Axel Sotiris Walldén

The basis for a reasonable solution with Greece exists

1. Zoran Zaev has been sending Athens and Sofia positive messages, with no nationalism, hoping that Macedonia will be able to join NATO and unblock the European process under the name Fyrom. Can this new conciliatory tone by Zaev achieve progress in this problem that lasts 25 years?

Democrats in Europe can only rejoice when the rising wave of primitive nationalism and authoritarianism is arrested in one of our countries. I sincerely hope this will also lead to a break-through in the European course of Macedonia and to a solution of the absurd conflict with Greece. Of course, one would need to see what the concrete ideas of the new government are, since good intentions have existed also in the more distant past, but proved insufficient to bring a result. Then, you need two to tango and I am not particularly optimistic on the prospects of a conciliatory position on the other side. However, a fresh initiative, with Skopje abandoning nationalist rhetoric and provocative acts, is worth trying. It would help moderate voices in Athens and would also give back to Macedonia the moral high ground which it largely lost under the previous government.

2. How do you interpret the messages emanating from the Dimitrov-Kotzias meeting?

I would not expect any big news from that first meeting. The cordial climate is obviously a good thing, which we had not seen for a while in our bilateral relations; but let us wait for the follow up.

3. In your view, will we see in the coming months a “rebirth” of real negotiations between Athens and Skopje, this time with a real will by both sides to finally reach a compromise?

Negotiations will most probably be reactivated. I hope that both sides will overcome the approach of negotiations as a PR-operation to shift the responsibility of failure on the other. The basis for a sensible solution exists from previous rounds of negotiations, the key-concept being that no party should monopolise the term ‘Macedonia’. As I already mentioned, I am not too optimistic, but Skopje’s apparent new line will certainly help.

4. Is there a real international pressure (US, Germany,…) on Greece to allow Macedonia to be invited to join NATO? In this sense, does Greece’s economic situation play a role in these pressures?

I do believe there is renewed international interest in Macedonia joining NATO, although for me it is unfortunate that the will to integrate the Balkans into European structures is not driven by a European vision or solidarity, but mainly by a largely irrational anti-Russia crusade. Greece’s economic collapse evidently weakens its negotiating position in the international arena. However, until now, Berlin has wisely avoided linking the country’s economic situation to its foreign policies. Such a linkage would be perceived in Athens as one more blackmail on top of those on the debt which have yielded economic and social disaster and have increasingly alienated Greeks from Europe. It would most probably have further destabilising effects and would rather produce the opposite than the desired result on the Greek position on Macedonia.

5. Is Greek public opinion always as hard on the name issue?

Greek public opinion has today other concerns than the name of Macedonia. Yet, the crisis has made it even more receptive to populism and I am afraid politicians and media could rather easily once again whip up nationalist hysteria of the type we witnessed in the 1990s, were they to choose to do so. Unfortunately, the fundamentals of the mainstream narrative on Macedonia have not changed in Greece. On the other hand, in the unlikely event of a broad political consensus over a reasonable stand, I am quite confident public opinion would largely follow. Hence, I am convinced the political system and not public opinion is the main obstacle to a solution.

6. We often hear that the Tsipras Government is probably the only chance for Skopje to solve the name issue, even though the ANEL party is part of the government coalition. Do you agree?

Tsipras and his party are less nationalistic than New Democracy or PASOK, although the dividing line on these matters goes through most parties, including to some extent through SYRIZA. Nonetheless, I would not be too upbeat on the margins of manoeuvre of our PM. First, because of the key role of his highly nationalist junior coalition partner. Mainly, however, because of the government’s overall weak present position: I guess it would be unwilling to open an additional “front” with the opposition, the latter continuing a policy of all-out attack on it. But, as I already said, a forthcoming attitude by Skopje would possibly help.

7. What happened in 2008 at the Bucharest NATO summit? Was there or not a veto? Was there a proposal on the table? Why didn’t George Bush’s pressures lead anywhere?

Of course there was an effective Greek veto in Bucharest. The Hague court solemnly confirmed this. The veto concerned the entry of the country under the name ‘The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ and this is why Greece was condemned by the Court, since the veto was a flagrant violation of the 1995 Interim Agreement between the two countries. 

George Bush’s pressure did not yield results, possibly because he chose to press at the same time for membership of Ukraine and Georgia, something opposed by major European powers. However, Bush failed mainly because Greece was not a banana republic (and proved this on the worst possible issue). 

