On 12 June, Athens and Skopje announced that they have reached an agreement to resolve a dispute over the former Yugoslav Republic’s name that has troubled relations between the two states for decades. The agreement was signed at Prespes Lake, a lake at the border of Albania, Greece, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, on 17 June. Despite the historic significance of the deal, following its announcement, the two governments have faced furious backlash. Voices on both sides condemn the agreement in the strongest possible terms, with the President of Macedonia, Gjorge Ivanov, rejecting the deal point-blank and the Greek opposition submitting a motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his government, which failed to carry late on the night of 16 June, a few hours before the signing of the Agreement.
The present contribution provides an overview of the main points of the Agreement reached between the two neighbours to end their 27-year-long bitter dispute.
The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is the interim designation of the constitutionally named ‘Republic of Macedonia’ (Republika Makedonija) at the time of accession to the UN. The Republic of Macedonia declared independence in 1991 at the dissolution of the SFRY, and sought international recognition. The use of the name ‘Macedonia’ has created a long-lasting dispute with the neighbouring country of Greece. ‘Macedonia’ is the name of an administrative region in northern Greece and originates from the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon (Makedonía), which constitutes a very important component of Greek history. National (and nationalistic) sentiment runs high on both sides, one of the main reasons that the naming controversy has spiralled into such a long-standing international dispute.
The dispute first escalated after FYROM’s declaration of independence, when Greece opposed its recognition by the EC, arguing that its name, use of symbols associated with the Greek cultural patrimony (such as the Sun of Vergina) as well as a number of provisions in its Constitution implied territorial claims over Greek Macedonia. Greece similarly opposed the entry of the newly independent state to the UN. Despite its objections to any change of its name, the new state was finally admitted to membership in 1993 under the provisional designation ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, pending settlement of the difference between the parties.
The dispute has since seen several further escalations. In 1994 Greece imposed unilaterally a trade embargo against FYROM, leading, among others, to the European Commission instituting proceedings against Greece. Against this backdrop, attempts were made to normalize the relationship between the two States, leading to the adoption of an Interim Accord in 1995. The Accord provided, inter alia, for Greece’s non-opposition to the accession of FYROM to international organisations under its provisional name. Greece’s opposition to FYROM’s accession to NATO in 2008 lead to the ICJ 2011 judgment, which, by fifteen votes to one, found Greece in breach of its obligations under the Interim Accord.
Having admittedly lingered for way too long, the dispute is now closer than ever to a final settlement. The key points of the final Agreement, as published, are the following.
The New Name and its ‘Erga Omnes’ Character
The mutually agreed name under Article 1.3.a of the Agreement is ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ or ‘North Macedonia’ (Severna Makedonija). The new name shall be used ‘erga omnes’: in relation to everyone and for all uses and purposes, both domestic and international. First and foremost, FYROM will adopt this name not only by virtue of the Agreement, but also by virtue of its own constitution, which shall be amended accordingly. The Agreement further requires amendment of other constitutional provisions (Art 1.12), deemed as potentially implying irredentist claims. Article 1.3.g further stipulates such internal procedure will be not only binding but also irrevocable. This is one of the most telling elements of the agreement – it is not often that a treaty explicitly requires one of the parties to proceed to constitutional reform for the fulfilment of its obligations thereunder. The means of domestic implementation are usually left to the discretion of the parties.
Further, FYROM shall not only use exclusively the new name both domestically and in its external relations (Art 1.8 and 1.9) but it shall also request that all International Organisations, institutions and fora, as well as all UN member states, adopt and use the new name and related terminologies for all usages and purposes (Art 1.6). Naturally, in accordance with Article 34 of the VCLT, and as reaffirmed in Article 20.7 of the Agreement itself, the treaty may not create obligations for third states without their consent. FYROM itself will be internationally responsible to ensure the proper use of its new constitutional name in the conduct of its public affairs.
