My neighbor was an election monitor with the OSCE for the recent referendum in Macedonia, and he told me that the Macedonians had an interesting take on our election: It was really all about Balkan politics. Now, that seems absurd on its face, but the Macedonians aren't simply feeling their oats because of the imminent Oliver Stone biopic of Alexander the Great. Before we get to that, let's first return to the Bush administration's decision on November 4th to recognize the country as the Republic of Macedonia.
It had been known as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" ever since Yugoslavia was, well, former. This is how the CIA's World Factbook still has it listed in fact; clearly, they have other things on their minds at the moment. Under Macedonia's constitution it had declared the name R of M, but no one recognized it as such due to strenuous objections from Greece, which has some clout on matters diplomatic as a member of NATO and the EU. Greece has a Macedonia of its own, a northern province as well as the home of Colin Farrell's next role. It seemed the FYRoM was stuck with its rather awkward name.
To make matters even more convoluted, the referendum in Macedonia would have overturned a law respecting the rights of the Albanian minority to a semblance of home rule. For the vote to be valid, at least half of the eligible voters would have to turn out. The government and the OSCE, therefore, were in the unusual position of asking people not to vote so as to defeat the nationalist proposal. (The government knew that if it had any chance of getting into the EU, the referendum would have to lose.) Yes, my neighbor was there to be a poll watcher in the hopes that no one would show up to the polls.
The name change had always been in the back pocket of the U.S. and the Europeans in order to exert leverage over the Macedonians. The problem, however, was this is a reward that could be given only once. One might expect that a sensible administration would wait until after the referendum to make sure the nationalists lost and the rights of the Albanian minority were respected before unfurling the Republic of Macedonia banner. As we have seen on many an occasion, this is not a sensible administration. Instead, the announcement was made three days before Macedonians (non-)voted.
The Greeks were furious, as were Greek-Americans. According to Agence France Presse, the Greek president said that the R of M had "historically unsubstantiated, irredentist claims on our country." Hyperbole, yes, but you see the problem. So why would Bush do such a thing, and why would he make it his first big post-election foreign policy move?
This is where things get even more interesting. In the eyes of Macedonian-Macedonians, Macedonian-Americans tipped the election to Bush. What, you ask? But I thought the religious right had mobilized their way to victory! Oh, they did, but this strange little story of Balkan diplomacy can be traced to good ole 'merican horsetrading.
John Kerry had received ringing endorsements from the Greek-American community, in part due to his assurances that he wouldn't fiddle with the name of the FYRoM. George Bush, on the other hand, received support from the Macedonian-Americans. It just so happens that Ohio has a large (for Macedonians) and well-organized population, including four of the 18 Macedonian Orthodox Church dioceses in the U.S. The Macedonian American Friendship Association is based in Columbus, though another group called the Macedonian American National Organization is in Chicago. (The latter group's campaign is "Call Me By My Name." No word on whether it's sponsored by Destiny's Child.) Bush, you see, was just fulfilling a quiet campaign promise, though one with potentially strong implications for Balkan politics. Ah, details.
Granted, we're still talking only a few thousand votes, but it was Ohio. The ease with which Bush caved on the name, and the very odd timing -- almost immediately after the U.S. election but prior to the Macedonian referedum -- makes it smell less like smart foreign policy and more like a post-election payoff. Maybe those Macedonians were onto something.
And it makes me dread even more the payoff for the religious right...