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Not in my name

Macedonian opponents of the country’s proposed name change demonstrate on the streets of Skopje on 30th September


Macedonian opponents of the country’s proposed name change demonstrate on the streets of Skopje on 30th September

17th June 2018, Lake Prespa, Greek/Macedonian border

The two men greeted each other like old friends as they met on the jetty by the lake. For Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of Macedonia, and Alexis Tsipras, his Greek counterpart, today’s announcement was historic: if not the end of a 27-year-old dispute between the two countries then, potentially at least, the beginning of the end. The venue was symbolic too. They were here to sign the Prespa Agreement, named after the lake that borders Macedonia, Greece and Albania. It would, in theory, settle a unique diplomatic conflict that had festered over what would appear to be a relatively simple matter: a country’s name.

Since 1991 Greece has been in dispute with its northern neighbour, officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Many Greeks view the use of ‘Macedonia’ as an unconscionable appropriation of their history and, potentially, a sign the country has designs on their own territory.

Greece has its own Macedonia, the vast northern region of the country which includes the strategically vital port city of Thessaloniki, an area that was once home to and ruled by Alexander the Great. When Macedonia, the country, gained its independence after the collapse of Yugoslavia, Greece refused to recognise a country using that name. A fudge was agreed to use FYROM at the United Nations – but even that wasn’t the end of the matter. Greece used its veto to prevent Macedonia from joining Nato and from beginning the process of accession to the EU.

But now Tsipras and Zaev – who look remarkably similar to one another – had agreed on a new name: the Republic of North Macedonia. Macedonia would have its language and nationhood recognised, and in return would repudiate any territorial or historical claims to the Greek region. “We are not gathered here today to mourn the defeats of the past,” said Tsipras as he spoke to a large crowd of dignitaries including Federica Mogherini, effectively the EU’s foreign minister. “We are taking a historic step so that from now on there will

only be winners.”  Zaev was equally optimistic. “There is a need for trust, courage and hope,” he said, as he stood at a lectern next to Tsipras. “The final agreement of the name is of strategic importance for the two countries. It can move mountains.”

The new name would have to be put to a referendum in Macedonia and pass both countries’ parliaments, which was by no means guaranteed. Still, the crowd gave the two men a standing ovation once the agreements were signed. Finally, Zaev removed his red tie and handed it to Tsipras as a gesture of goodwill.

A few miles down the road, however, 4,000 angry Greek protesters were fighting with police, furious at what they said was Tsipras’s “betrayal”. Konstantinos Barbarousis, an MP for the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, called the agreement “treason” and demanded a firing squad for all the politicians involved. He was later arrested and expelled from his party, the extremists having deemed him just that bit too extreme. That night, a violent protest broke out in Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, after a rally hosted by the opposition VRMO-DPMNE party. Tear gas, flares and flash grenades were thrown as the crowd chanted: “Macedonia: we will not give up the name.”

Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev (left) and Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras on the shore of Lake Prespa, 17th June 2018

Macedonia’s archaeology museum under construction in October 2012 as part of the Skopje 2014 development project

16th May 2015, Skopje, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Back in 2015, Zoran Zaev was the leader of the socialist SDSM, Macedonia’s main opposition party. A year earlier SDSM, with Zaev recently installed as its leader, had badly lost the 2014 parliamentary election. However when we met in his party’s office in Skopje his political fortunes had been revived, thanks to a series of bombs he had detonated.

These bombs, of which there had been dozens, contained no wires, switches or timers. They didn’t even contain anything explosive – at least not in the conventional sense of the word. “Today’s bombs will show the real face of our prime minister when it comes to the Macedonia name issue with Greece,” Zaev told me as he sorted out the last-minute details of that day’s press conference while smoking languidly.

Over the previous three months Zaev had stood in front of his party’s supporters – sometimes once a week, often more frequently – while dropping what had become known in the local press as his “bombs”: a series of secret recordings, streamed live on YouTube, that compromised Macedonia’s then-prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his ruling, right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party.

“The government spent millions of euros transforming Skopje into a little Athens complete with neoclassical buildings”

The recordings were the result of a vast conspiracy to tape the phone conversations of prominent Macedonian politicians, and then use that information for political purposes. It was alleged that as many as 700,000 conversations featuring 20,000 people had been recorded. Zaev had been handed the vast trove of recordings by two secret service whistleblowers who were appalled by what they saw going on. “They came to my office in Strumica [a city in the east of the country where Zaev was mayor] and showed me a laptop,” he told me. “They said: ‘We work with these materials and we prepare analysis for political use, for the prime minister, for the chief of the secret police or other guys that need it.’”