Nationality and Language
Article 1 provides that the nationality of North Macedonia shall be ‘Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia’. Further, the language of North Macedonia shall be the ‘Macedonian language’, a name already recognised by the Third UN Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical Names, held in Athens in 1977 (Arts 1.3.b and c). However, Article 7 of the Agreement explicitly qualifies the use of the terms ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonian’ under Article 1. According to the Agreement, the history and culture of Greece and the Greek region of Macedonia, from antiquity to present day, are ‘distinctly different’, from that of North Macedonia. And for the avoidance of doubt, Article 7.4 explicitly specifies that the Macedonian language is within the group of South Slavic languages and that all attributes of North Macedonia ‘are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage of the northern region of Greece’. In other words, citizens of North Macedonia may call themselves Macedonians and their language Macedonian but they may no longer claim to be the ‘sons and heirs’ of Alexander the Great.
Symbols and Historic, Archaeological and Educational Matters
To further buttress the aforementioned clear distinction, Article 8 of the Agreement provides that FYROM shall review the status of monuments, public buildings and infrastructures on its territory and make sure that they do not refer in any way to ancient Hellenic history and civilisation (Art 8.2). Moreover, Article 8 explicitly prohibits the use of the Sun of Vergina by FYROM and requests the removal of the symbol from all public sites and usages within six months from entry into force of the Agreement.
Another innovation of the Agreement is the establishment of a Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts which, notably, will be in charge of ensuring that no school textbooks or auxiliary material contains any irredentist/revisionist references (Art 8.5). Quite remarkably, this provision is the only one subject to provisional application and will take effect within one month from signature (Art 20.4). Naturally, if the Agreement does not enter into force, then all provisions shall have no further effect.
Commercial Names, Trademarks and Brand Names
The Agreement does not itself settle the issue of commercial names, trademarks and brand names but Article 1.3.h describes the process for such determination. The parties undertake to support and encourage their business communities to engage in good faith negotiations on the matter in order to reach mutually accepted solutions. This process shall be assisted by an international group of experts in the context of the EU, with representatives of both parties and the contribution of the UN and ISO. The group shall be established within 2019 and conclude its work within 3 years. In the meantime, each party may continue to use their existing commercial names.
Entry into Force – step by step
Articles 1.4, 1.11 and 1.12 describe the procedure for the entry into force of the Agreement step by step. FYROM shall submit without delay the Agreement to its parliament for ratification. Following ratification, it may, at its own discretion, decide to hold a referendum. Upon ratification or following such referendum (if it does take place) FYROM shall commence procedures for the prompt amendment of its constitution. Constitutional amendments should be concluded entirely by the end of 2018. Upon notification of the constitutional amendments, Greece shall promptly ratify the Agreement. Article 20.3 specifies that the Agreement shall enter into force upon notification of ratification by the Greek Parliament. Upon its entry into force it terminates and replaces the 1995 Interim Accord (Article 1.1). The Agreement, under Article 20.9, will remain into force indefinitely and irrevocably. Further, no modification of Articles 1.3 and 1.4 is permitted.
In accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT), Articles 14 and 24, the Parties will only be bound by the Agreement when all the aforementioned conditions are fulfilled. Until that time, the Parties are only bound to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty, under Article 18 VCLT. Obvious as this may seem to an international lawyer, there seems to be significant confusion on this matter (see earlier post of Antonios Tzanakopoulos on this blog).
Admission to International Organisations
FYROM shall seek admission to international organisations under its new name and Greece undertakes not to object to such membership. With regards to the EU and NATO, Greece specifically undertakes to support the opening of accession negotiations under the agreed terminologies already before entry into force of the Agreement. Nonetheless, Greece has no obligation to ratify any accession instrument before its entry into force (Art 2.3).
Dispute Settlement Provisions
Failing negotiations for the settlement of possible disputes under the Agreement, the parties may request the good offices of the UN Secretary General. If no resolution is reached through such means, the dispute may be submitted to the International Court of Justice in accordance with Article 36.1 ICJ Statute. The provision of Article 19.3 is interesting in stating that the two parties shall endeavour to bring any dispute to the Court ‘by joint submission’, failing which each party can submit a dispute to the ICJ individually.
After 27 years of talks – and many protests – this deal presents a historic opportunity for the two countries to settle their diplomatic feud and move on. In fact, the Agreement includes numerous forward-looking provisions towards the establishment of a strategic partnership between the two states in a number of sectors. However, there’s still a long way to go until final settlement. To set the Agreement into force, both governments will have to face down opposition within their own countries. This is arguably a sign that the deal reflects a fair political compromise of the interests of the two states.