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The “Macedonia” Question

The naming dispute between Macedonia and Greece sounds trivial to outside observers, but it’s fueling right-wing nationalism in both countries.

Demonstrators wave Greek national flags during a February 4, 2018 Athens protest over a a potential Greek compromise on its dispute with Macedonia over the former Yugoslav republic's official name. Milos Bicanski / Getty

What’s in a name? Macedonia is a region in the north of Greece, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, an area of historical importance. It’s also the name of the Republic of Macedonia and of a region in Bulgaria. Millions of ethnic Greeks call themselves Macedonians and getting the republic to qualify its name has become a major cause of Greek nationalism. For its part, within the Republic of Macedonia, anti-Greek nationalism is being inflamed as well.

It sounds pedantic, but the “naming dispute” between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia is an often overlooked factοr in the last three decades of Balkans instability. Kept at a dormant state as long as the Republic of Macedonia was part of the Yugoslavia, the dispute erupted when, following the federation’s breakup, it declared its independence.

The collapse of socialism in Yugoslavia and in the neighboring Balkan countries — which covered almost all of Greece’s land borders — and civil unrest caused an influx of economic migrants from those countries. It fueled anxieties over Greece’s position in what was becoming a brutally transformed and highly inflammable area. Fears of the cursed “Balkan past” were coming to fore and the “naming dispute” took on new significance.

The Nationalist Wave

Before becoming the name of a state, “Macedonia” was, and remains, the name of an area bitterly disputed in the battlefields among the nation states emerging from the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. After the 1912-1913 Balkan wars, it was finally divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and the then-Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The latter part became a distinct republic in 1944 within the People’s Federation of Yugoslavia and was renamed in 1963 as the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia.”

The republic became independent in September 1991 following a referendum endorsing independence, albeit legalizing participation in future union of the former states of Yugoslavia — a sign of the persistence of pro-Yugoslav feelings in the most recently formed and ethnically diverse part of the former federation.

However, citing historical and irredentist concerns, Greece immediately opposed the use of the name “Macedonia” by the newly independent state. As the residents of the northern Greek region of Macedonia also identify themselves as “Macedonians,” Greece also objected to the use of the term to refer to the neighboring country’s largest ethnic group and its language. Since it became independent, the Republic of Macedonia has been constantly accused by the Greek media and the political establishment of holding irredentist views leading to territorial claims on the neighboring countries and for appropriating symbols and figures of Antiquity considered by Greeks as part of their history such as the Vergina Sun (symbol of the ancient Macedonian dynasty) and Alexander the Great.

The changes introduced to the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia during the 1990s, asserting that it had no claim on the lands of any other nation and wouldn’t infer in the domestic affairs of neighboring countries, did nothing to change that attitude. The aggressive nationalist rhetoric of the right-wing VMRO-DPMNE party, which held power in the Republic of Macedonia for most of the past twenty years, contributed to the escalating tension between the two countries.

The anxieties generated in the Greek public opinion by collapse of Yugoslavia and the recent Balkan wars were systematically channeled by politicians and the Greek Orthodox Church into a nationalist campaign directed against the Republic of Macedonia. Mass rallies were held in 1992 in Thessaloniki and in Athens to support the claim that only Greece has the right to use the name “Macedonia.” The nationalist right, the Church, and various far-right groups held a prominent role in those movements which gathered hundreds of thousands, far beyond the ranks of the supporters of those forces.

Indeed, hardening their initial reaction even further, Greece’s main political parties agreed on April 13, 1992 not to accept the word “Macedonia” in any way in the new republic’s name. In a display of “national unity,” their leaders participated in the nationalist rallies, including those of the left party Synaspismos, with the exception of the Communist Party (KKE) and the far left.