Each recording broadcast by Zaev had brought acute embarrassment to Gruevski’s government. He’d been in power for nine years. Amid the candid talk of rivalries and extramarital affairs across the whole administration – as well as one particularly embarrassing story about how Gruevski’s new bulletproof Mercedes cost more than the Popemobile – there were serious allegations of corruption, vote fixing, threats to journalists, a police cover-up and meddling with the judiciary among the ruling elite.

But on that day back in May 2015, the revelations Zaev was preparing to make about Macedonia’s name change were particularly controversial. Gruevski had publicly and very angrily rejected any attempt to reach accommodation with Greece on the name issue and denounced the opposition SDSM party for wanting to find a solution. Instead, Gruevski’s government had made a very public display of its version of Macedonian history, one in which Alexander the Great and other figures revered in Greek culture were in fact their national heroes too. The government spent hundreds of millions of euros transforming Skopje into a little Athens, complete with newly remodelled white neoclassical buildings and dozens of statues that appeared to appropriate Greek historical figures, especially Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II.

This Skopje 2014 project began in 2006 and was slated to cost €80 million. An investigation by Balkan Insight – a title published by the anti-corruption organisation the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network – later claimed that the true cost was closer to €560 million. But, as Zaev was about to publicly reveal in his latest “bomb”, Gruevski had been secretly negotiating with Greece behind the scenes and had agreed to all of its neighbour’s demands. “He said all of these years that he will not accept [a name change], but through the phone calls we will show he accepted everything,” said Zaev. “He accepted the Republic of North Macedonia. So he lied.” A leaked US diplomatic cable, released by WikiLeaks, appeared to show that Gruevski had reluctantly accepted a name change to the Republic of North, or Northern, Macedonia as far back as 2008.

The reason for the double-edged strategy, Zaev believed, had nothing to do with nationalism or ideology, but with domestic political issues. “He is always trying to buy another year. It is only political survival,” he said. Gruevski’s purpose, believed Zaev, was to shore up his political base. “He changed the name of the airport to Alexander the Great. The road to Greece? A new name: Alexander the Great. This big monument [officially unnamed, in central Skopje], the ‘Warrior on a Horse’. But everyone knows this is Alexander the Great.” The Skopje 2014 project divided the country, with many seeing it as a huge waste of money as well as a tenuous appropriation of Greek culture for nationalistic ends. The Greeks, meanwhile, were livid at what they viewed as cultural and historic theft. The doors to Nato and the EU remained firmly shut.

Anti-government protesters in 2015 with a sign referencing Zoran Zaev’s ‘bombs’ that reads “Tick tock tick tock”

Zoran Zaev prepares to give a press conference at which he will drop one of his ‘bombs’

The issue of Macedonia’s name, for Zaev at least, was an existential threat to his nation’s future.

Macedonia, which has a population of just two million, was once a constituent republic of Yugoslavia. It avoided the violence that tore the rest of the country apart during the 1990s. But in January 2001 the country descended into a short, chaotic conflict that almost led to a full-blown civil war, pitting the minority ethnic Albanian population against the majority ethnic Macedonians. Tensions were eased seven months later with the Ohrid Agreement, which gave more powers to the country’s marginalised Albanians, who now make up around a quarter of the population. Several concessions were made to the Albanians, including the right to teach the Albanian language in schools. An Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), would go on to become a coalition partner in Gruevski’s government.

Relations between the two communities were often fraught. Just a few days before Zaev and I met, Macedonian special forces had raided a group of suspected Albanian separatist militants in the majority ethnic Albanian town of Kumanovo in the north of the country. Eight policemen and ten militants were killed. Dozens more were injured and around 30 suspected militants were arrested.

The biggest threat to the nation, however, seemed to be demographics: huge numbers of people, many of them young, were leaving the country to find better opportunities elsewhere. Zaev believed that solving the name issue, which prevented Macedonia’s full integration into the international community, could help stem the flow. “We have had one quarter of the population leave our country,” he told me. “That is the everyday politics in our country; how to fight to protect and keep young people. The name issue is the main problem. And throughout this period, we were called the traitors. And he [Gruevski] is a patriot, because his party is right-orientated and nationalist. For us it’s possible to protect the dignity of the country and protect the citizens so they do not leave the country.”

“It was a few weeks after his passport was taken that Zaev began dropping his bombs”

Zaev’s bombs had already forced two ministers to resign, as well as Saso Mijalkov, Gruevski’s cousin and the head of Macedonia’s secret police. But the recordings came at a high price for those involved in leaking them. Six people were arrested, including Gjorgi Lazarevski, the secret service officer who smuggled out the files when he realised how the material was being used. “I did not expect to experience such a thing in Macedonia,” he told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). His trial is ongoing.

When Zaev confronted Gruevski with the recordings he was promptly accused of plotting a coup, and later charged with conspiring with a foreign intelligence service to topple the government. His passport was seized. “Of course, I feared for my life,” Zaev said of that time. It was a few weeks after his passport was taken that Zaev began dropping his bombs. By May 2015 new bombs were being dropped at 2.30pm every day. Anti-government protests had been growing off the back of them. Every evening at 6.30pm around a thousand people marched towards the parliament to demand Gruevski’s resignation.

