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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.