Macedonia established a new government a few weeks ago after several months of political deadlock. Zoran Zaev, the new prime minister, is seen as a potential hero that can save Macedonia from its recent bouts of political turmoil. But not only is Macedonia excited; Greece has been quick to open talks with its northern neighbor. Talks between the Macedonian foreign minister and his Greek counterpart in Athens are supposed to be the start to solving the poisonous issue in Macedonian-Greek relations: Macedonia’s name. Macedonia may be willing to change its name, after more than 20 years of disputes with Greece, said Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia’s foreign minister.
Why would Macedonia agree to this? To get into NATO. Greece blocked Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership back in 2008 over this very issue. Macedonia is recognized as a member of the United Nations under the name FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Macedonian athletes participate in the Olympics under the name FYROM (despite a brief mistake by the Rio Olympics that listed FYROM as Macedonia). This has all been due to Greek lobbying as well.
Macedonia has popular support for keeping its name, with over half of the world’s countries, including the United States, recognizing it as Macedonia. But with growing Russian interference in the Balkan region, the benefits of joining NATO are greater than ever before.
Why Does Greece Care?
The term Macedonia probably most brings to mind Alexander the Great, the king that conquered most of the known world way back in the 4th century BC. Therein lies the problem: both Greece and Macedonia claim Alexander the Great as their ancestor. The name Macedonia gives a strong nationalist connection to Alexander’s heritage. The Greek government is adamant that Alexander and Macedonia are part of Hellenistic culture, the culture of Greece.
Meanwhile Macedonia’s flag is the Argead sunburst (also known as the Vergina Sun) on a red field. The Argead sunburst was the symbol of Alexander the Great’s Argead Dynasty. By prominently claiming such a symbol, Macedonia left little in doubt about their nationalist claims.
In addition, Macedonia is not only the name of a country; it is also the name of a northern Greek province. Greece worries that by claiming the name Macedonia, their northern neighbor is staking a claim to the Greek province of Macedonia as well. This notion was given further credence by Macedonia printing banknotes that included the White Tower of Thessaloniki on them. Although these were novelty items rather than legal tender, the Greek government still thought that this insinuated a claim to the Greek region of Macedonia, which includes the city of Thessaloniki.
The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that Macedonia has violated a United Nations interim agreement on settling the name dispute by, among other things, pushing an irredentist agenda in both the countries of Macedonia and in Greece and in coopting Greek cultural symbols.
This issue even appears in everyday life in Greece. Back in 2009, prominent Balkans linguistic Victor Friedman was giving a book talk in Athens related to Macedonia when it was violently interrupted by members of Golden Dawn, a far right-wing Greek political party. As recently as 2015 there was a poster in the bus station in modern Sparta that declared that “Macedonia Means Greece.”
Although Tito first named the area that is now Macedonia as such back in 1944, when Macedonia was just part of Yugoslavia the name issue was less acute. But when Macedonia became independent in 1991, Greece saw the name of this now independent nation as an affront to Greek culture and nationalism.
In addition to blocking Macedonia’s attempts to join international bodies like the UN and NATO, Greece has actively tried to proclaim ancient Macedonian culture as part of the Greek heritage. In 1992, the year after Macedonia declared its independence, Greece renamed Thessaloniki’s Mikra Airport Macedonia International Airport, so that the country of Macedonia couldn’t claim that name. Statutes of Alexander the Great were built in Thessaloniki. The Greek drachma was even changed to feature a portrait of Alexander the Great on one side and the Argead sunburst on the reverse.
When Manolis Andronikos discovered the royal Macedonian tombs at Vergina, in the Greek province of Macedonia, in 1977, it was celebrated as a firm geographical connection between Greece and the Argead Dynasty of ancient Macedon. This connection was played up further after Macedonia declared its independence in 1991.
Potential Road to the Future
The naming dispute with Macedonia is not just about the name. The dispute is about the national histories of both Macedonia and Greece. For either one to back down represents a huge blow to its sense of identity and its prestige. Greece has the historical precedent of Alexander the Great spreading Hellenism as well as controlling the physical territories in which the Argead Dynasty was originally based. Macedonia has more tenuous claims to this heritage, but they have actively engaged with it as a core part of their identity since becoming independent in 1991.
Likely the only way that the dispute will be resolved is if a larger outside force pressures one of the two parties to compromise. Russian interference in the Balkans is potentially this catalyst.
But if Macedonia does change its name, it remains to be seen how it would refocus its national identity, let alone what its new name would be (but the names suggested in this Foreign Policy article are unlikely to be chosen). The region of Macedonia has been historically disputed. There have been strong historic arguments for Macedonia being more in the South Slavic or Bulgarian spheres of culture. Perhaps these would be potential directions of identity.
Or Macedonia could go its own way and incorporate unique aspects of its identity into its historical narrative. After all, that is one of the reasons Alexander the Great was claimed in the first place: he was an immediately recognizable name worldwide and he was outside the histories of other former Yugoslav states.
Regardless, there is much at stake with the Greek and Macedonian talks. Not just a name is at stake, but two sets of national identities and Macedonian membership in NATO as well.