How do you solve a problem like Macedonia? The decades-long dispute over a Balkan name

A protest in Athens on Sunday 4 February. Image: Getty.

In the latest volley of a long-running dispute on the right to the name “Macedonia”, an estimated 300,000 Macedonian Greeks rallied in Thessaloniki on 21 January against the use of the name by the country to their north, whose full name is the Republic of Macedonia. A follow-up demonstration itook placce in Athens on 4 February. The sheer size of the crowds and the strength of feeling on display makes plain that the row is very much ongoing – and after decades of rancour, it’s time to bring it to an end in sight.

Much of the naming dispute comes down to history. The Greeks arrived in the region in the 12th century BC, and the Hellenic cities forged ties with the ancient Macedonian kingdom there long before the Slavs arrived in the 7th AD. While Macedonia hosted many different cultures for centuries, its inhabitants considered themselves “Macedonians” – and since Ottoman times, they have generally used that term for themselves regardless of language or national affiliation. At the heart of the argument is whether any one of the Balkans’ ethnic groups should monopolise Macedonia’s heritage or whether the name could be constructively shared by everyone in the region.

Today, more than 100 countries recognise Greece’s northern neighbour as the Republic of Macedonia, so until recently, its leaders had no incentive to compromise on the issue. But now they are intent on joining both the EU and NATO – and in both cases, Greece would have to consent as an existing member state. The prospect that the republic could join is much welcomed in the West as a way of limiting Russia’s influence, so the impetus to resolve the dispute has at last been renewed.

International mediators have fumbled several opportunities to solve this problem. Their last best chance was before the financial calamity of 2008, when Greece had moderate leaders willing to normalise the country’s foreign relations. Now, Greece is still struggling to recover from a decade-long financial crisis, and the government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lacks the time and energy for peace initiatives.

And as the post-2008 Greek financial tragedy illustrates, latent crises have a way of resurfacing at the least amenable moments, and any solution, of course, is neither obvious nor simple. South-east Europe is rife with unresolved foreign policy and minority issues, and not since the wars of the 1990s has this region been more fragile.

Yet even in the endlessly fraught Balkans, a skillful enough politician can turn a crisis into an opportunity.


Balance of power

Alexis Tsipras rules Greece in coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks, who are likely to oppose any sort of compromise over the name “Macedonia”. But Tsipras is not as weak as some in the foreign media seem to think. A compromise will secure the solid support of his party, and at minimum, one of Greece’s more liberal parties, therefore contributing to a constructive realignment in Greek politics.

And as a keen tactician, Tsipras will have an eye on both the tangible benefits of NATO enlargement and the ebb and flow of national sentiment – particularly in Greek Macedonia, where the issue is most strongly felt.

Macedonian Greeks overwhelmingly consider the ancient Macedonian heritage an integral part of their own culture, and oppose any use of the name ( by the neighbouring republic. Greek Macedonia holds disproportionate sway over the government in Athens, and in recent decades the naming issue has even decided national elections. The region is in fact larger in population and area than its sovereign neighbour to the north – yet it has no formal voice in the two countries’ negotiations.

Unlike fellow EU members, Greece is a highly centralised state. One could imagine new devolved structures in the future and a “Republic of Macedonia” within Greece itself, with its own parliament and local administration. But in the absence of devolved structures, Tsipras himself has to convince his electorate and Greek Macedonians that an agreement will secure their own use of the name and cultural heritage. There must be grassroots efforts to bring together municipal and civic leaders and investigate confidence-building measures, such as a common travel area in the Balkans. To safeguard local legitimacy, Tsipras should avoid another risky national referendum and seek instead a “double majority” approval in the Greek parliament, wherein a majority of Greek Macedonian MPs would have to back any decision.

The other side

Meanwhile, north of the border in the capital, Skopje, PM Zoran Zaev’s new moderate government is now confronting the nationalism of its predecessors, who used the past decade mostly to enrich themselves and construct replicas of ancient Macedonian monuments in Skopje. The giant bronze statue of Alexander the Great erected in the centre of the city in 2011 was always going to lose the country friends and sympathy, but more importantly, it drove divisions and raised unrealistic expectations among the republic’s citizens.

UN lead negotiator Matthew Nimetz has suggested options using the Slavic pronunciation of the term – such as Republika Nova Makedonija and Republika Makedonija (Skopje) – but so far, these proposals seem unpalatable for both sides. A third more imaginative option would be to embrace a name that reflects the country’s recent achievements as a multi-ethnic society following the 2001 peace agreement with its Albanian minority.

The government in Skopje has taken on another challenge by committing to a referendum after reaching an agreement with Greece. As recent events in Cyprus, Colombia, and the UK prove, referendums do not have the best record of resolving complex problems. Yet to Zaev’s advantage, Albanian Macedonians, comprising about a quarter of the population, are likely either vote overwhelmingly in favour of the compromise or – depending on the framing of the question – abstain. Either would make it very difficult for those opposing the agreement to reach the 50 per cent threshold required.

Still, while Zaev described the referendum as a guarantee to Greece that the agreement will be permanent, some parts of any agreement might also require a two-thirds approval in parliament, which his government cannot as yet command.

The ConversationThere are plenty of outside players who can help nudge the process forward, be they the EU with the prospect of full membership or the UN with its mediating role. But ultimately, this problem can only be solved if the leaders whose careers ride on the outcome can show the political and diplomatic skill required of them.

Neophytos Loizides, Professor in International Conflict Analysis, University of Kent.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.