However, the situation changed. Synaspismos started moving to the left and openly distanced itself from its previous attitude. In 1996, it refused to any longer be part of the “nationalist arc” lead by the mainstream parties. It has been defending since the position, shared by the Communists, of a compromise on the basis of a “composite name” (“Macedonia” with a geographical or temporal marker). That was also Syriza’s official position since its foundation (2004), a coalition of which Synaspismos was the main component, though some of its sectors (such as the youth branch of Synaspismos and DEA, the Workers Internationalist Left) defended the Republic of Macedonia’s right to keep its constitutional name.

A temporary compromise was reached under the auspices of the United Nations in 1993, with Macedonia been accepted to international organizations as “FYROM” — the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. However, it didn’t take long for most countries to recognize it under its constitutional name (currently about 130 out of the 190 UN member-states). From 2008 onward, the Greek political elite moved towards an acceptance of a “composite name,” but without openly and clearly assuming this change of position. The negotiations between the two states have been through various phases, alternating moments of rapprochement and moments of tension, fueling outbursts of nationalism in both countries.

One of the most striking manifestations of that competition has been the abuse of symbols and figures from Antiquity, with a proliferation of representations of Alexander the Great and of the Sun of Vergina on both sides. In 1992 Kavala’s airport was renamed “Alexander the Great” followed a year later by Thessaloniki’s, renamed “Macedonia,” while statues of Alexander the Great proliferated in squares and avenues of Greek cities. Skopje’s airport was renamed in 2006 “Alexander the Great,” and the capital’s city center underwent a gigantic transformation, “re-branded” with dozens of statues and buildings aiming at recapturing the glory of Ancient Macedonia. The project “Skopje 2014,” as it was called, became a symbol of urban kitsch and corruption and played a key role in the scandals affecting Macedonia’s political and business elite in the last years.

The Role of the US

The negotiations between the two countries resumed at the end of 2017, under the auspices of the same diplomat who has been dealing with the issue since the 1990s, Matthew Nimetz, widely seen as a representative of US interests. The current phase is characterized by the willingness of both governments to accept a solution of compromise that would facilitate what has become the main goal of the United States in the Balkans: the enlargement of NATO, with the ultimate objective of integrating Serbia into the alliance.

This process started with Montenegro joining NATO in May 2017. Despite its size (620,000 inhabitants) and negligible military (less than 3,000 soldiers), its admission had a strategic importance. It completed the NATO “ownership” of the entire coastline of the Adriatic Sea, the rest of it belonging to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Albania, NATO members all. It also rolled back the influence of Russia in that country and countered the reluctant attitude of a large part of its population and its political elite. Montenegro’s importance for NATO and the constitution of an anti-Russian “belt” in the Balkans was particularly emphasized by US senator John McCain when visiting the country in April 2017.

The admission of the Republic of Macedonia follows a similar logic and will bring the US closer to their strategic objective: overcoming Serbia’s official “neutrality” and eliminating Russia from any position of influence in the Balkans. This goal is supported by the two governments now involved in the “naming dispute.”

In the Republic of Macedonia, the nationalist right was swept from power after a “wiretap scandal.” Disclosed in 2015, the transcripts exposed practices of large-scale corruption implicating the political and business elite, as well as a system of surveillance and repression of the citizenry. It triggered a wave of popular protest and lead to snap elections in 2016 which brought to power a coalition between the social-democratic SDSM – a successor of the ruling party of the Yugoslav era – and the parties representing the Albanian minority. The current government is eager to show its loyalty to the US and the European Union and will do whatever it takes to meet the target set by US of integrating it with NATO by this summer and accelerating negotiations to join the EU. The acceptance of a “composite name” (“Macedonia” with a geographic qualifier) and acts of goodwill such as the renaming of Skopje’s airport (named “Alexander the Great” since 2006) are part of that approach, which seems to be accepted by a majority of the population, eager for international recognition and “Europeanization.”

