Formerly Known as FYROM

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.

10 thoughts on “Formerly Known as FYROM

  1. Dang! I’ve had a Guardian-style Pass Notes that I’ve been using for a decade now that opens with the question, “What’s a FYROM?” Time to retire it.

    As for the uni- word. Do believe that’s what the Hellenes were up to in the first place. (It was about that time that I was arguing that the EU should trade Greece for Turkey and future draft picks.)

  2. Two things… I hope that this thing will not turn out to be similar to the sordid display of irrational nationalism that disgraced my country a decade ago.

    Then, although the not very bright labour minister announced the ban on permits Doug suggests, calmer voices have prevailed.

    Keep in mind that talks about a compromise on the name were underway since early October, and given the fact that there’s no way either ruling Greek party would not veto the accession of the Republic of Macedonia to the EU under that name, combined with the fact of greek financial presence and ownership (imperialism one used to call this) of much of Macedonia, there’s a chance that they will settle on a composite name (“Gorna Macedonia” – “upper Macedonia” is being discussed apparently).
    Frankly that would have been a decent compromise a decade ago. Now I feel that the Grek side with its simple minded insistance on there be no composite name including the name Macedonia at all, lost that battle before it even begun.

    As for unilateralism… Lemme tell you, if you think that the Albanian question in the Republic of Macedonia has been settled… Or that the resentment from the autonomous rule of a third of the country won’t inflame the (numerous) Slav nationalists… I think you’re an optimist (but I’ve called you as much before, eh?)

  3. Doug,

    I agree with your analysis almost entirely (apart from one niggling point: the EU unilaterally dropped most of its trade barriers with all the Western Balkan states in 2000, so trade concessions won’t work because they have already been given, not because it is politically too difficult).

    I’d also add that support for the Greek position, never strong, has been further eroded among older EU member states by the recent Slovenia/Croatia and Hungary/Serbia tiffs. Although the Hungarians actually have a good case, they presented it badly (and the Slovenes have a less good case, and also presented it badly) and the impression was that new EU members were trying to pull rank on their neighbours using their new status; which in turn reflects on Athens wrt Macedonia.

  4. I was often intending to parody the use of FYROM by referring to Luxembourg in similar terms as it, like Macedonia, shares its name with a province of a neighbouring country (Belgium). The problem comes in that few people ever feel the need to mention Luxembourg, so no one would have noticed.

  5. The Guardian has an article on how Oliver Stone’s new film Alexander is apparently inflaming the dispute.

    If the Guardian is to be believed, the Greek province of Macedonia wasn’t even called that until the eponymous Yugoslav republic declared independence:

    This very modern ethnic turf war is being fought with tortuously argued historical blogs about which Macedonia Alexander conquered the known world for – a tiny new Balkan republic that has only recently come to see itself as the keeper of his flame, or a province that was officially known as “Northern Greece” until the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia declared itself independent and bagged the name.

    And there’s more:

    To the horror of its European partners, Athens briefly contemplated carving up its defenceless northern neighbour with the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. In the end, Greece stepped back, choosing instead to blockade the tiny republic of barely two million people in an attempt to strangle it at birth. Since then millions have been spent on a war of attrition to claim the name – and Alexander – back.

  6. The claim that the Greek province was never called Macedonia is pure nonsense. I grew up during the 70s and Macedonia was always referred to as Macedonia. Period. I have the school Atlases and the references to prove it – tucked away somewhere. Not only that, but – during the junta – I vividly remember various patriotic songs about how “we liberated Macedonia from the barbarian Bulgarians”, and in every military parade there was a regiment of “Makedonomahi” (Macedonia fighters), people who had participated in the struggle for Macedonia in the early part of the 20th century… until they all died out around 1980 or something.

    I repeat, as a Greek born in 1964, there was never a period of my life where the province of Macedonia didn’t exist and was universally referred to as Macedonia. I emphasize this because I can’t believe that the bloody Guardian, published something so patently incorrect yet easily checkable… Journalism nowdays…

    This part is also rubbish: Alexander’s origins were not in dispute. In fact he barely figured in the old Yugoslav textbooks, and even in Greece he was something of a forgotten figure – relegated to the second and third division of Hellenic heroes behind Pericles, the great philosophers, and warriors such as Leonidas.

    Nope: Alexander the Great figures in Greek lore from the time of Pseudokallisthenes and the Byzantines through modern Greek popular art and shadow theater characters.

    To the horror of its European partners, Athens briefly contemplated carving up its defenceless northern neighbour with the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

    That is not accurate. There was an offer by Milosevic but it wasn’t about a carve-up and it was sure as hell never seriously contemplated. The then Greek foreign minister in a recent interview, explained what the offer was about.

  7. Talos: good news about the labor permits, and thanks for the cite.

    if you think that the Albanian question in the Republic of Macedonia has been settled… Or that the resentment from the autonomous rule of a third of the country won’t inflame the (numerous) Slav nationalists…

    No, I don’t think either of those things. What I do think is that the status quo in Macedonia was obviously not long-term viable. Whether the new plan for decentralization (1) will work, and (2) will solve or at least ameliorate the Slav-Albanian rivalry, even if it does work… I don’t know. But the alternative was a slow slide into violence.

    The Guardian, which is slanted but basically reliable when it deals with Western and Central Europe, seems to suddenly go barking mad as soon as it gets south or east of the Ringstrasse. It’s not just Greece. Their coverage of Bosnia and Serbia was consistently awful — sloppy, biased, and just plain wrong.

    They’re still at it. Turkish Torque was pointing to some truly dreadful commentary (they have bicycle racks in Turkey!? Amazing!) just last week.

    Why this should be, I have no idea; but if you’re looking for coverage of the Balkans or the “Near East”, in a British broadsheet, you’re better off with… well, anything but the Guardian. The /Telegraph/ is better than the Guardian.

    Doug M.

  8. soory to interrupt, but I think Bush intervention in intra-european affairs is obscene or very provocative.
    This is part of a long term effort to weaken by any means the already painful building of the EU.
    If this Macedonia affair can slow it so be it.

  9. I think the Bush admin. didn’t fuck this up because it doesn’t care.
    You know, like nation building ant stabilizing and stuff is so booo-ring.
    I bet it was some low-level old hands (read: none that came along as bushites) that propesed to do it this way, and people higher up were like: “Yeah, whatevah… just so we don’t hear about that country with the funny name anymore… “

  10. When the Balkans are involved, European multi-culturalism and nation building seem like queer concepts.

    Extreme nationalism reigns. Map boundaries (ranging from recent ones to 2500 year old maps), ethnicity and shifting habitats, strength and bluster, …EVEN NAME CALLING is important.

    Why is this so? …. what is in a name, unless one wants to inflict, or is afraid of being inflicted upon, in the worst way?

    Pierre Elliot Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister (many Europeans liked him) HATED NATIONALISM as an evil disruptive force…it was the singular area where I most liked or agreed with him.

    I guess this is all easy to say, when one doesn’t live in a country where neighboring countries rightly fear each others intent, which invariable is loathsome.