Macedonia, or the chronicles of an explosive name

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Emma Giraud, Translated by Lorène Weber

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Macedonia, or the chronicles of an explosive name
Statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, capital of the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. This historic figure, as the name ’Macedonia", is claimed by FYROM and Greece. CC Flickr

The World Economic Forum in Davos: its snow-covered landscapes, its leaders and influential businessmen… and the “Macedonian dispute”. Indeed, the Forum held from 23 to 26 January was the occasion for the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev to meet. Both made progress with the burning issue over the name ’Macedonia’ (the “naming dispute”), claimed by both countries in virtue of their historical and cultural heritages. Where does this toponymic dispute come from? What is at stake for the two Balkan countries?

What if we were finally witnessing the end of a conflict which has been lasting for more than 25 years? Greece and Macedonia (let’s use its official acronym FYROM, for Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to avoid any unacceptable diplomatic blunder) seem to have made progress regarding FYROM’s name change. The country has been independent since 1991 but is still named by its temporary acronym.

For 25 years, Greece has refused to recognise its Northern neighbour as ’Macedonia’, considering that only its northern province (whose capital is Thessaloniki) can be named Macedonia. In response, FYROM retorts its right to be named Macedonia as well, by stating that its territory was also part of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia, whose most renowned sovereign was Alexander the Great. More than just a name, both countries are quarrelling on a whole part of their history. Nonetheless, the meeting in the wings of the Davos summit is a first positive sign, since mutual concessions were made: while Skopje accepts to rename its international airport and its main motorway, currently named ’Alexander the Great’, Athens accepts to support FYROM’s candidacy to EU and NATO membership. Greece would also accept a new name containing the word ’Macedonia’. However, the case is not closed yet as extreme nationalisms remain a threat.

Why are two countries tearing each other apart for a geographic name?

This quarrel probably seems quite odd for many European countries, but it has been poisoning the diplomatic relations in the Southern Balkans for a quarter of a century. But why? To understand the situation, one should contextualise the importance of national identity and of the building of the nation state in the Balkans. Just like in Central and Eastern Europe and unlike Western Europe, the concept of nation preceded the apparition of a State. The claimed existence of the Greek nation, the Serbian nation, the Romanian nation or the Albanian nation preceded the independence of Greece, Serbia, Romania or Albania.

The yoke of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted almost five centuries in the Balkans, explains the late development of the States. Greece became independent in 1822 (at the time, Greece was made of the Peloponnese and the Attic). Most of the other Balkan states emerged at the end of the 19th century or even at the beginning of the 20th. FYROM is an exception: before 1991, it had never been a sovereign state, weakening at the same time the stabilisation of its political system. The prestigious ancient heritage combined with a much more dramatic modern history thus galvanises national pride in Greece and in the FYROM. The “naming dispute” is at the heart of an identity crisis.

’FYROM’ or ’Macedonia’: in fact, which differences?

While reading this article, one could shrug thinking “Yes, and so? What are the differences between Macedonia and FYROM?” Unfortunately for the former Yugoslav Republic, the consequences have been serious. The country has never been able to join any Euro-Atlantic organisations due to the systematic Greek veto to its candidacy. During a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, the leaders of the member countries agreed that FYROM would be invited to start membership talks, as soon as a solution for the country’s name would be found together with Greece.

FYROM applied for EU membership in March 2004 and was given the status of candidate country in 2005. In addition to administrative and economic challenges, the naming dispute is also an obstacle to a quick integration. The complete non-integration of the country in Western organisations, together with an instable regional environment (the Western Balkans have not totally recovered yet from the Yugoslav Wars), is an impediment to the FYROM’s stabilisation, which is also in the grip of important ethnic and nationalist tensions.

The Tsipras-Zaev compromise is far from winning unanimous support

Greek and Macedonian nationalisms are indeed the main threats for the compromise found during the Davos summit. On 21 January, almost 50,000 people protested in Athens against the use of the name ’Macedonia’ by the northern neighbour. Most of the Greeks are also against the use of ’Macedonia’ in the country’s new name, regardless of the adjective beside. The UN emissary in charge of this case, Matthew Nimetz, has indeed proposed names such as Northern Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia or even New Macedonia.

Macedonian nationalism echoes Greek nationalism. Before the social-democrat Zoran Zaev was appointed as Prime Minister, the country was led by the nationalists of the VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity), inevitably hostile to a compromise on the use of the name ’Macedonia’. This party particularly “distinguished” itself last year for causing conflicts at the Macedonian National Assembly. The Tsipras-Zaev compromise thus appears far from winning unanimous support. Yet, it would be in both countries’ interests to agree on this issue in order to begin a cultural and economic cooperation, as their economies are weak and their traditions shared.

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