By Lee Berthiaume
After years of calling Macedonia the FYROM, the government last week abruptly dropped the practice, pleasing the Macedonians, angering the Greeks, and prompting speculation about motive.
Leaders of Canada's Greek community have vowed to punish the Conservative Party in the next election if it continues to call one of Greece's northern neighbours the Republic of Macedonia.
"We will, of course, voice our displeasure in the next federal election," Sotiris Sotiropoulos, president of the Greater Toronto Greek Canadian Association, said in an interview on Parliament Hill on Monday.
"And we ask ourselves: 'In what way does this benefit Canada?'"
Last week it was revealed that the Department of Foreign Affairs had changed its website to reflect a new government policy.
A well-placed source said the decision came straight from the Prme Minister's office.
Canada will continue to refer to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as such at the United Nations and other international bodies, but will call the country the Republic of Macedonia in bilateral dealings, a spokesperson in Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's office said.
When Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, a number of independent states emerged. One of those wanted to call itself the Republic of Macedonia. But Greece vehemently opposed the idea, saying it implied ownership of a northern Greek province of the same name where Alexander the Great was born.
It was agreed that the country would be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia until the dispute could be settled, and the UN and other international bodies, as well as the majority of countries, still refer to it under that name or as FYROM.
In 1992, Greek-Canadians marched on Parliament Hill in a successful effort to stop Canada from calling the country the Republic of Macedonia. Canada agreed to refer to the country as FYROM, a practice that continued until last week.
Several countries, including the United States, Russia and China, recognize the country as the Republic of Macedonia.
Mr. Bernier's spokesperson did not reveal why the decision was made at this time, and issued only a brief statement.
" Canada does not wish to be limited in its relations with either the Republic of Macedonia or any other country because of their dispute over its name," the spokesperson said in a email statement.
"We have therefore decided to take a pragmatic approach and to refer, in our bilateral relations with the Republic of Macedonia, to the name by which the country calls itself in its constitution and within its own borders.
" Canada intends to continue to respect established practices and consensus within the UN and other international bodies," the spokesperson added. "This means that in many such bodies, Canada will be referring to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."
The spokesperson said a wide range of countries use this approach before describing Greece as "a valued NATO ally and partner for Canada on key global issues."
"We expect our bilateral relationship [with Greece] to remain strong."
Possible Domestic Fallout
The distinction, however, has done little to ease Greece's anger over the policy change.
"We are not happy with this decision," the Greek foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis would be contacting Mr. Bernier to "express the Greek government's dissatisfaction and to reiterate the firmness and resolve of Greece's policy on the name issue."
The statement also hinted at possible domestic fallout for the Conservatives, saying: "It is only natural that the hundreds of thousands of Greeks living in Canada will also be displeased with this decision."
There are about half a million Canadians of Greek descent.
An official at the Greek Embassy in Ottawa said Ms. Bakoyannis and Mr. Bernier met at the UN in New York on Sunday, where the Greek foreign minister expressed her disappointment with the decision, but it was unclear whether any agreement or resolution had been reached.
Mr. Sotiropoulos, who was joined by members of the Canadian Hellenic Congress and Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, who was born in Greece, described the decision as a "double-blow" to Greece on the part of Canada.
"This is a double-blow within the same month. Not long ago, the government of Canada failed to provide aid to Greece during the catastrophic fire disaster Greece was faced with," he said.
The Greek community leaders also raised concerns that rather than abide by the UN's decision to let the two countries resolve the dispute on their own, Canada was ignoring the world body.
The Greek community leaders warned they could call for an even larger protest on Parliament Hill than what appeared in 1992, when tens of thousands marched.
One question that plagued the community leaders was the reason for the decision, with speculation it may have to do with CANDU nuclear reactors, or Macedonian involvement in NATO and the Afghanistan mission. The U.S. is reported to have adopted the Republic of Macedonia usage in part because of the country's involvement in Iraq.
"We're going to have to wait until the government makes a statement to determine what the exact benefits are," said Antonis Antoniadis, vice-president of administration and secretary of the Canadian Hellenic Congress.
"One thing we do question is the timing of the decision. Why now and why not three weeks ago? Or why not next year, for example? Is there anything else that makes that decision materialize or push it to where it is today?"
Mr. Karygiannis also wondered whether the policy would apply to other countries involved in naming disputes, such as Somaliland, Burma and Taiwan.
Mr. Bernier's spokesperson said the policy applies only to this particular case.
Embassy Mum on Reason
Slavica Dimovska, first secretary at the Macedonian Embassy in Ottawa, said her government is pleased with the decision, but that the country's diplomatic practice was to restrict its comments on the matter.
"We would like to assure you that the Republic of Macedonia and Canada will continue to develop bilateral relations in every field," she added. "We are especially proud of our co-operation together with more than 30 other countries in Afghanistan, la Francophonie, and other common engagements."
Ms. Dimovska also noted that her country is working toward membership in the European Union and NATO, and "that we are dedicated to building very good and friendly relations with our neighbours, including Greece."
She would not comment, however, on whether the Macedonian government had been told the reason for the Canadian government's decision.
Jim Sarkovski, treasurer of the American-Canadian Macedonian Orthodox Diocese, the largest Macedonian church group in North America, commended the government on the move, describing it as a "bold decision, which in our eyes serves to stabilize the Republic of Macedonia."
"We [Macedonian-Canadians] also feel like we can walk a little bit taller."
Rather than driving a wedge between the Greek and Macedonian communities in Canada, Mr. Sarkovski said, the decision would help put the issue to rest and allow the two communities to move forward together.
He couldn't say what had prompted the Canadian government to recognize the Republic of Macedonia, saying it was likely a combination of pressure from the embassy, the 200,000-strong Macedonian community, and political environment, such as the country's desire to join NATO.
"Which straw broke the camel's back? Who knows," he said.
Liberal MP Lui Temelkovski, who is of Macedonian descent and who tabled a private member's bill earlier this year calling for Canada to recognize the Republic of Macedonia, applauded the decision.
"I think it's great," he said. "The community has been waiting for this for a long, long time."
He added that the move will enhance the world's view of Canada.
NDP Foreign Affairs critic Alexa McDonough said it's important Canada not stick its nose into and further complicate affairs between two countries.
In addition, there was an accepted process for dealing with the issue, "and I think it really important that Canada not complicate or sidestep those processes.
"I think we should still be trying in every way possible to encourage a negotiated settlement between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," she said. "In one way, the Canadian government is abandoning that notion and going with the flow in giving up on seeing a negotiated solution, and I think that's unfortunate."