Macedonia: To Have Your State and Be It Too

3 years ago ccwa 23

14314186When the name “Macedonia” is mentioned, it is usually accompanied by questions about where it is, or whether the famous Macadamia nut cookie originates there. While Macedonia has nothing to do with the delicious cookie, the former question presents a bit of a conundrum in the Balkans. Locked in a 20-year dispute, the Republic of Macedonia and the Hellenic Republic (Greece) have been engaged in a bitter rivalry as to who has the rightful claim to the name and heritage of Macedonia. On the surface, it seems like the type of ethnic rivalry and ultra-nationalism for which the Balkans is infamous.

But the situation is far more complicated than that. The relationship between the Macedonia and Greece is strained at best. Tensions started with the independence of the Republic of Macedonia from Yugoslavia in 1991. The name, “Macedonia,” however, presented a problem for Greece since it has its own region in northern Greece called Macedonia. Claiming territorial aspirations and cultural appropriation, Greece enacted a trade embargo, suffocating the young republic economically. The embargo was finally lifted in 1995 with some concessions on the side of Macedonia, namely changing its flag and agreeing to use the provisional name ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) for all international organizations, until a more suitable name could be found. Even though the majority of countries – the United States included – have abandoned the FYROM title, Macedonia and Greece have continued to be in deadlocked negotiations ever since.

Problems escalated further in 2008 when Greece vetoed Macedonia’s entry into NATO due to the usage of the name. Greece has also stated it would use similar measures to bar Macedonia’s entry into the European Union. Macedonia went so far as to sue Greece for its NATO veto, claiming that it violated the terms of their 1995 agreement, which allowed entry into international organizations under the provisional name. The International Court of Justice favored Macedonia’s claim, stating that Greece’s veto was, in fact, illegal. Like much of international law, Greece chose not to follow the ruling and went so far as to deny Macedonia’s invitation to the Wales NATO summit in early September of this year, citing the name dispute.

Despite struggling economies, both countries made it an objective to display their claim on Macedonia’s history to the world. Beginning in 2010, Macedonia launched an extensive and controversial makeover of its capital, Skopje, aimed at showcasing Macedonian history with a neoclassical overtone. The most dominant addition was a 33-meter high statue – ambiguously named “Warrior on Horse” – that graces the central square of the city. Citizens of Skopje, however, were not confused; it was clearly meant to be Alexander the Great. Walking through the capital of Greek Macedonia, Thessaloniki, one can find a grandiose statue of Alexander the Great next to the sea and even see his image stamped on boxes of fruit in the market. Both countries claim Alexander the Great as part of their heritage and history. However, the name Macedonia represents more than the right to claim a king that’s been dead for 2,300 years.

While the Balkan Peninsula is home to a myriad of conflicts, the dispute over a name proves to be especially strange. Looking at Greek geography textbooks from the period immediately before Macedonia’s independence, we can see there was no issue in naming its neighboring country simply Macedonia, rather than the convoluted name used today. Greece’s own Macedonia Airport was named Airport of Northern Greece before 1988. Only with Macedonia’s formal independence from Yugoslavia did Greece feel threatened for its own region of Macedonia and feel the need to loudly assert its Greek nature to the world. This begs the question, why does a landlocked country of 2 million people threaten the entire country of Greece? Surprisingly enough, the threat lies on Greece’s side of the border.

Greece’s objection to the name Macedonia has little, if anything, to do with ancient history. Macedonian history spans the course of 2,500 years, so Greece’s insistence on strictly focusing on the period dominated by Greek culture and ideas, seems peculiar. While history does play a dominant role, it is modern history that is the source of conflict. Greece’s preoccupation with Macedonia is rooted in the 20th century “Macedonian Question”, The Macedonian Question, a dispute between Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia as to who could impose its national identity and language over Macedonians after the departure of the Ottomans, eventually led to the Balkan Wars. Setting ancient history aside, Greece’s first claim to Macedonia came in 1913, with the end of the Second Balkan War and the complete removal of the Ottomans from the Balkans. With the rest of Macedonia illegally divided between Bulgaria and Serbia, Greece found itself occupying over 51% of Macedonia, including the rich port capital of Thessaloniki. To solidify its claim to the land, Greece launched an intense and forceful campaign of Hellenization, which included changing villages, cities, and last names to Greek alternatives. Cities that resisted were usually razed to the ground; those were passive became completely Hellenized. The culmination of the Hellenization came in the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, in which 30,000 Macedonian children were forcibly evicted from their homes. For the remaining Macedonians, their language, along with their religion and identity have since then been denied by the Greek government.

Today, some 800,000 Macedonians remain in the northern region of Greece. While this is in stark contrast to Greece’s outlandish claim of a 98.5% ethnic Greek population, the Macedonian population in Greece has been well documented by international organizations such as the Helsinki Monitor and European Human Rights Watch. However, much like in the past, the Macedonian minority does not officially exist. Macedonians are categorically denied every right to have their identity recognized, whether it be through schools, newspapers, or churches. Besides wanting to cover up a long-standing blemish on their history, Greece’s interest with the name Macedonia goes even further. If there is a country called the Republic of Macedonia, then by extension there must be ethnic Macedonians attached to it. This would open up the appropriately named Pandora’s Box for Greece; not only would the government have to admit to the genocide committed in the civil war, but they would also have to acknowledge the existence of their own Macedonian minority, among other minorities living in Greece, such as Albanians, Vlachs, and Jews. For a country that boasts an almost ethnically pure label, this won’t serve to unify the already struggling Greek infrastructure. Acknowledgement of the Macedonian identity would also mean that Greece would have to respond to the various property rights claims by the exiled Macedonians, many of whom are not allowed entry back into Greece.

It is no surprise that this conflict comes from the Balkans, an area that has been historically rife with instability – Bismarck famously remarked that some “damned foolish thing in the Balkans” would cause the next great war of his lifetime. However, this conflict is interesting due to the nature of its perceived simplicity. Since the Greeks know a debate involving ancient history and symbolism would only serve to confuse the public, they have found a way to simplify their issue with Macedonia. Greece’s problem with Macedonia’s name is a skillful cover-up of its continued oppression of minorities.  Between nationalist movements threatening entire countries, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and struggling economies, the region could once again live up to its stereotype for being a hotbed of turmoil. It is a shame that even the choice of a country’s name is what brings the Balkans back into a forefront of regional disputes. The so-called “name dispute” between two neighbors only serves to deepen the already prevalent divide between the various ethnicities. The Republic of Macedonia’s choice of name is its sovereign right to exercise, and it has the right to care for its people living outside of its borders. This right was even included in its original constitution, before it was removed for containing “territorial aspirations.” Rather than continue with the hopeless charade of the name game and trying to outdo Greece in asserting its Macedonian identity, Macedonia should simply raise the issue of the Macedonians in Greece— if Macedonia has always been purely and ethnically Greek, how can they explain the large Macedonian minorities in major cities of Greek Macedonia?  Furthermore, if NATO and European Union integration is what is needed to bring stability and economic growth to the Balkans, the values of Europe seem to be misguided in that regard; NATO has no problems standing up to Putin’s agenda, yet Prime Minister Samaras’ demands are met without question. Given Macedonia’s strong geopolitical location at the crux of the Balkans, the infamous Macedonian Question could once again threaten the stability of the region.


by Mario Hristovski

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