Alexis Tsipras Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

Greece's prime minister, together with his partner in Macedonia, has created a model for solving identity clashes across the globe.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at the European Council summit in Brussels on March 22. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at the European Council summit in Brussels on March 22. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

The two leaders who deserve the Nobel Peace Prize did not meet this week in Singapore. Instead, they will meet Sunday on the banks of a clear, freshwater lake that borders Greece, Macedonia, and Albania. Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia — a country on track to be known formally as North Macedonia — will sign an agreement to resolve the bitter decades-long conflict over Macedonia’s name.

In fact, the deal does much more than that. It creates a model for addressing identity clashes that drive conflict not only in the Balkans but across the globe. A stinging rebuke to Russia and to its populist cronies in Europe, the agreement injects a timely boost of confidence in the European Union and the entire Western project for the Balkans. The agreement still faces stiff opposition from nationalists in both countries who have assailed their respective leader as a traitor. To avoid that outcome, it’s urgent that Tsipras and Zaev gain not just support, but worldwide acclaim.

Long mocked by diplomats as ridiculous, the Greek objection to Macedonia’s name — and the prideful Macedonian response — are rooted in the most basic questions of identity. Nowhere is the question posed more acutely than in the Balkans, where adding as little as a vowel to a word or an extra kiss to the cheek can immediately signal disrespect. Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks, and Albanians and Serbs, all fought bitter wars over territory claimed as national patrimony. The struggle over national identity continues to infuse politics throughout the region as parties vie to ensure that “we,” as opposed to “the other,” get our due, speak our language, fly our flag, dominate our economy.

What makes the Macedonian case so vexing is the persistent challenge to the very existence of a Macedonian identity by its three larger, more powerful neighbors, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. (The region’s other squabbling peoples at least acknowledge the existence of the other.) While nominally recognizing the Macedonian state, each of these countries has advanced a narrative that has undermined it. Bulgaria challenges the Macedonian language, Serbia the independent Macedonian Orthodox Church, and a dominant narrative in Greece holds that there is no such thing as a non-Greek Macedonia. Macedonia is not just “Greek,” but “Greece” under this exclusivist concept has its roots in the vicious Greek Civil War.

Beneath the identity challenges lie latent territorial claims and fears. If Macedonians are considered to have no language, no church, no true national identity, some may conclude they have no right to a nation-state. The territorial threats are more than hypothetical. Borders in the Balkans are widely, and dangerously, seen as malleable. Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo dream of seceding. A leading Albanian party in Kosovo openly calls for union with Albania. In 2001, Albanians and Macedonians clashed violently in a brewing conflict that might easily have resulted in another Balkan territorial contest. To end that conflict, the majority ethnic Macedonians had to grant the large Albanian minority a host of identity concessions including the right to fly the Albanian flag, widely seen as an open expression of affection toward another state.

In sum, Macedonian stability has been tested internally by a restive minority which, given its druthers, would secede, and externally by three domineering neighbors, which would fancy a claim to the rump territory. Besides wounded national pride, Macedonia’s aspirations to join NATO and the European Union have been thwarted by Greece, which vetoed the country’s accession to NATO a decade ago and has also exploited its membership in the EU to prevent Macedonia from opening negotiations to join the union. The Greek embargo on membership for Macedonia has raised tensions, as Albanians in Macedonia resent being penalized over an issue that means little to them.

The name dispute has languished so long for the simple reason that it has caused less pain to the larger, more powerful party, Greece. This is what makes Tsipras’s vision so extraordinary. Unlike nearly all his predecessors, Tsipras grasped, first, the benefit from ridding Greece of an unnecessary burden in its NATO and EU relations, as well as its relations with a neighbor. Second, Tsipras saw opportunity in the arrival of his reformist counterpart in Skopje, Zaev. The Macedonian Prime Minister is desperate to see his country finally enter NATO and join the EU, stabilize, and attract investment.

As in most long-standing disputes, the negotiations were complex and concerned far more than just the country’s name. A delicate sequence had to be agreed to — including a national referendum in Macedonia and a vote in the Greek parliament that still gives spoilers like Russia an opportunity to disrupt the deal.

For Moscow and for anti-establishment populists across Europe, the agreement is a blow. It re-establishes NATO and the EU as vital organizations that can still motivate vulnerable political leaders to make difficult compromises. In their actions and words, Tsipras and Zaev have rebutted the canard that supranational institutions are irrelevant and that only nation-states matter.

For disputants in the Balkans who would like to redraw borders, the agreement is also a serious blow. With NATO membership on the early horizon, Macedonia’s borders are assured, posing a serious complication to those who would carve up neighboring Kosovo. The agreement heralds progress for Bosnia, too, which may finally advance to the penultimate stage before NATO membership thereby thwarting schemes to divide the country. As a sense of permanence settles on Bosnia, the prospects for finally coming to terms with its deep-set constitutional problems rise. With NATO and the EU resurgent, the largest country in the region, Serbia, may finally jettison its dalliance with Russia and choose definitively to ally itself with the West.

For antagonists around the world locked in identity disputes, the agreement between Macedonia and Greece is, if it survives political challenge, a model. The deal proves that seemingly intractable, zero-sum disputes over highly emotive issues can, with good will and good reason, be parsed.

Of course, none of these benefits will be realized if spoilers manage to derail the agreement either in Skopje or Athens. That’s why it’s essential that the world stand up and support the efforts of two genuine peacemakers who have invested the time and political risk to forge a serious, exacting agreement to overcome a decades-long dispute. In this case, it is not at all too soon to talk Nobel Peace Prize.

Edward P. Joseph teaches conflict management at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.  He served on the ground for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the US Army, and as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.