Zaev was planning to hold another huge rally the day after we met – “the biggest protest in the country’s history,” he boasted. Pro-government protests had also been held, exposing just how divided Macedonia had become. Many people were happy with Gruevski – or at least not unhappy. Despite the evidence of creeping authoritarianism and corruption – by no means a disqualifier for government in other countries in the Balkans – he had appealed to nationalist sentiment and overseen stable finances. The World Bank had said that “Macedonia has made great strides in reforming its economy” over the preceding decade. After Gruevski’s election in 2006 the economy began growing at more than six percent a year. In 2013 an EU report praised Macedonia’s reforms, claiming it had had made improvements in all areas towards starting EU accession.

Gruevski’s supporters were furious that Zaev’s bombs were going off, claiming that they weakened the government and emboldened Albanian separatists. For Cvetin Chilimanov, a former spokesperson of the VMRO-DPMNE president Gjorge Ivanov, the raid on the separatists in Kumanovo was a case in point. “The wire-tapping has destabilised the country,” he said. “It is like a limping gazelle on the Serengeti. Zaev says it is limping. Are we surprised that a lion attacks the gazelle?”

SDSM dismissed those claims. “He [Gruevski] has created a thorough system of control, blackmail and intimidation of everyone [who] is some way dependent on government,” said Radmila Sekerinska, the deputy president of SDSM, who would often be seen standing next to Zaev as he dropped his bombs. “Civil servants, businesses that depend on government, even foreign investors.”

Zaev stubbed out his cigarette. It was time for him to leave and take the stage. He now lived in a room next to his office with 24-hour security. A bed had been set up there, where he kept an encrypted hard drive of evidence in the back of a Monsters Inc toy. “This is where I keep the bombs,” he joked. He unzipped the cuddly monster’s head, pulled out a flash drive and plugged it into his laptop, ready for the next revelation.

Seven months later, in January 2016, after ten years in power and with the country paralysed by protest and political dysfunction, Nikola Gruevski stepped down in a deal brokered by the EU. But it was only temporary. Elections were planned to follow a few months later and a special prosecutor was appointed to look into the allegations of vote rigging, judicial manipulation and the targeted punishment of opposition figures that had been exposed by Zaev’s bombs. The elections were delayed until December, when Gruevski launched a remarkable comeback. His VMRO party lost seats but still managed to beat Zaev’s SDSM, by 51 seats to 49.

The kingmakers would be the ethnic Albanian DUI party. It had propped up Gruevski’s administration for a decade but chose to switch to Zaev’s SDSM with the promise of more protection for Albanian language rights. Still the crisis rumbled on as Macedonia’s president, VMRO’s Gjorge Ivanov, refused to invite Zaev to form a government, fearing that concessions to Albanian parties would “erode the sovereignty”
of Macedonia.

The turning point came when the parliament tried to elect a new, ethnic Albanian speaker. Groups of masked men attacked the parliament, broke through the lightly policed defences and assaulted the politicians and journalists inside. The images – of Zaev with blood pouring down his face and Radmila Sekerinska being grabbed by the hair and attacked – evaporated whatever international support remained for Gruevski. Shortly afterwards President Ivanov met Zaev – who still had a visible wound on his forehead – and assented to his forming a government. Zaev would become prime minister, Sekerinska his defence minister.

Over the next few months Macedonia’s new government began to rename some of the more contentious flashpoints. The Alexander the Great airport was renamed Skopje International Airport. The highway that leads toward Greece was renamed the ‘Friendship Highway’. The moves kickstarted dialogue between Greece and Macedonia. Direct phone calls were held between Zaev and the Greek prime minister Tsipras to discuss a name deal that eventually led to Lake Prespa and the agreement’s first test: a referendum on the name change.

2018: the game of the name

In the weeks that followed the signing of the Prespa Agreement large-scale violent protests broke out in both Thessaloniki and Skopje. It was an emotive issue, but there was also a sub-plot unfolding.

The international community was politically invested in the outcome of Macedonia’s name-change referendum for different reasons. For the EU, the accession of Macedonia offered a chance to counter the spread of illiberal democracies in eastern Europe, especially the increasingly authoritarian rule of Viktor Orbán, the virulently anti-migrant prime minister of Hungary. Orbán had been a key ally of Gruevski and even travelled to Macedonia in 2017 ahead of local elections to campaign with him, after Gruevski had resigned as prime minister but was still VMRO leader. “We count on Macedonia’s role in preventing this swarm [of migrants, crossing Macedonia into Serbia and then Hungary] and that’s why I always supported and will continue supporting Gruevski, because he is the kind of politician who holds his nation’s interests above all else,” Orbán said.

