John Tulloh. Macedonia – What’s in a name?

   ‘I experienced the most beautiful thing that any Greek soul can offer, by just doing my duty’, said an exhausted Melbourne woman, Zoi Petalidou. ‘Because this is how I see it: as my duty and what my soul needed’.

Ms Petalidou is an impassioned Greek-Australian who went to Athens earlier this month literally just for the weekend for no other reason than to participate in a protest rally, according to the Neos Kosmos website. The demonstration was against any Greek concessions to the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia about the use of that name. ‘Greek people were shouting, crying, singing along with me’, she was quoted as saying.

This was not surprising. If there is one topic guaranteed to provoke Greek blood pressure it is which side of the border owns the cultural and heritage rights to the name of Macedonia. Greek nationalists insist it is theirs and has always been that way going back to the Macedonian hero, Alexander the Great (356 BC). But across the border Macedonian nationalists point out that the ancient kingdom of Macedon encompassed their country as well.

This argument came to a head in 1991 when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. The region of Macedonia declared itself independent of the Belgrade federation as the new Republic of Macedonia. Greek pressure demanded that it be referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Today more than 100 countries recognise the landlocked republic with its capital in Skopje.

Even though there is a clear difference between the Macedonian region within a country, Greece, and a separate country called Macedonia, this still doesn’t satisfy the nationalists on the Greek side, such as Ms Petalidou. They argue the continuing use of the nomenclature across the border can only mean one thing: territorial ambitions on their part. It may seem a relatively trivial matter in the overall 21st century AD geopolitical priorities. The UN mediator probably wishes it were as he’s been wrestling with the dispute for 24 years.

But now there is a glimmer of a breakthrough. The new moderate government in Skopje has announced its willingness to add a geographical qualifier to the country’s name. It just so happens that this coincides with its renewed efforts to join the EU and NATO. But Athens has the power of veto which means Skopje has to make concessions.

It has renamed Alexander the Great Airport as Skopje International Airport. The road named after the ancient warrior is now the Friendship Highway, the first concessions in more than 20 years of bickering. But the towering bronze statue of him astride a rearing horse in the middle of Skopje remains intact. As provocative as it is to the Greeks, local nationalism will ensure it remains there.

Then there is the question of what the Republic of Macedonia should be called and be acceptable to both sides. The UN mediator came up with a couple of options using the Slavic pronunciation. One was Republika Nova Makedonija. Another was Republika Makedonija (Skopje). No thank you, said both sides. Recent reports say new names under consideration are Upper Macedonia, New Macedonia, Northern Macedonia and Macedonia (Skopje). 

Clearly, there is no getting away from the M name. Neophytos Loizides, professor of international conflict analysis at the University of Kent, wondered whether a compromise could be a name which reflected Macedonia’s recent achievements as a multi-ethnic society following the 2001 peace agreement with its Albanian minority. Such as? He didn’t say.

Even if the two sides can find a compromise, it will have to be ratified. Macedonia has promised a referendum, a brave decision when recent referenda have backfired on governments. The Greek parliament will have to approve it. Although the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, is eager for a deal, his nationalist coalition partners will have to be satisfied as well. It is such a raw issue that the Greek foreign minister and other government officials have received death threats for their conciliatory stance, according to the Guardian. 

Both countries at least share the same external cheerleaders. The EU wants Macedonia to join Greece as part of the European family. Tsipras wants to burnish his and Greece’s image with Brussels after the massive rescue effort of the country’s economy. NATO would welcome Macedonia to help limit  Russian influence in the region. The UN would dearly like to see the end of the problem.

For Macedonia, the ideal deadline is July when this year’s NATO summit is due to take place, the perfect setting for its admission. But with nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border claiming heritage rights to the Macedonian name, the prospects are 50/50. ‘My big worry is Greece’, said James Ker-Lindsay, professor of politics at St Mary’s University in London. ‘It is so politicised it is hard to see how they (the Athens government) can push it through’.

Disputes in this part of the world have a history of intractability. Look at Cyprus. The UN and other mediators have been hard at it for more than 40 years. The last round of talks lasted 10 days and ended with a ‘lot of shouting and yelling’. You can be sure there will be a lot of the same before Alexander the Great’s Macedonia legacy is settled – if it ever is.

FOOTNOTE. Back in the 90s, Greek institutions in Australia closely monitored ABC news reports on the southern Balkans region. Any reference to the new country of Macedonia as anything but the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ would prompt letters and phone calls bristling with indignation. Later it was tacitly accepted that as long as FYROM was mentioned in the first instance, it was too much of a broadcast mouthful to keep repeating it and just ‘Macedonia’ was acceptable.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news. 

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