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What's in a name



Håkan Wiberg, TFF Asociate

November 27, 2009

There are many cases of conflicts where one party (sometimes both) makes demands that appear absurd  to an outsider, not least because they will obviously be unacceptable to the other party. The eight points in the Greek position on the name issue of Macedonia looks like a good example.

Sovereign and internally recognized states sometimes change names. “The kingdom of…” becomes “The (people´s democratic, Arab, or whatever) republic of….”. In recent decades, several states changed their names entirely to become Benin,  Myanmar, etc.; Cote d´Ivoire even notified the UN that its name was now the same in English, rather than Ivory Coast. When recognition is an issue, one state may refuse to use the name the other state has taken, such as German Democratic Republic  (Soviet occupation zone), Republic of China (Taiwan), Israel (the zionist entity) . Greece, however, seems to be only state that has demanded that an internationally recognised state change its name and makes a vast issue out of it. I can imagine the mixture of outrage and laughter that would result from Great Britain demanding that Ireland change its name to “Southern Ireland” or China asking for Mongolia to become “Northern Mongolia”

 Since there is no precedent, it is even difficult to tell what demands are legal and merely political and what demands are not even compatible with international law. It would help if Greece and Macedonia could agree to ask the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on this before they enter negotiations about it.

There are different kinds of negotiations. The typical case is where the goal is to achieve mutual advantages, in which case both parties have something to give to the other party. In other cases, the only inducement that comes from one party consists of threats and implementation of them. Of course, they can be rhetorically mixed, as in Kissinger´s famous statement that USA escalated the bombing of  North Vietnam in order to have something to give in negotiations, namely stopping the bombing. So far the only exchange gifts Greece has talked about are of the Kissinger type: not to harm Macedonia actively.

Why are (what to an outsider looks like) unacceptable demands made? There can be several different explanations, which in many cases do not exclude each other.

First, the sender of the demands may not know that they are unacceptable. To himself they may appear quite reasonable and he knows too little to understand that they are unacceptable to the other party. This may in many cases be true for public opinions that have been manipulated by decision makers (key words: “sovereignty”, “security”, “dignity”, etc.). The implosion of Yugoslavia offers several examples. Whether the decision makers themselves share the ignorance is a more moot issue. They may and they may not; if we ever get firm evidence either way, that if often decades after the event, after the declassification of documents, publication of memoirs and hard work by professional historians.

In this case, the main Greek argument, to some extent supported by earlier VMRO positions, seems to be the security argument of potential territorial claims. If a comparison between the armed forces of Greece and Macedonia is not enough, Greece ought then be satisfied by a declaration from Macedonia, as legally binding as Greece wants, that does not and will never have any territorial claims on Greece. If this is offered and rejected it becomes obvious that there is something else behind, to be studied by experts on Greek history with its many traumas and Greek politics.

Second, the sender may have another kind of ignorance: how much it takes to make the other side “endure the unendurable”, as Emperor Hirohito put it when announcing Japan´s capitulation. He may believe that his bargaining position is so strong that a threat is enough to make the other side capitulate – and being so afraid of losing face that he has to carry the threat out when he turned out to be wrong.

Again, there may be a distinction between what decision makers believe and what they have made public opinion believe. When Serbia did not capitulate completely to the Austrian demands in July 1914, the government persuaded Franz Joseph to sign a declaration of war, telling him that this was merely to scare the Serbs into capitulation; and he seems to have been surprised when the shooting nevertheless started. Greek decision makers are eager to demonstrate to its public that the veto rights of Greece in the EU and NATO gives it some weight to toss around, as most recently demonstrated at the Icelandic embassy in Washington.

Third, in several cases it can be establish that the goal of the decision makers was not so much to get negotiation results as to get something else. Sometimes it is war: the Austrian decision makers wanted a war in 1914, so it was enough for Serbia to reject just one of all demands. USA wanted a war on Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, so the more concessions they made, the more demands it added.

Israel has successfully avoided serious peace negotiations with the Palestinians for decades by making unacceptable demands in advance, Obama´s capitulation to Netanyahu being the most recent example. Or the intention may be to use sanctions to demonstrate power. This may be a Greek motive, as a demonstration to Turkey and others; in which case the demands are to be sure that Macedonia rejects them; we must wait for the historians to be sure on this.

Fourth, any bazaar operator knows that it may be a good idea to overstate your demands to give room for haggling and still satisfy your secret minimal demands. There is a risk however: if you initially ask far too much, or if the potential customer comes from a country with fixed prices, he may just walk away rather than haggle.

The position of Greece in the name issue is an irritation to many EU members. It was first given a promise by Germany as payment for recognising Slovenia and Croatia; some years later Germany had found a lawyer trick to cheat Greece, which wisely chose Macedonia rather than Germany for retaliation. Given this irritation, it may look like a good idea to state a lot of demands and then back down from some of them in order to appear “reasonable” to the EU and get more support than it already has for pressing the remaining demands. Macedonian demands  for symmetry, i.e. that Greece rename its province “Southern Macedonia” or recognise a “South Macedonian” minority language or…. are not likely to meet with success.

Fifth, politicians may put themselves in prison by first fomenting wild nationalism and then discovering that they have become its servants rather than its masters. When few Serbs, Croats, Moslems/Bosniacs, Albanians, etc. dared oppose nationalist hysteria, the political leaders were not among them; nor are they in Greece. The relative role of historical (faked or accurate) memories and political manipulators may be difficult to entangle, but even when one blames all on the politicians, one should not make the mistake of believing that it is as easy to put the nationalist spirit back into the bottle. It isn´t, and that is what makes both the original politicians and their later successors, even from a different political party, prisoners.

Independently of how much or little they originally believed in their propaganda, they are stuck with it and have great difficulties if trying to retreat. Also, they may have managed to persuade themselves: “Wars begin by politicians lying to journalists and then believing what they see printed.” One of the most famous quotations from Goebbels is that the more often you repeat a lie, the more people believe it – but he forgot to add that that also goes for the speaker himself, saving him from seeing a hypocrite in the mirror.

It was de Gaulle that got France out of Algeria and Nixon that got USA out of Vietnam, whereas Labour leaders in Great Britain tend to support USA´s wars; and it was a left-wing leader in Turkey who invaded Cyprus. The former need not fear right-wing ultra-nationalism as much as the latter. It is more difficult for a socialist government in Greece to back down than for a conservative.

Finally, politicians may be put into prison by a Big Brother somewhere else. Superpowers tend to have some success in having satellites join their demands and take part in their invasions of Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Dominican Republic, Afghanistan, etc.. When the dictator Diem in South Vietnam showed signs of negotiating with “the enemy”, he disappeared from both power and life, to be replaced by a more reliable hardliner; the same fate seems to now threaten Karzai in Afghanistan.

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Yet the obvious question in the Greek case is why anybody in EU would pressure Greece to stick to demands they do not really approve of behind their dutiful abstract support? A cynical answer might be that it can solve a problem for them. Look at Turkey, against whose EU membership there were lots of arguments. When it had gotten its economy under control, ended the war in Kurdistan and permitted some use of the Kurdish language, become more democratic, written more human rights into its legislation and been more positive than Greece to the Annan plan on Cyprus, it had not become more welcome in the EU; to their embarrassment EU leaders now had to state openly that they did not want Moslems.

Supporting Greek demands on the name issue may be rewarded by a Greek veto, so that EU leaders can blame the non-accession of Macedonia on Greece, rather than having to say openly: “We do not want a ticking ethnic bomb where our interventions have already failed so miserably”.

Future historians will know better whether this makes any sense.



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