“Savvidis stormed the pitch to remonstrate with the referee, forgetting he had a gun on his belt”

For the US, expanding Nato was still a key foreign policy goal even as President Trump did his best to undermine the alliance. Russia, meanwhile, had a long history of attempting to deter countries in its backyard from joining Nato: in 2017 it was accused of backing an attempted coup in Montenegro on the eve of the country’s accession to the organisation.

The date was set. Macedonians would vote on the name change on 30th September 2018. The weeks leading up to the referendum were dominated by allegations that Russia was trying to influence the outcome. Shortly before the vote the Greek government expelled two Russian diplomats over alleged meddling in Greece’s internal affairs, interference thought to be related to the name-change referendum. The move caused a diplomatic crisis with Russia, a country with which Tsipras had built close ties. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, would later cancel a planned trip to Athens.

And then there was the case of Ivan Savvidis, a Greek-Russian oligarch who had begun buying assets in Thessaloniki at a knock-down price. He bought newspapers, TV stations, hotels and the city’s biggest football club, PAOK. He became infamous after becoming so enraged at a last-minute decision to disallow a goal in a crunch Greek league match that he stormed the pitch to remonstrate with the referee, forgetting he had a gun on his belt. The images went viral and Savvidis was banned from football for three years.

PAOK’s Greek-Russian president Ivan Savvidis (centre) takes to the pitch carrying a handgun in his waistband after the referee refused his team a last-minute goal on 11th March 2018

A few months after the gun incident, a report from the OCCRP claimed that Savvidis had allegedly funnelled €300,000 in cash to nationalist groups to spark protests against the name-change referendum. The allegations brought a furious response from the Macedonian government. Zaev claimed that there was evidence that Greek businessmen “sympathetic to the Russian cause” of preventing Nato expansion had paid money to Macedonians to “commit acts of violence.”

Savvidis’s Greek holding company released a statement denouncing the investigation and calling the report “totally false and highly slanderous”. The Macedonian government later seemed to back away from its rhetoric. It said in a statement that Macedonia “will continue to develop good bilateral relations with the Russian Federation” and that it was “aware of Russia’s positions, it is well known that Russia has no problem with the integration of our entire region into the European Union, but we also know that they disagree with our Nato membership.”

As the day of the vote approached, the protests subsided. The opposition VMRO-DPMNE party had a new tactic, even if it was one not officially backed by its new leadership.  The vote needed at least a 50 percent turnout to be valid. Rather than vote no, the opposition unofficially considered, it was better for its supporters not to vote at all. Zaev and his government went on the road to campaign for a “Yes” as a slew of high-profile delegates visited Skopje, including German chancellor Angela Merkel and US secretary of defence Jim Mattis, who also accused Russia of trying to influence the vote. “No doubt that they have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns,” he said.

Meanwhile, the “No” campaign kept a low profile. The complicated wording of the referendum question didn’t help with getting out the vote. As one commentator remarked, the question – “Are you in favour of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” – had at least six possible answers.

In the end, on 30th September, only 37 percent of Macedonia’s 1.8 million eligible voters voted, seemingly invalidating the referendum.  Even so, 94 percent of those who did vote were in favour of the name change. “The fact is that the name agreement did not get a green light, but a stop sign from the people,” said Hristijan Mickoski, Gruevski’s successor as VMRO leader.

As the referendum was consultative, and with a big question mark over the number of eligible voters in Macedonia (it’s estimated that as many as one third of the 1.8 million eligible voters counted in the last census in 2002 had since moved abroad), Zaev pushed ahead with the name change anyway, amid a flurry of congratulatory messages from Washington, Brussels and Athens. “I am determined to take Macedonia into the EU and Nato,” Zaev said in a noisy post-count press conference. “It is time to support European Macedonia.”

“Rather than vote no, the opposition unofficially considered, it was better not to vote at all”

2019 will make or break the Prespa Agreement. Zaev managed to get the deal over the next hurdle by persuading a handful of VMRO MPs to vote with the government and secure the two-thirds majority in parliament required to make any constitutional amendments. VMRO promptly expelled those MPs from the party. But the key hurdle now appears to be the Greek parliament, where passage is anything but assured.

Meanwhile, Nikola Gruevski had his own problems. Shortly after the name-change referendum, a court upheld a two-year prison sentence for corruption handed down in May 2018, which he had appealed. The case concerned the purchase of his €600,000 bulletproof Mercedes. One of Zaev’s first bombs had, years later, brought his political rival to the verge of jail. Gruevski’s passport had already been seized when the verdict was confirmed, but Gruevski was nowhere to be found. A warrant was issued for his arrest. On 14th November the Hungarian government confirmed that Gruevski had claimed political asylum. Gruevski, it seemed, was one immigrant Viktor Orbán had no problems accommodating.

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