Being Macedonia

Liz Mermin

As if the Greeks didn't have enough to be angry about, on Monday the International Court of Justice ruled against Greece in a case brought by the Republic that would like to be known as Macedonia. The feud has been raging for 20 years. According to Greece, the name ‘Macedonia’ refers to the northern Greek region of Macedonia, and residents of the landlocked territory to their north should call their country something else. But they say that they have nothing else to call themselves, and anyway don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to use whatever name they want.

Writing about ‘the name dispute’ is a fraught endeavour. Whenever the Economist runs a piece on the subject, it races to the top of the ‘most-commented’ list. The majority of UN member-states now call the smaller country ‘Macedonia’, but reporters in Greece have lost their jobs for referring to their northern neighbour by its preferred name. Journalists urging compromise have received death threats.

In 1991, the Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia and sought international recognition as the Republic of Macedonia. Nearly a million Greeks protested in Athens against their using the name. Greece closed the border.

The Greeks argued that the republic was invented in 1944 by Tito, who called it ‘Macedonia’ because he had designs on northern Greece and the port of Thessaloniki. They were also offended by the evocation of ancient Macedon: modern Macedonians are Slavs, whose presence in the region dates back a mere 1500 years. And they were troubled by the republic's explicit support for ethnic Macedonians beyond their borders: many Macedonians in Greece sided with the Communists during the civil war, and suffered for it; the most vehement Macedonian nationalists are descendants of those who fled or were expelled from Greece around the time of the war.

With a war raging to the north and a closed border to the south, Macedonia turned to the international community for help. UN mediators stepped in. After two years of negotiations, Greece allowed Macedonia to enter the UN under the provisional designation ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’.

There were immediate problems over the question of where the country’s representative should be seated in the General Assembly. Greece objected to placing him between Luxembourg and Madagascar, and suggested he sit between Finland and France; the Macedonians refused, on the grounds that ‘former’ was a description, not a proper noun. He was finally given a chair between Thailand and Timor-Leste.

Two more years of rocky negotiations followed, and bilateral relations between Greece and Macedonia were formalised in 1995 by an ‘interim accord’ – essentially a stalling measure – between ‘The Party of the First Part’ and ‘The Party of the Second Part’, with no country names appearing anywhere in the document. Macedonia renounced claims on Greek territory, pledged not to support ethnic Macedonians in Greece, and removed from its flag the Vergina Sun, a symbol of ancient Macedon, promising to ‘cease to use in any way the symbol in all its forms’ (not taking any chances, Greece filed for an international trademark). Greece in turn pledged not to prevent Macedonia from entering international institutions, so long as such applications were made under the FYROM designation. A dedicated UN mediator was appointed, but in almost 17 years of negotiations they have been unable to settle on a name.

International opinion has been tilting towards Macedonia (on a visit to Skopje a few years ago David Cameron offered to start calling their rival ‘the Former Ottoman Possession of Greece’). Membership in Nato and the EU could help stabilise Macedonia, making the country accountable to international standards on such issues as press freedom – their record isn't great – and the treatment of ethnic minorities. It seemed there was a good chance that (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia would be invited to join Nato at the April 2008 summit. But Greece lobbied against it, arguing that FYROM's intransigence on the name dispute made mutual trust and goodwill impossible. The bid was rejected. Macedonia took their case to the international court.

This week the court concluded that by objecting to the FYROM bid to join Nato, Greece had violated their obligations under the 1995 interim accord. A moral victory for Macedonia, but in the short term it changes nothing: the name dispute trundles on, and Macedonia is still excluded from Nato. The ruling is an embarrassment to the Greeks, though given the events of the past months, hardly a major one. But it still carries weight, making it harder for Greece to block Macedonia's bid to enter the EU – though that may seem less desirable today than it did when the case was argued last March.

As both countries are facing severe economic challenges – 31 per cent of Macedonians live in poverty, and official unemployment is 33.5 per cent; Greek’s economic woes are well known – it might seem that there are more important things to worry about than a name: on the other hand, under such volatile circumstances, there’s always the danger that the dispute could blow up into something larger.


  • 8 December 2011 at 1:21am
    bilejones says:
    Perfectly portrays the mind-numbing idiocy of governments.

  • 8 December 2011 at 11:32am
    Kiro Velkovski says:
    One more thing - after the Civil War in Greece, all the refugees (children, civilians, fighters) were banned to enter back their country. In 1982, all the "Greeks by birth" were allowed back, including the General Marcos, leader of the Communist army. BUT, the kid refugees from the ethnic Macedonian villages in Greece WERE NOT allowed. And they are still not. Try to understand the Greek stance - the general that ordered thousands of deaths is better than a Macedonian kid that fled the killings. Go figure.

    • 12 December 2011 at 1:13pm
      jfrager says: @ Kiro Velkovski
      I don't see what is there not to understand. The "right to return" is always one of the most controversial issues in such disputes, not least because they often contain the seeds of perpetuation of disputes. The return of Palestinian refugees is one of the thorniest questions of the Middle East conflict. One may or may not agree with a given stance on the matter, but not understand...??

  • 12 December 2011 at 1:16pm
    jfrager says:
    The issue of Macedonia has been crudely caricatured for years. This may be partly the fault of the Greeks for failing to present clearly what bothers them, but, as this article shows, the commentators hardly make an effort to thoroughly investigate the matter. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that the Greek concerns are exactly the "reverse" of those usually stated: The Greeks are portrayed as demanding an exclusive right to the name of Macedonia whereas, in fact, what they reject is exactly the exclusive right to Macedonian identity from the side of the Republic of Macedonia. If it is only the citizens of that specific state that are entitled to it, what are the Greek, Albanian, Jewish, Bulgarian etc. people who are or have been living in the broader geographic region of Macedonia? This is certainly not an issue of naming but of legitimazing claims in a sensitive area of Europe. Precedent shows that the intervention of the international community in Balkan disputes has focused (in my opinion inordinately) on historical legitimacy which is based on gradually constructed perceptions. This may have at times benefited some peoples in the area (including the Greeks) but it has also been shown to be recipe for instability affecting all of Europe and beyond. It is therefore, perfectly reasonable that Greece would try to "nip in the bud" such perceptions and claims from developing. Any stability that might be furthered by its accession to NATO and EU would be canceled out by much more serious risks to security by unclarified questions on the position of the young state in the area.

    • 13 December 2011 at 12:58am
      Bob Beck says: @ jfrager
      I don't understand the distinction in your third sentence. Are you saying the would-be Macedonia (FYROM) wants to deny the Greek region the right to call itself that, or Macedonians elsewhere the right to so identify themselves? If so, how and where are these demands expressed? How does, or how would the "Republic of Macedonia" expect to enforce them?