Listen: Professor Vrasidas Karalis in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
The Balkans in Eastern Europe have featured in many critical world events. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand triggered the First World War and some of the final Christian Crusades were to the region.
More recently there were a series of fiercely contested wars, uprisings and insurgencies which raged in the area from 1991 until 2001. They were largely due to ethnic and religious tensions associated with the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.
The people vote
On 30 September 2018 a referendum was held to settle a decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s name. The referendum sought voter approval of an agreement with Greece to rename the small Balkan nation “North Macedonia.”
Professor Vrasidas Karalis is the Chair of Modern Greek Languages and specialises in the language, politics of the region and the Greek diaspora.
“The forthcoming referendum is probably the most important opportunity for resolving an issue which has caused enormous problems between two countries in the Balkans and bitter friction in their diaspora communities in Australia, Canada, Germany and elsewhere.” he says.
A doorway to NATO and the EU
‘“The June 2018 Prespes Agreement between the two countries adds the geographical marker of ‘North Macedonia’ to the official name of the Republic which will allow its participation to the European Union, NATO and other international bodies which Greece vetoed until now and indicates that there are parts of the wider region of Macedonia that belong to other countries.
“The agreement has been strongly contested by nationalists on both sides. The Greek nationalists want the complete elimination of the term ‘Macedonia’ from the official name of the state, while the other side rejects the geographical marker as divesting the country from its cultural specificity. The agreement has met the approval of all major international bodies and only Russia and Turkey, for different reasons, want to stall the process.” says Professor Karalis.
A way forward
“I believe that the agreement, despite its shortcoming and gaps, is the only way forward in a volatile and war-ravaged region. Both governments made concessions and now it’s time for both societies to come together and form a closer lasting partnership.” he says.
“Both countries have more common interests and shared common perspectives for the future and shouldn’t be looking backwards towards a remote past which belongs to the historians and not to the politicians. This is a rare opportunity not to be squandered.” says Professor Karalis.
Polling predicts yes vote
A poll taken ahead of 30 September referendum in Macedonia shows that majority of citizens are planning to vote “yes”. According to the poll, 41.5% intend to vote for the acceptance of the agreement, while 35.1% will vote against. Almost 20% of polled citizens plan to boycott the referendum, while 66.4% are going to cast their vote.
Ethnic groups divided
However, differences between the two biggest ethnic groups in the country are stark: 88% of Albanians support the agreement, while only 27% of ethnic Macedonians do, with 45% being against.
Referendum failed but change continues
Disappointingly, while the vote to change the name was 90% in favour, the referendum did not reach the required voter turnout level of 50%. However, Macedonia’s parliament has stepped in and voted to start the process of renaming the country North Macedonia, a major step towards ending a decades-long stalemate with Greece and opening a door to NATO and the EU.
The procedure to complete constitutional changes is lengthy and requires several rounds of voting, with the parliament’s decision on October 20 being just the first stage. The procedure should be completed by January at the latest.
To listen to the podcast of this conversation click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.