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.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

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