New Europe: Zaev’s “Ilinden Gambit” melts down in Athens and Skopje

Ignoring opposition parties, Trump Administration ratchets up pressure for a solution


Within 24 hours of the end of bilateral discussions on the sidelines of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Sofia late last week, a new potential name — the Republic of Ilinden Macedonia — proposed by Macedonia Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in his close private sessions with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, leaked out of Skopje.

By the weekend, the main opposition parties in both countries quickly rejected this new proposal as irredentist or otherwise unacceptable, but it is not yet off the table. Foreign pressure for an agreement before the summer EU and NATO summits appears to be increasing steadily as the action now shifts to the US where a new round of discussions between both countries’ foreign ministers is being called by UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz for May 24-25.

It is unclear what role the United Nations played in formulating this new proposal or if it was simply a fresh Zaev government idea. What is clear is that Zaev received a warm enough reception from Tsipras when he proposed it May 16 or 17 that he made extremely positive statements to his country’s media even before the Greek government could examine the proposal in detail. Almost as soon as the Republic of Ilinden Macedonia  proposal — a reference, which before that day meant absolutely nothing to over 90% of the Greek population — was leaked via the press in Macedonia, a statement of strong opposition was issued by Greece’s New Democracy party, who are substantially favoured to win the next election, and therefore a key factor.

New Democracy issued a strongly worded statement regarding the Ilinden proposal, saying, “This name is linked historically and directly with an intent to create a “Macedonian” nation and state, one that includes Thessaloniki and extends to the Aegean Sea. Whatever reference to Ilinden in the name of the neighbouring country, not only fails to end irredentism in Skopje but to the contrary, confirms and strengthens it… this is unacceptable, even for discussion.”

Within Macedonia, things also seemed to careen off course. After meeting with Zaev on May 20, the leader of the VMRO-DPMNE party, Hristijan Mickoski, announced that the “VMRO-DPMNE, will not support a change to the constitution with the goal to change the constitutional name.” The VMRO-DPMNE is the main opposition party, and Zaev has no hope of passing key constitutional revisions in the 120-seat Parliament without the party’s support.

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