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Evangelos Kofos

Greece' s Macedonian Adventure: The Controversy over FYROM’s Independence and Recognition

This is a revised version of an essay appearing in the newly-published book by Macmillan Press Ltd (UK, USA 1999), edited by James Pettifer.

The Thrust of the “Skopiano” in Greek politics

The First Phase: Mitsotakis at the Wheel, 1991 to October 1993

It has already been noted that the “Macedonian Question” had sharply divided the Greeks into two camps during the Civil War and had poisoned the internal political scene, for years. By the latter part of the 1970s, however, all segments of the political spectrum had finally come to terms with the issue, almost to the point of reaching consensus on a number of important points (22). More important, the two leading parties, New Democracy and PASOK, which continually succeeded each other in government after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1974, shared similar strategic objectives and even agreed on tactics in handling of the Macedonian problem, despite their polemics on almost every other issue. Nevertheless, by 1992, this bipartisan approach appeared to be shelved when Andreas Papandreou, leader of the Opposition at the time, adopted an unyielding negative attitude toward any attempt by Prime Minister Mitsotakis—whose government only had heading a two-seat majority in parliament—to compromise on FYROM’s name.

At first, however, PASOK’s opposition tactics were overshadowed by internal New Democracy dissensions, presented as a personal Mitsotakis-Samaras duel that ended in the latter’s dismissal. In the best tradition of the emotive political debate in Greece, the internal crisis descended upon the political scene with the violence of a summer storm. The point of departure was the interpretation of the December 17, 1991, declaration, a decision which, when announced, had been hailed by all sides as a feat of Greek diplomacy. Given the circumstances and the strong opposition of certain delegations, headed by Italy, the final unanimous vote on the phrasing of the declaration was, indeed, a success. Its implementation, however, was an entirely different matter. The impression on the Greek public was that the new state would not be recognized as “Macedonia”. As the architect of that decision, Andonis Samaras was generally reaping all the political benefits. However, PASOK’s political strategists undertook to tarnish the impression of a major government achievement. They would only accept it as an achievement for the Greek side, they said, if the declaration signified not only that the name“Macedonia”by that all its derivatives were excluded from the denomination of the new state. That apparently excluded any form of a compound Macedonian name. Certainly, by no stress of the imagination could the agreed-upon formula be interpreted in this way. Samaras, however, was hardly a politician to be outsmarted by demagogues. He had no scruples in confirming the maximalist interpretation. The public rejoiced. But in the councils of the EU, the chancelleries of Europe’s capitals and the international press, the mood in no way corresponded to the prevailing atmosphere in Greece. Indeed, it was evident, particularly to seasoned Greek diplomats, that although the “maximalist” thesis could be a useful bargaining point, it could only provide the stepping stone for a fair compromise solution (23).

A few years later (1995–1996), the publications of books containing ample documentation, written by or with the consent of the political protagonists at the time, offered the Greek public sufficient insight into the political bickering and behind the scenes secret bargaining on the Macedonian issue (24). On the basis of these revelations, it is safe to conclude that while Foreign Minister Samaras was hard at work presenting documentation and arguments in favour of the maximalist solution to his EU colleagues, Prime Minister Mitsotakis had been sounding out his own colleagues, in the same capitals, for a compromise solution on the name,. Consequently, it was a matter of time before a major political crisis exploded, first within the ruling New Democracy party and then on a national scale. When Mitsotakis dismissed Samaras, and reserved also the post of the Foreign Minister for himself, instead of promoting his own conciliatory views, he proceeded publicly to pursue not his own views for a compromise solution, but the maximalist line of his dismissed minister. By that time, however, this line had been endorsed by three of the four party leaders represented in parliament and apparently by President Karamanlis. Mitsotakis’ move might be seen as a masterstroke in petty internal politics. It allowed him to outmanoeuvre the internal opposition of the “maximalists” in his own party and to checkmate the eroding tactics of his arch-opponent Andreas Papandreou. As is turned out, however, the real looser of all these confusing developments, as most Greek analysts came to assess years later, was the “national issue”.

