The Tsipras-Zaev agreement on Macedonia stipulating, on Greek insistence, that Macedonians must call their country ‘North Macedonia’ instead of simply ‘Macedonia’ has garnered support even from some well-regarded names on the left. In July, the liberal British newspaper, the Guardian, published a letter backing the agreement signed by a host of left-leaning intellectuals including Étienne Balibar, Judith Butler, Costas Douzinas and Jean-Luc Nancy among others.
To be precise, the letter didn’t just back the agreement, it praised it to the skies for its many alleged qualities – for respecting “the dignity and the right of self-determination” of both the Greek and Macedonian peoples, for ‘resolving’ a dispute more than a quarter of a century old, and for providing Macedonians with “crucially, the promise of starting accession negotiations to Nato and the EU”. Tsipras and Zaev don’t seem to have put a foot wrong then.
Of course, the decision by the letter’s distinguished signatories to associate themselves with arguments they might otherwise have been expected to deconstruct was disappointing. But in the final analysis arguments must be judged on their merits rather than on the reputations behind them. Let’s therefore look at the arguments of the letter’s signatories and of others on the pro-agreement left.
What’s in a name? The pro-agreement left and Macedonia’s right of self-determination
Of all the claims made by the Guardian letter the most starkly provocative was the claim that the agreement “respects” Macedonia’s dignity and its right of self-determination. The claim was provocative for the simple reason that the agreement in fact does the opposite; it infringes the right of self-determination by ensuring that Macedonia’s name will not be ‘self-determined’ by its people but dictated by what a more powerful neighbour deems acceptable.
One response from the pro-agreement left to this fundamental objection has been to argue that the right of Macedonians to determine their country’s name is…not that significant after all! Or at least not as significant as the agreement’s recognition that Macedonians – though barred from calling their country ‘Macedonia’ – will be graciously permitted to call themselves ‘Macedonians/citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia’ and their language ‘Macedonian’.
This is a specious response, however. For if the guiding principle here is, as we are repeatedly told, the right of self-determination, it surely follows that what you need to be able to self-determine is not just your name as a people or the name of the language you speak but also, crucially, the name of the country you live in. These things constitute a package and – if the right of self-determination is genuinely to be respected – they cannot be unpacked into discrete elements so as to be selectively downgraded and then dispensed with for opportunistic political reasons.
The Guardian letter also praises the agreement for making it clear that the “Macedonian identity can be shared between people who endow it with different meanings.” What could sound more reasonable? And yet the name of Macedonia – surely a key marker of identity – in its simple unqualified form cannot, it turns out, be shared. Indeed, Greece has always refused to share the name of its province of Macedonia with the adjoining state of Macedonia in the way that Belgium, for example, shares the name of its province of Luxembourg with the adjoining state of Luxembourg, that is, without geographical qualifiers. Instead, against its will, Macedonia must add ‘North’ to its name.
On this issue, the pro-agreement left has argued that the qualifying addition of ‘North’ to Macedonia is merely – and therefore uncontroversially – a way of designating with greater geographical and historical precision the territory on which the present-day Macedonian state originated.
This is specious too, if not disingenuous. For the name of a state is not, of course, a mere matter of geographical or historical designation (which in Macedonia’s case has in any event long been designated by well-established, internationally recognised borders). Crucially, it is also a matter of politics, because what is at issue here is the relationship of a country’s inhabitants to the state they call their own. Consequently, for the name of a state to be externally and not internally determined is ipso facto to infringe the popular will of its inhabitants.
In response, some will doubtless be inclined to point to the forthcoming referendum in Macedonia on 30 September as prospective evidence of the popular will in its publicly accessible form. The result, they will say, will give concrete and definitive expression to it…so just wait and see.
However, this is also specious. For Macedonians will be confronted with a referendum question that is both crassly tendentious – “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?” – and brazenly duplicitous, excluding any explicit reference to the unpopular proposal for the country’s new name so as to smother what most Macedonians want – to call their country, simply, Macedonia.
All in all, these arguments are consistently specious because they avoid the key issue. The Tsipras-Zaev agreement denies Macedonians the most basic of democratic rights, the right of self-denomination or the right to decide the name of their own country, a right that is an elementary ingredient of the more general right of self-determination. Indeed, it could be said that the political right of nations to name their states is as elementary as the personal right of parents to name their children.
Given this, the Guardian letter’s additionally provocative claim – that the agreement definitively ‘resolves’ the long-standing name dispute – is empty. By denying Macedonians the right to decide their state name, the agreement merely perpetuates an old dispute in a new form.
US-led imperialism and the Tsipras-Zaev agreement
In the Balkans, political questions have a bad, but presently unavoidable, habit of rapidly becoming geopolitical ones. The reason for this is not difficult to find. The region is composed of mutually antagonistic statelets that are easy prey for imperialism, in particular, in recent years, US-led imperialism, of course. The Macedonian question – the question of its name – has been no exception here.