As you know, Athens has chosen to ignore the ICJ ruling, although it has traditionally supported international legality, with a view to its disputes with Turkey. Sadly, there seems to be broad political consensus over this stand. It should also be recalled that there is a NATO decision conditioning Macedonian accession on the solution of the name issue (there is no such decision in the EU). Hence, I am afraid that a proposal for joining NATO or the EU under the provisional name is not new and, regretfully, is a non-starter from an Athens perspective.

8. When Kotzias speaks of irredentism in Macedonia, what exactly does he have in mind? 

The official Greek position is that the name, as well as numerous manifestations of nationalism in your country (such as the ‘usurpation’ of ancient Greek history), are covers for potential future territorial claims on Greek Macedonia. With marginal extremist voices developing into official narrative under your previous government, this thesis gained support in Greece. Of course, a minority of Greeks, to which I belong, have pointed out that a supposed threat to our territorial integrity by your country is absurd, even if such intentions existed (which I believe they don’t, at least among the vast majority of citizens and parties): a mere look at the ethnic composition of northern Greece and at the bilateral balance of forces, in terms of economic potential, international links and defence capacity, suffices. 

Irredentist discourses are present almost everywhere in the Balkans and should be resolutely opposed. But we should assess them case by case in their right proportions. And, of course, denying the existence of a Macedonian language, a Macedonian ethnicity (or a Slav-speaking minority in northern Greece) is no way to counter irredentism. Such denials are completely out of tune with present international and European trends, undermine regional stability and do not match with our proclaimed support to your country’s existence and territorial integrity.

9. With respect to EU enlargement and Macedonia – the country [has to] “reconquer” its recommendation for the opening of accession negotiations with the EU and start real reforms; but is there really an enlargement to the Balkans anywhere in sight?

In my view, the present crisis-torn European Union is unwilling and incapable to further expand. Its priority is addressing its internal existential problems and Brexit. Foreign policy imperatives (Russia, stability in the Balkans, refugees) keep the enlargement narrative alive, but we should be under no illusion that there will be further enlargements, as long as the Union does not overcome its present situation. True, in the recent past the EU and the US have repeatedly stepped in to end wars or remove authoritarian leaders in the Balkans. But Brussels is today largely paralysed, and Washington increasingly unpredictable; it is highly unlikely that either would exert intense pressure on European states unwilling to welcome new members.

What conclusions can we draw for the Balkans?

First, implementing reforms, principally political reforms, restoring democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, etc. should be an end in itself. The same with maintaining inter-ethnic peaceful cohabitation. I have never understood arguments that present democracy, the unity of a country or interethnic peace as some sort of offers to the EU upon the condition of Brussels reciprocating. The peoples of the Balkans have suffered enough to understand the value of peace and democracy, regardless of the wills and whims of Brussels. Building democratic and stable states also helps the accession perspective, by undercutting anti-enlargement opinion within the EU; but this should be a by-product of a process to be pursued anyway.

Second, democrats and pro-Europeans in the Balkans should, as I see it, be aware that the European perspective of their countries is closely linked to a change of course in the EU itself. Hence, an optimal strategy is not unconditional alignment with those who in Europe stick to policies that have proved disastrous. Prudent positioning in the intra-European and trans-Atlantic debate on the side of the progressive forces is also advisable. Above all, we pro-Europeans, should realise that uncritical adherence to present European policies only strengthens the enemies of democracy and Europe.

In short, I do not believe that there is a deus ex machina in Brussels or in Washington. In the Balkans, as elsewhere, it is upon us to defend our values and interests and to contribute to a Europe that reflects them.

(first published in English it BRIDGE magazine, July 3rd, 2017)


Bridge, 3 July 2017

[Interview published in the Skopje web-site “Nova TV” to journalist Svetlana Jovanovska, 15 June 2017]

Axel Sotiris Walldén is a retired official of the European Commission, where he headed the enlargement strategy unit. He now teaches at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. He has also served as a counsellor to the Greek Foreign Minister and was the coordinator of the Thessaloniki EU-West Balkan summit. Walldén was active in the struggle against the Greek dictatorship and has since held leading positions in parties of the Greek Left. He is a vocal critic of official Greek policies on Macedonia and has written many books and articles on this issue as well as on other foreign policy and Balkan matters. Views expressed here are strictly personal.

I do not believe that there is a deus ex machina in Brussels or in Washington. In the Balkans, as elsewhere, it is upon us to defend our values and interests and to contribute to a Europe that reflects them.