Macedonia: A Name Worth Fighting For

9 MINS READFeb 3, 2018 | 15:05 GMT
  • After years of deadlock, Greece and Macedonia are looking to finally solve their name dispute, which is at its core about much more than semantics.
  • Domestic politics in both countries will complicate the process.
  • Regardless of the outcome, the conflict demonstrates that questions of national identity still often supersede other considerations. 

Greece and Macedonia have spent decades bitterly arguing over the latter's name, but recent developments have put the two on better terms than they've been in years. Officials from both countries have met several times since mid-2017; most recently, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met his Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, where they exchanged gestures of goodwill and promised to continue negotiations to resolve their differences. Then from Jan. 30-31, a U.N. mediator visited Athens and Skopje to build bridges between the governments. These are not minor developments for two countries that have spent decades accusing each other of trying to steal the other's identity and territory.

The conflict between Greece and Macedonia has its roots in historical, cultural, geographic and political factors. Greece accuses Macedonia of appropriating figures and symbols that are part of Greek culture, such as Alexander the Great and the Vergina Sun (a symbol present in ancient Greek art). From the Greek perspective, people in Macedonia, who speak a Slavic language, do not have the right to identify as "Macedonian," a label claimed by millions of Greek speakers. Greek authorities also believe that by using the name "Macedonia," the government in Skopje is making veiled territorial claims over the Greek province of the same name.

In fact, many Macedonian nationalists do believe that their country has been unlawfully partitioned and occupied. These nationalists argue that the ancient Macedonians were a distinct people with their own language, customs and identity. Ancient Macedonians, they claim, saw the Greeks as their neighbors, not as their kinsmen, and, from their point of view, the same is true for modern Macedonians. Some even argue that Macedonian ancestral lands belonging to Greece and other countries in the region today are being occupied.

The conflict can be traced back as far as you want to go. You could say it started in the second Balkan War in 1913, when Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria partitioned Macedonia; or you could say it began with the emergence of Macedonian nationalism against Ottoman rule in the 1870s; or you could even say it began in the fourth century B.C., when Alexander the Great and his father, Philip II, made their big conquests. But the modern conflict erupted in 1991, when Macedonia became an independent republic after the collapse of Yugoslavia, of which it was a part. The Greek government opposed the international recognition of the young republic, objecting to its name, Republic of Macedonia; its flag, which included a Vergina Sun; and its constitution, which allegedly included territorial claims over its neighboring countries.

Athens and Skopje found a compromise in 1993, when they agreed that the new country would be officially designated the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Still, this led to byzantine debates. In one instance, Macedonia refused to comply with Greek demands to seat its representative under the letter "F" or "T" (for "former" and "the") at the U.N. General Assembly and insisted on using the letter "M." Greece ultimately got its way, and the Macedonian representative was seated next to his counterpart from Thailand. Then in 1995 Macedonia agreed to change its flag, removing the Vergina Sun and adopting a less controversial design.

Since then, several rounds of negotiations have taken place between Greek and Macedonian politicians to find a permanent solution. Macedonia aspires to eventually join the European Union and NATO, but Greece, a member of both organizations, has veto power. Over time, many name proposals have been made, such as adding a geographic qualifier to the word Macedonia (for example, "Upper Macedonia" or "Northern Macedonia") or using a Slavic iteration, "Makedonia." But political calculations and deep-rooted nationalism on both sides have prevented the parties from reaching an agreement. Relations became particularly cold in the late 2000s, when Greece blocked Macedonia's accession to NATO, while the Macedonian government under the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party pursued a nationalist policy of renaming public buildings and roads after ancient Macedonian figures and erecting statues of Alexander the Great and Philip II across the country.

Slow Progress

Greek-Macedonian relations have improved considerably in recent months. In Macedonia, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party was defeated in the general election of late 2016, and a center-left government was appointed in early 2017. The new government is working to strengthen the country's ties with the European Union and NATO, as well as to improve its relations with its neighbors. As a part of this strategy, Macedonia recently signed a friendship agreement with Bulgaria, another country with which it shares a tempestuous history. And it is seeking a permanent solution to the name dispute with Athens, though this is easier said and done.