Ever since the end of the Cold War, the aggressive expansion of NATO and the EU into Eastern Europe and the Balkans has been the central strategy of the US and its European allies.
Apart from the developing opposition of a still much weakened Russia, some of the most intractable obstacles to the comprehensive success of this strategy have been located in the Balkans, where several countries have yet to join NATO (and the EU). These obstacles have centred on Serbia, which was bombed by NATO in 1999, as well as on the surrounding Serb populations of neighbouring states. But the other key obstacle has been Macedonia, or rather Greece’s veto over the country joining NATO and the EU because of the name dispute.
For a while, this US-led strategy of expansion stuttered in the Balkans, but it was re-activated with a notable sense of urgency in 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in response to Ukraine’s decision, supported by Washington, to shed its neutrality and shift decisively westwards.
By 2015, John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State, was issuing ominous warnings of Russia’s intentions in the Balkans – “Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, other places,” he said, “they’re all in the firing line together” – warnings which were drenched in wholly unintended self-reflexive irony. Later that year, Montenegro was officially invited to join NATO, which it eventually did in 2017, despite much opposition.
Attentions could now turn to Macedonia, especially after Zaev’s pro-Western social democrats took power in 2017 from Gruevski’s increasingly Russia-friendly VMRO conservatives. With Greece on its knees before the EU, the scene was set for a name deal that would pave the way for Macedonia’s entry into NATO and the EU, with laudatory commentators arguing that Macedonia’s successful accession could be a significant step in bringing the rest of the Balkans under US-led Western leadership. For example, take this from an article in the US magazine, Foreign Policy, titled ‘Alexis Tsipras Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize’ (presumably for helping to induct Macedonia into NATO’s mighty military machine):
“The [Tsipras-Zaev] agreement heralds progress for Bosnia, too, which may finally advance to the penultimate stage before NATO membership thereby thwarting schemes to divide the country…With NATO and the EU resurgent, the largest country in the region, Serbia, may finally jettison its dalliance with Russia and choose definitively to ally itself with the West.”
The pro-agreement left and imperialist geopolitics
The pro-agreement left has reacted in two different ways to the imperialist geopolitics of the Macedonian question.
The first reaction can be seen clearly in the Guardian letter, where one of the lauded attributes of the agreement is – “crucially” – that Macedonia will be promised membership of NATO and the EU. This is the Tsipras-Zaev position: Balkan social democrats in the service of US imperialism and European capital.
The second reaction from the pro-agreement left takes a different approach only to arrive at the same result. Here the logic is to argue that imperialism is incidental to, or merely coincidental with, the agreement, which can therefore be abstracted or separated from its geopolitics. In this way, the agreement is converted into a simple Greco-Macedonian accord, one that ‘resolves’ a long-standing local dispute, and for which allegedly progressive credentials can then be claimed.
This approach quickly entangles its proponents in contradictions, however. One advocate of it, for example, acknowledges that the international left must oppose military expansion yet in the next breath insists that all progressive forces must support the Agreement…that will in fact open the door to NATO’s military expansion into Macedonia and further into the Balkans. Indeed, it took NATO less than a month from the date of the ceremonial signing of the agreement at Lake Prespa to formally invite Macedonia to join the alliance.
This whole attempt to divorce the agreement from its imperialist geopolitics is bound to fail, for reality is always more powerful than wishful thinking. And here, in reality, it is crystal clear that the name issue was ‘resolved’ precisely to bring about Macedonia’s imperial Euro-Atlantic integration.
This is why the referendum question is a brutally geopolitical one – “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between Macedonia and Greece?” It’s also why earlier this month President Trump declared that “The historic Prespa agreement resolves the long-standing name issue and paves the way for Macedonia’s membership of NATO and the European Union”, which he followed with a visit from his Defence Secretary, James Mattis. And it’s why the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, made her first official visit to Macedonia this month, shortly after visits by the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, and NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.
Given all this, is it at all plausible or sensible to assess the Tsipras-Zaev agreement by sidelining its imperialist geopolitics?
For all the heady rhetoric about Macedonia’s right of self-determination, then, the reality is very different. Macedonians won’t even be able to determine the name of their own country, while their membership of NATO will oblige them to fork out a much-needed 2% of GDP for a military alliance in which their voice will count for little and their interests even less. Pro-Russian Macedonian nationalists will have a propaganda field day with that one. As for EU membership, the same applies, for what realistic hope will Macedonians have of determining economic policy in accordance with their needs when they glance across the border at Greeks currently at the mercy of impoverishing EU diktat?
The Macedonian party of the left, Levica, has taken a lead in opposing the agreement. It advocates abstaining in the referendum on 30 September as the best hope of defeating it given that a turnout threshold of 50% of the electorate is required for the result to be valid. Levica opposes NATO membership and argues for a Balkan federation. It is a small organisation and its influence is limited, but it has taken a principled stand which is important and will hold it in good stead in the years ahead, regardless of the referendum result. The international left should do all it can to express solidarity with Levica in the coming days.
Dragan Plavšić is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and of Counterfire in Britain.