What's in a name? In Macedonia, this is no easy question.

In an interview, Macedonia's new president, Gjorge Ivanov, says he hopes to resolve a long-simmering name dispute with Greece.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    Newly elected Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov takes an oath before the Parliament in Skopje on May 12.
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At first glance, being Macedonia's president has never been better.

With the opening of a grand villa residence surrounded by shady pines, high on the slopes of Mt. Vodno overlooking Skopje, banished forever is the former ignominious reality of presidents sharing space in the antiquated parliament building downtown, almost 18 years since the small Balkan country declared independence from Yugoslavia on Sept. 8, 1991.

Despite the tranquility of his elevated quarters, however, the new residence's first occupant, who was inaugurated May 12, won't have time to relax.

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Despite never having held public office, political science professor Gjorge Ivanov – once a student leader in the pro-democracy movement that helped topple communism in Eastern Europe – won in April as the candidate of the ruling center-right VMRO-DPMNE party.

Professor Ivanov campaigned under the slogan of "One for All." Indeed, considerable teamwork, consensus building, and foreign support – especially from the United States – will be essential for him to navigate through one of the most intractable, and certainly the strangest, of issues in the Balkans today: the dispute with Greece over Macedonia's right to its chosen name.

The name issue has been manipulated by politicians in both Athens and Skopje ever since Macedonia's independence. Greece immediately protested, claiming that the existence of its own, eponymous northern province, and issues of ancient historical heritage, precluded the possibility of a state named Macedonia.

In 1995, following a crippling Greek economic embargo, the "provisional" name of "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" was applied to allow the country to attain United Nations membership.

However, the Republic of Macedonia retains its constitutional name, and most countries (including the US) recognize it thus.

Nevertheless, Greece has used its political and economic might to block its smaller and weaker neighbor's international development – notably at last year's NATO summit in Bucharest, where Athens torpedoed Macedonia's anticipated NATO invitation. Despite personal pleas from then-President Bush, Greece held firm – no name change, no membership.

Since then, nationalism has hardened in both countries, and with it, foreign pressure to reach a compromise solution through UN-brokered talks.

In his visit to the region earlier this week, US Vice President Joseph Biden urged Balkan nations to integrate more with a unified Europe rather than focus on ethnic and national differences.

"When will this region tire of the sickening excessive nationalism that generates such carnage?" Mr. Biden asked, during a speech Thursday in neighboring Kosovo.

A changing of the guard

The chronic antagonism between President Ivanov's predecessor, Branko Crvenkovski, and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski stymied cooperation on reaching a unified negotiating position for tackling the name dispute; unhelpfully, both leaders publicly attacked each other's proposals.

Longtime chief of the rival Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM), Mr. Crvenkovski was politically opposed to the ruling party and its government. (Since stepping down upon President Ivanov's inauguration, Crvenkovski has returned to the SDSM, and intends to restore the once-powerful party's sagging fortunes).

After the VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in 2006 and again in 2008, the animosity between Gruevski and Crvenkovski became a comfortable excuse for not solving the name dispute.

However, with his nominating party controlling both government and parliament, Ivanov acknowledges that "now, there is no excuse for any of us to not solve the major problems facing the country" – including the name dispute.

Indeed, Mr. Gruevski, Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Milososki, and the president recently met to create a common strategy for future name-dispute negotiations.

Nevertheless, foreign diplomats often sigh in despair at the apparently insurmountable gulf between the Greek and Macedonian positions.

Various proposed "compromise names" have been rejected by either Athens or Skopje. Other issues have also started to creep in, such as arguments over Macedonian identity and language, Greece's contested Macedonian minority, and arcane spats over ancient history and Alexander the Great.

Keeping it simple

According to Ivanov, such extraneous issues should be avoided; here, he echoes the American position expressed by US Ambassador Philip Reeker, who recently told Macedonian media that "the issue is [simply] about the name; that's why we call it a 'name' issue."

Ivanov is grateful for America's support, and plans to visit Macedonian troops supporting US peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan.

In his spacious office, Ivanov prominently displays the first flag flown over the recently opened American Embassy in Skopje – a personal gift from Ambassador Reeker. A colossal structure overlooking the River Vardar, the embassy seems to reaffirm America's strong commitment here.

Behind the name

In a fractious region where minority rights and ethnic grievances still simmer, there's clearly more at stake than nomenclature. Greeks call their northern neighbors "Slavo-Macedonians," evoking modern Macedonians' Slavic roots. Macedonians consider this demeaning because, among other things, the name excludes non-Slavic minorities like Albanians and Turks – groups comprising more than 30 percent of Macedonia's population.

The new president is keenly aware of such dangers. "If we follow the logic of addressing questions that were not originally part of the talks, like identity and language, we are addressing subjects that divide, not unite," he notes, referring to Macedonia's multiethnic character, and the celebrated old French concept of a salade Macédoine.

"There are different ingredients in the salad," quips the president. "Nevertheless, each one keeps its unique flavor."

Time for action?

According to Ivanov, the government's team will intensify activities following Greece's June European Parliament elections. Although Greek media has reported that UN mediator Matthew Nimitz will visit both countries next month, with summer holidays about to begin, it's likely that real talks won't start until autumn.

While avoiding specifics, the president notes two key conditions for a resolution.

Macedonia seeks a "reasonable compromise," he says, not one reached "under pressure or coercion – but a compromise made according to the Macedonian constitution, by which the sovereign right of the citizens to agree is respected, by referendum."

The idea of a final referendum was originally broached by Prime Minister Gruevski, and is as much about smart politicking as public rights.

Any solution the government might agree to with the Greeks, leaders fear, will inevitably be criticized by the opposition as "anti-Macedonian."

The same holds true for Greek internal politics. Any solution agreed by the Greek government is bound to be assailed as national betrayal by the domestic opposition, meaning a public referendum could be called there also.

And, if Greece's rumored 2009 parliamentary elections do occur, name negotiations will again be postponed.

Currently, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's Nea Dimokratia party, battered by corruption scandals and social unrest, holds a slim parliamentary majority.

Behind the scenes, international diplomats are already courting the rival PASOK center-left party – conceivably, reempowered with the next elections.

Meanwhile, Macedonia's new president has been undertaking his own diplomatic endeavors.

"On my first working day, I went to Brussels," says Ivanov, "to meet representatives of the EU and NATO. I went because I wanted to show them I really mean what I promised in my campaign."

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