Will a resurgent self-belief and Turkish pressure lead to disdain for EU membership?
The recent confusion over Macedonia's ascension process into the EU is publically put down to to an upsurge in authoritarianism in the Balkan nation, and an outpouring of patriotic fervour that has seen relations with Greece and other Balkan states awkwardly - and needlessly - complicated. The EU's annual report has discovered that Macedonia has made no progress: indeed, it has backtracked on media freedoms and has halted all its efforts to improve the rule of law. But the scorn hasn't all been poured one way: Macedonia has retaliated in kind.
The sunshine state's president, Gjorge Ivanov, was waxing lyrical in a letter, seen by the Macedonia Online. In it, he lambasted the long-standing EU practice of refusing to use the denonym 'Macedonian' to describe the country and people. This was not so much an attack on the EU itself as it was an extension of the Macedonian-Greek feud: the fires lit by the sudden appearance of a statue that looks suspiciously Alexander the Great in Skopje's main square have not yet dampened, and the question of the contested name is as unresolved as ever. Macedonians have become ever more defensive of their national identity at home, and it is no surprise that Ivanov seeks to defend it on foreign shores, as well.
But the latest bout of rhetoric appears to be somewhat orchestrated. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is rumoured to have helped fund an anti-Bulgarian film that portrays the country as responsible for the exile of Jews from the former Yugoslavian state, and then his Finance Minister, Zoran Stavrevski, fired a broadside at the EU in general, saying that: 'it would be better for the EU to simply stop this crisis by making Greece's bankruptcy official.' He also laid the blame firmly for the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border - due to public sector strikes - on the EU's shoulders. Raising the prospect (or, rather, lack of) of financial compensation from the EU for the strike, he said 'the EU knew for more than a decade that Greece is in bad shape. They knew it, and allowed it to happen.'
President Ivanov's letter was addressed to Jose Manuel Barroso himself, EU chief executive and overseer of the ascension process. In defending Macedonian identity, Ivanov has set the EU up firmly as those who would do it harm. And Mr. Stavrevski has apportioned blame in a manner that, avowed Eurosceptic that I am, even I would consider unfair. None of this is remotely sensible if you actually have any intention of joining the EU, nor if you are trying to stir pro-EU sentiment amongst the populace. And all three politicians must be aware of this.
The reasons for this at first appear bewildering: why would Macedonia turn its back on what was once considered its best opportunity for a generation? It was only one date before the latest outburst that Silvio Berlusconi offered his full support to Macedonian entry, so it's not exactly a lost cause, yet. But closer inspection soon reveals the hand of Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's Prime Minister. He has already promised to reward the Macedonian national football team for their home defeat of Armenia - striking a chord with the proud Macedonian nation, for whom their football team is a major source of pride - and to throw a lifetine to the economically-troubled Balkan nation by tripling current trade levels between the two countries. Not only this, but he has gone one step further than Mr. Berlusconi: he not only recognises Macedonia's right to join the EU, but also its right to use whatever name it pleases.
It's fairly natural that the two countries should share some kind of affinity: they are both mutual enemies of Greece. They both have (or had) ambitions to join the EU. And both feel that they have been spurned, and that Greece is partially responsible. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Gruevski met in Skopje last month, and the public dynamic was palpable: they acted as sounding boards for each other's grievances, an effect which is amplified a thousand-fold by the united-we-stand attitude of their respective populations.
If you were Mr. Gruevski, which would you choose? Membership of a club that refuses to recognise the existence of your nation owing to pressure from your bitterest rival, or alliance with a similarly-spurned state which welcomes your claim to nationhood with open arms? It looks like a done deal. Throw in Macedonia's large Turkish minority and an increasingly militaristic and independently-minded popular culture that will brook no compromise, add few sweet words from Tayyip Erdogan, telling the Macedonian populace what they want to hear. the EU has, for the majority of Macedonians and their politicians, lost its glamour.
That doesn't mean that EU membership is off the cards - indeed, for the moment, that appears the most likely route for the country to take. Montenegro, which received the green light to open the first chapters of ascension negotiations, has signed an ascension co-operation deal with Macedonia just this morning. But it appears that the ruling elites in Skopje are fearful that in order to gain entry to the EU the ethnic patchwork of Macedonia will have to surrender one of the most unifying aspects of its national unity - its name. And, for any Balkan nation, that's a big sacrifice to make. The east may well, in time, prove a more attractive and more fulfilling option.