March by Greek Macedonians [Image: George Papadopoulos]

The name of a country may seem like an uncontroversial topic, yet recently what many might assume is a non-issue, has caused a great deal of problems for the the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). The FYROM has not been able to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation NATO and that is for one reason: they want to be called Macedonia. The naming dispute originated when the FYROM gained their independence and proclaimed themselves to be the “Republic of Macedonia”; a point of contention with Greece. This is seen as problematic because Greece’s largest region is named Macedonia, as it incorporates most parts of the ancient kingdom. To rub salt in the Greek wound they chose the Vergina Sun, an ancient Greek symbol, as their flag. Greece spoke against the FYROM’s name declaration, condemning it as a theft of culture and heritage, and a direct attack on Greek national sovereignty.

Multiple efforts have been made to reach a solution but all produced no positive outcome. The dispute seems to have two repeating phases in-between the negotiations: a phase of latency and a phase of tension. Tensions have been created by the adoption of the Vergina sun symbol, using the name “Alexander the Great” for Skopje’s main airport and the great motorway, and the building of statues and monuments that showcase achievements of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. All of these are important cultural symbols. The Vergina sun problem was resolved after Greece imposed an embargo on all p r o d u c t s from the F Y R O M e x c e p t for food, medicine and humanitarian assistance, until they c h a n g e d their flag f o l l o w i n g talks with UN mediator Cyrus R. Vance. Greece reasoned that this was done as a “last resort” as the diplomatic talks did not lead to any fruition for the span of two years. The other two issues continue to be unresolved problems today even though the prime minister of the FYROM Zoran Zaev claims that he is going to change the name of the airport and the highway to lead to the cooperation of the two nations.

So, is there any hope for sta-bility between the two nations? The current prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, and Zoran Zaev have reopened the topic of the name dispute and UN media-tor Matthew Nimetz has facilitat-ed meetings between the two sides to find a common acceptable solu-tion. Both sides seem to agree that the country cannot be named “The Republic of Macedonia” but rather use a name that contains the term Macedonia and make it abundant-ly clear that the Greek Macedonia is a distinctly different territory. However, the governments in this case do not reflect the will of the people. There is real passion over the issue among ordinary Greek people.

The Greeks have three main arguments as to why the name shouldn’t contain the term Macedonia. Firstly, Alexander the Great spread the Greek civilisation, was born in the Greek city Pella, spoke Greek and participated in the Olympic Games which means that he is indeed Greek. Secondly, the region of the current FYROM was not incorporated in the kingdom of Macedon but rather was a separate one called Paeonia (except its most eastern part.) The last reason Greeks cite is that the Slavs moved in much later. As a modern Greek national commented, “Giving them our name and our history is nothing short of treason and it is like taking out our eyes with our own hands”.

The people of the FYROM justify their use of the name, also claiming that they are historically tied to the name as after the Romans, the region they lived in was also called Macedonia due to an administrative region that was set up. They claim that they have built a new separate culture surrounding that name. I asked a m o d e r n citizen of the FY-ROM who responded, “I think the name of our country isn’t something you should change with-out votes, it takes away a lot of history and tradition”.While outsiders may see the dispute between the two claim-ants of the title “Macedonia” as somewhat trivial, the two sides are influenced by a sense of national pride and both feel that their history entitles them to the name. The debate is motivated by feelings of national pride; it is having practical ramifications for relations in the region.

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