On top of the traditional problems between the two countries, there are more immediate obstacles to a solution. Greece is currently governed by a coalition of two parties, Tsipras' left wing Syriza and the right-wing Independent Greeks. Syriza is divided on the Macedonia issue, and the Independent Greeks reject any proposals that include the word "Macedonia," meaning an agreement between Athens and Skopje could lead to the collapse of Greece's governing coalition. At the same time, Greece's main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, opposes negotiations with Macedonia. Furthermore, nationalist organizations have recently held demonstrations in several Greek cities to oppose the use of the name Macedonia, and even the Greek Orthodox Church (which is still a relevant political player in the country) is skeptical of the current negotiations.

Seeking a permanent solution to Skopje's name dispute with Athens is easier said and done.

On the Macedonian side, Zaev leads a fragile multi-party coalition government that may not survive a serious debate over the name dispute, especially if Athens asks Macedonia to reform its constitution and eliminate the articles that Greece believes include irredentist claims. Moreover, Macedonia's president, Gjorge Ivanov, is a member of VMRO-DPMNE and may decide to veto an agreement with Greece.

Any agreement between Athens and Skopje would also probably have to be put to a referendum in both countries, and the outcome would be difficult to predict. Cyprus offers an interesting precedent of such a situation; In 2004, Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot authorities reached an agreement on the reunification of the island, which was put to a vote in both territories. While northern Cypriots voted in favor of reunification, people in the south voted against it, killing the agreement and freezing negotiations for a decade.

The Politics of Identity 

The Greece-Macedonia name dispute boils down to a clash of two national narratives, with each country defending what it perceives as its legitimate rights over a territory, a history and even a word. Identity politics are strong in the Balkans, a region where geography and history have produced fragmentation and conflict. In this part of the world, ethno-linguistic groups use strong national narratives to justify their control of territory. This often includes the manipulation of history and the utilization of an enemy (either real or invented) to justify domestic policies. But identity politics is not exclusive to the Balkans, and at its core the Greece-Macedonia dispute is not that different from other disputes around the planet (for example, the Israel-Palestine conflict).

Identity politics is a particularly sensitive issue for the European Union, an entity that was created to overcome nationalism and dilute ethnic identities into a broader European sense of belonging. Identity doesn't have to be so problematic, because people can have more than one identity. In fact, many people in the European Union identify themselves both as nationals of their country and as "European," even if only secondarily. But they are an issue that the bloc is still uneasy with, because its very existence necessarily raises questions about identity, loyalty and legitimacy. Seven decades after its birth, the European Union still struggles to answer the question of whether the ultimate goal of the process of Continental integration is to replace national identities with a supranational one.

Identity politics are strong in the Balkans, a region where geography and history have produced fragmentation and conflict. In this part of the world, ethno-linguistic groups use strong national narratives to justify their control of territory.

Considering Europe's cultural and linguistic diversity, the emergence of a single, European identity analogous to a national one seems improbable. Any attempts to supplant national identities with a pan-European identity would probably generate a strong reaction in most member states, the same way that attempts to deprive Macedonians from what they perceive as their national identity generates resistance in the country. But the current status quo in the European Union constantly brings up issues of legitimacy and solidarity. If the citizens of the union shared a strong, primary identification with the Continental bloc, issues such as transferring funds from wealthy to poorer regions, East-West migration or the creation of a European army would be easier to address.

It's All in the Name

To outsiders, the Greek-Macedonian conflict may seem petty or absurd. The fact that two countries have spent decades debating over events that happened 25 centuries ago is hard to understand for people not invested in the dispute, especially considering both parties would probably benefit from a solution. A stable, prosperous Macedonia belonging to both the European Union and NATO would mark significant progress for a region defined by political instability and economic weakness. Macedonia would be able to work toward normalizing its position in the international arena, and Greece would have a friend on its northern border.

But the Greek-Macedonian dispute is intrinsically connected to the issue of national identity, which often trumps any economic or institutional arguments. The world may be growing increasingly globalized, but most people still identify themselves with the place where they come from or live. The name of that place is not a minor issue for them, as it is linked to their identity and a shared sense of history and culture. This explains why Athens does not want Skopje to use a name that many Greeks think does not belong to their northern neighbors, while many Macedonians don't want to relinquish a name that they believe defines their culture. The recent diplomatic efforts by Athens and Skopje may therefore not be enough to solve a dispute that is deeply connected to the core beliefs and identities of the two countries involved. 

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