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.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.