In Greece, after capitulating to the Troika in the summer of 2015, and implementing further austerity measures, deregulation, and privatization, the Syriza government has become the most ardent supporter of NATO and Israel in the eastern Mediterranean. As is now whispered in the circles of experts on Greek foreign policy, the strategy followed by Alexis Tsipras is to make Greece “the Israel of the Balkans,” the main pillar of the West in an area of increasing instability, taking advantage of Turkey’s drift into authoritarianism and growing tension with the US. By facilitating a positive outcome of the US-sponsored negotiations with the new government of the Republic of Macedonia, Tsipras kills thus two birds with a stone: he appears for once faithful to the long-standing positions of his party on this issue while confirming his status as the most reliable partner of the US interests in the area.

The Current Backlash

However, his decision triggered a nationalist backlash, with mass rallies being called first in Thessaloniki, on January 21, and then in Athens, on February 4, to claim exclusive ownership of the name “Macedonia” for Greece and reject any compromise solution. Though significantly smaller than those held in 1992, they still attracted significant crowds (90,000 in Thessaloniki and 140,000 in Athens) in a period dominated by political apathy. Despite being initiated by a similar range of forces as the 1990s rallies, they also touched a chord on sectors of a “patriotic left”, which amalgamated Tsipras capitulation to the Troika and the “selling out” of the “name” of Macedonia.

Thus, the composer Mikis Theodorakis, a symbol of the Greek left, shared the platform of the Athens rally dominated by speakers of the ultranationalist right. But the rally was also supported by Zoe Konstantopoulou, the former president of the Greek parliament and founder of the “Course of Freedom” movement, which aims to replicate the populist political style of Mélenchon’s France Insoumise.

The most worrying sign is that a clear majority of the Greek public opinion (60 to 70 percent) has turned against any compromise that would include the name “Macedonia” accompanied by a qualifier. If the nationalist wave of the early 1990s was fueled by the anxiety generated by the changing geopolitics in the Balkans, the motivations of the current one appears more complex, mixing the previous fixation on the “name” with a widespread discontent directed against a political elite which has surrendered to the Troika and brought Greek society to a state of despair.

The capitulation of the Syriza government in 2015, only a few days after a landmark referendum in which 62 percent rejected the EU-backed austerity plan, is at the heart of the trauma. The sense of betrayal and deep humiliation has been reinforced by the relentless implementation of further austerity, the persisting economic stagnation, the selling-out of remaining public assets, and the emigration of hundreds of thousand of young Greeks, for the most part highly qualified degree holders. In a society deeply affected by demoralization and ideological confusion, in which the dividing lines between “right” and “left” having lost any meaning for most, protesting against an imaginary selling-out of the “name” of Macedonia becomes a way of rejecting the very real selling-out of the most basic demands of ordinary Greeks by all the governments that have been in power in the last decade.

This is obviously a dangerous situation, in which the latent but deep political crisis can benefit to authoritarian and reactionary forces, leading to a further rise of the instability in the broader area. No solution to the current deadlock can be achieved without the recognition of the right of the people of the Republic of Macedonia to self-determination and self-denomination. The “composite name” seems a pragmatic compromise but it entails the risk of crystallizing a broader opposition on both sides of the border. Endorsed by political elites subservient to neoliberalism and to Western interests, it appears more as the outcome of external pressure than as the expression of a genuine desire of both people to live peacefully. Therefore, it leaves open the possibility of future contestations and of persistent feelings of distrust and rivalry.

In this dispute, Greece is clearly the strong player. To stop the nationalist backlash, it needs to stop the tactics of bullying and humiliation of its neighbor. But its failed political elite isn’t qualified for such a task. It is urgent for the forces of the Greek radical left to overcome their fragmentation and impotence, draw the lessons of their past failure, and offer a progressive alternative to the popular anger. Refusing any nationalist regression while defending popular sovereignty against the domestic and foreign forces that are responsible for the despairing state of the country appears as an essential condition for such a development.

The real enemies of the Greek people are not in Skopje but in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels or Paris and of, course, within its own country.