Dispute over the name “Macedonia”? It already existed. The conflict broke out in the 1990s when the small Balkan state became independent after the breakup of Yugoslavia – with the name “Republic of Macedonia”. This caused a wave of indignation in neighboring Greece. It was about national feelings, perhaps much more: the name “Macedonia” would result in territorial claims from the Slavic neighbors to the province of Macedonia in northern Greece – according to the Greek side’s argument.

There were lengthy negotiations under UN mediation. Name constructions such as “Republic of New Macedonia” or “Upper Macedonia” were discussed. Six years ago, the then left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Athens and his Social Democratic counterpart Zoran Zaev in Skopje were finally able to agree on a compromise: Greece’s northern neighbor has since been called “North Macedonia” after the so-called Prespa agreement.

The contract was signed at Lake Prespa, in the border triangle of Albania, North Macedonia and Greece. A little later, the renamed Balkan state was able to join NATO. Membership in the EU is still a long time coming.

When she took her oath of office on Saturday (May 11, 2024), the new President of North Macedonia, Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova, simply omitted the syllable “North”. “I declare that I will carry out the office of President of Macedonia diligently and responsibly, respect the constitution and laws and protect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Macedonia,” said the politician from the nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE.

The Greek ambassador then left the parliamentary chamber in protest. In Athens, conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke of an “illegal and unacceptable process” that “represents a violation of the Prespa agreement”. He threatened to block North Macedonia’s admission to the EU. The country has been a candidate for membership since 2005.

It is not just the Greeks who fear that in North Macedonia the designated Prime Minister and head of the VMRO-DPMNE party Hristijan Mickoski also wants to shake up the Prespa agreement. Both he and the new president had repeatedly announced during the election campaign that they wanted to use the historical name “Macedonia”. People in Brussels are also worried and fear new tensions in the region.

Jorgos Tzogopoulos, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Thrace and a member of the Athens think tank ELIAMEP, is not so worried. He tells DW that the new president’s appearance is clearly a sign of opportunism. “Politicians want to flatter voters and unfortunately often rely on the card of nationalism,” the analyst points out. He does not believe that North Macedonia will escalate the conflict. It is also unlikely that the Greek side will use the latest incident as an opportunity to terminate the Prespa agreement. Because: “This agreement forms the core of bilateral relations and there is no question of that,” said the political scientist.

The events in North Macedonia are not least causing internal strife in Greece. The left-wing opposition leader Stefanos Kasselakis (Syriza) notes that the conservative Prime Minister Mitsotakis is warning his northern neighbor to comply with the Prespa agreement, even though he himself criticized this very agreement as opposition leader in 2018 and voted against it in parliament. With a touch of irony, Kasselakis now comments on X (formerly Twitter): “Apparently the Prespa agreement wasn’t a betrayal after all…”

Mitsotakis is trying to turn the left opposition’s argument around and claims that the most recent incident in the neighboring country has shown how justified his criticism was at the time. However, it is unlikely that he will toughen the tone towards Skopje. According to information from the newspaper Kathimerini, Mitsotakis initially wants to wait and see what course the future government in North Macedonia takes.

However, his government is in no particular hurry to fully implement the Prespa agreement. Three annexes to the agreement, which primarily concern changes to monuments and textbooks, have still not been ratified in the Greek Parliament. Political scientist Tzogopoulos believes that this delay has to do with political constraints in Athens. “The ruling conservatives can no longer reverse the Prespa agreement. But they can at least tell their voters that they are not working fully to implement them,” explains the analyst.

The original for this article “In the name of “Macedonia”: Old dispute, reignited” comes from Deutsche Welle.