The government of Macedonia has reached a deal with Greece to change their name to North Macedonia, ending a 27-year dispute between the two nations. The origin of this feud dates back to 1991, when Macedonia first gained independence from Yugoslavia. So why is Macedonia changing its name?
Why is Macedonia Changing its Name?
Greece had little objection to Macedonia while it was part of Yugoslavia, but has strongly opposed use of the name following Macedonian independence. Some in Greece feel that the name Republic of Macedonia implies some sort of claim to all of the historic region of Macedonia, half of which is in Greece.
The region of Macedonia, which was part of the ancient Greek kingdom of Alexander the Great, holds great historical significance to the people of Greece. Today, modern Greece continues to have their own region called Macedonia, which includes Thessaloniki, the country’s second-largest city. When the Republic of Macedonia was formed, many Greeks felt that their ancient cultural heritage was being appropriated.
Due to Greece’s disapproval, when Macedonia gained their independence, they were admitted to the UN under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Since then, the Greek government has continuously worked to block Macedonia’s entry into the European Union and NATO.
However, things appear to be changing.
The Republic of North Macedonia
On June 12, 2018, during a phone call between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, a deal was finalized to change Macedonia’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
The name was ultimately settled upon as a bit of a compromise between the two nations. North Macedonia reflects the fact that the historic region of Macedonia stretches past Greece’s borders, while also implying Greece’s cultural claim over it. In return for Macedonia changing their name, Greece has agreed to lift its vetoes on the country joining the EU and NATO.
It is worth noting that the parliaments of both countries still need to ratify the deal, and Macedonia is expected to hold a nationwide referendum on the issue. Furthermore, it is thought that nationalists in both countries, who are opposed to any sort of agreement, could fight to prevent the deal from happening. In Greece, the right wing Independent Greeks party has said it would oppose the agreement in a parliamentary vote.
However, at least according to Prime Minister Zaev, “There is no way back.”
The origin of the name dispute between these two countries stems from ancient history, and Greece’s claims to that history. Macedonia was once the heart of an empire built through conquest by Alexander the Great. However, when the Romans came a long, the province of Macedonia was expanded to include greater territory, including land in the modern countries of Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania.
Today, many Greeks feel that Alexander the Great is part of their national, Hellenic identity, and that Macedonia is an integral part of Greek history and culture. And because the Macedonian language is Slavic, some Greeks have felt that by using the name Macedonia, the country was hijacking Greek culture.
Resentment over this name dispute reached a boiling point in the 2000s, after populist Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski came to power in Macedonia, and began a campaign of antiquisation, turning the downtown area of Skopje into a “neoclassical-themed amusement park” complete with an eight-story high statue that bears resemblance to the Greek hero Alexander the Great. Macedonian authorities, however, insist that the statue is just a “warrior on a horse.”
Macedonians have long asserted that they have the right to self-determination, and have felt that they should have the right to call themselves whatever they want.
Ending the Dispute
In February of 2018, the Macedonian government renamed Skopje Alexander the Great Airport to just Skopje International Airport. This was seen as an act of goodwill by both governments.
Ultimately, a deal was reached in June 2018 between the prime ministers of both countries, and North Macedonia was the compromised name. The government of Macedonia has been focused on getting their country into the major organizations of the West, like the EU and NATO, and this name change is expected to help that dream become a reality.
On Tuesday, February 12th, the North Macedonia name change officially came into force, ending the decades-long name dispute. This should pave the way for North Macedonia’s acceptance into NATO.