The positive decisions at Gimaraes and Lisbon undoubtedly bear the personal mark of Mitsotakis. Nevertheless, on the basis of subsequent revelations, those decisions did not constitute a full endorsement of Greece’s position on its dispute with Skopje. They aimed primarily at bolstering Mitsotakis’ own precarious parliamentary position inside Greece.

Following Lisbon, Mitsotakis chose to rest for a while on his diplomatic “laurels”. In doing this, however, he failed to capitalize on the strength of the unanimous support of his pears in the EU in order to negotiate a compromise solution with Skopje. Thus, he offered Gligorov a much needed respite during the summer and autumn months of 1992, allowing him to recuperate from the shock of Lisbon, to rally, and then stand firmly by his own maximalist stand. As the situation in the northern ex-republics of Yugoslavia was worsening, the FYROM president could now press more convincingly for immediate recognition of his country as a means of stabilizing peace in the region and containing the extension of the fighting to the south. It was a pleasant tune in the ears of Western diplomats.

By that time, the deteriorating situation in Croatia and the opening up of a new front of armed confrontation in Bosnia compelled the governments of Europe and the United States to become more actively involved in the Yugoslav adventure. In the process of constructing a cordon sanitaire around Serbia, the territory of FYROM became a useful pawn in the unfolding international chess game of Great Power pacifiers vs. Balkan unruly villains. As such, the small landlocked state to the south of the warring zone, acquired an ephemeral importance far exceeding its geostrategic value. It was at that critical moment (first half of 1992), that the interests of the European Union began to veer in the opposite direction from Greece’s specific pursuits in the Balkans.

Inside Greece, however, Mitsotakis had apparently reached his decision that, at that moment, his first priority was to endeavour to decrease the intensity of public excitement and cool off the growing party dissension on account of Samaras’ dismissal. To initiate with Skopje directly or indirectly negotiations would have exposed him to a renewal of public outcry of “selling out” on the national issue. The new British Presidency of EU accommodated him, temporarily, as it was in no hurry to carry out the Lisbon mandate (25).

A year later, Mitsotakis was faced with a similar dilemma; this time, in May 1993, he was presented by UN mediators Vance and Owen with the compromise version of a draft treaty covering all outstanding questions between Athens and Skopje, including the issue of the name. Despite the fact that his government—with Michalis Papaconstantinou, an experienced and moderate politician and native of Macedonia, as the new foreign minister—had given signs early in 1993 of departing from the maximalist line, and being ready to discuss a compound name(26), Mitsotakis retreated at the last moment. This time, a number of influential MPs of his party, including Miltiadis Evert, presented him with a quasi-ultimatum not to proceed with signing the proposed draft. Otherwise, they “forecast”, the government would loose its parliamentary majority and would be forced to resign (27).The prime minister succumbed and ordered Papaconstantinou to return to Athens(28).The Vance-Owen draft treaty, a masterpiece of diplomatic dexterity drafted by two eminent international experts, with the cooperation of the delegations of the two parties—which, however, never met—fell victim of internal politics back in the two capitals. In Greece, the New Democracy leader was offered a breathing space of less than four months. In September, two of his deputies deserted him, bringing down the government. Greece’s “Macedonian adventure” was claiming its second victim following Samaras’ dismissal. The October elections returned a triumphant Papandreou to power, at the head of the “patriotic” faction of PASOK.


22. The Secretary General of the KKE Charilaos Florakis stated repeatedly during the 1970s and 1980s that for his Party there was neither a “Macedonian Question”, nor any “Macedonian” minority in Greece.

23. Author’s assessment.

24. Papaconstantinou, op.cit.; Tarkas, op.cit.(reflecting Samaras’ views and documentation). Thodoros Skylakakis, Sto Onoma tis Makedonias[In the name of Macedonia], with a preface by C. Mitsotakis, Athens, Elliniki Evroekdotiki, 1995, pp. 332 (reflecting the Prime Minister’s views and documentation).

25. Author’s assessment

26. Memorandum of Greece Concerning the application of FYROM for admission to the UN, New York 25.1.1993, Athens, ELIAMEP 1993. 10pp.

27. Interview with Miltiadis Evert, president of the opposition New Democracy party.

28. Papaconstantinou, op. cit., pp. 405–406.

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