s rivalry between Mitsotakis and Papandreou, and how they and their parties got locked into an escalating spiral of whipping up nationalist opinion on this stupid, stupid issue, but never mind. Just take it as given.)
So: on November 3 — the very first day after the election — the Bush administration announced that, after fourteen years, it was going to start recognizing Macedonia by the name it wanted to be recognized: i.e., Macedonia. And that there’d be no more of this FYROM stuff, thanks.
So why was this such a good thing?
Well, Macedonia was about to hold a referendum. Scheduled for three days later, November 7. And this referendum would approve or (more likely) reject a plan for government decentralization.
This may sound rather dry, but in fact it was profoundly controversial. The plan would have effectively given a great deal of self-governing power — even, whisper the word, autonomy — to Macedonia’s large Albanian minority. The plan was backed by the UN, the EU, the US, and the international community generally; but it had been passed only with difficulty, and might well be rejected by a majority of non-Albanian voters. The referendum itself had been strongly supported by Slav Macedonian nationalists.
So, basically, the whole international community was watching the referendum and muttering “fail fail fail”.
But there wasn’t a lot that anyone could [i]do[/i] in Macedonia. EU membership? Get real — they won’t be ready for many years to come. Offer them more aid? Arguably they’re getting more than is good for them already. Trade concessions? Macedonia’s major exports are agricultural goods, and the EU doesn’t have much room to maneuver on those.
But the US had been holding the name recognition card for years. And it chose that moment — just a few days before the crucial referendum — to play it.
And, lo: the referendum failed. Only 24% of voters turned up to vote, far less than the 50% needed to make it binding.
Did the referendum fail solely because of the US action? Probably not. But it certainly helped; and if there was a time to do it, that was it. Well played. And, for goodness’ sake, about time. “FYROM” was supposed to be a temporary expedient, not the permanent name of the country. Thirteen years is more than long enough to get it right.
That said, there are a couple of objections: that it was unilateral, and that it annoyed the Greeks.
As to unilateralism, it’s quite hard to see how, given the current international climate, it could have been anything else. Other than the US, almost all other players with an interest in Macedonia have either recognized it by that name already (Turkey, China) or are EU members. No EU member has yet been willing to break ranks, because they’re waiting for a “common foreign policy” to emerge on this issue. Which is not going to happen, because of the Greeks. (And the Greek Cypriots, now.)
While I’m no great fan of this administration’s foreign policy, just because they’ve carried unilateralism to some grotesque extremes doesn’t mean that unilateralism is always foolish or wrong. And if there was ever an appropriate time or place for swift, solitary action, this was it.
As for angering the Greeks: any decisive diplomatic move is going to annoy someone. In coldly realpolitikal terms, there’s not a lot the Greeks can do about it. In moral terms… well, IMO the Greeks lost the moral high ground on this issue a long time ago, and have never been able to get it back.
(The first Greek reaction on the ground? The Labor Minister froze the issuance of labor permits to Macedonians. Guest workers in Greece are a major support of the Macedonian economy. So, the Greek government is punishing thousands of Macedonians — most of them desperately poor — for something that was in no way their fault. The Greek government is also hinting broadly that, if Macedonia insists on being called “Macedonia”, then it may veto eventual Macedonian accession to the EU.)
So: a rare stroke to the Bush administration, for getting this one right.