Macedonia: disputing Alexander's heritage

Last week, a solution to the dispute between the Republic of Macedonia, formally known as the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) and Greece has reached a new landmark. For decades the name dispute has dominated the region, especially since the Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Macedonia is currently the name of a region in northern Greece, roughly the area of the former kingdom of Macedon, which is most famous for bringing forth Alexander the Great and the Hellenization of the Ancient World. The Republic of Macedonia is a predominantly Slavic country, that shares a portion of its southern territory with the territory of the ancient kingdom of Macedon.

Recently, prime ministers of Greece, Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, both shared their optimism about a possible agreement on the name issue. Prime Minister Zaev couldn’t tell which names are being discussed. He merely stated that any solution would be subjected to a referendum, possibly this September or October. Options are said to be ‘New Macedonia’, ‘Upper Macedonia’, or ‘North Macedonia’.

The name dispute has its origins in the nationalistic movements in the Balkan region at the time of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The territory in the south Balkan region, trenched more or less areas that are part of modern Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and the Republic of Macedonia. It consisted of a multi-ethnic population. The Slavic people of the region were not considered a separate nation by the surrounding countries, despite nationalistic sentiments by the ‘Macedonians’ themselves.

After World War II, the Socialist Federal republic of Yugoslavia created a Macedonian Republic. The area of that Socialist republic is the area of the modern Republic of Macedonia. In the Greek civil war of the 1940s between the communist partisans – backed by Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria – and the Greek government army – backed by the United States and the United Kingdom –, the Slavic Macedonians, fought mainly in the communist militias. After the communist defeat in 1949, many Slavic Macedonians fled from the Greek region of Macedonia to Yugoslavia, their property being confiscated.

The sentiments of that era still echo to this day. For the Macedonians, the name Macedonia is a part of their national identity as a separate nation. This includes using symbols like the sun of Vergina and Alexander the Great as part of the national identity. Statutes of Alexander the Great and Phillip of Macedon are erected across the country, even in places which were never part of the historical kingdom of Macedon. Furthermore there is a movement that claims that the Slavic speaking Macedonian people are direct descendants of the historical Macedonians, which according to some weren’t even Greeks.

All this fuels nationalistic sentiments in Greece, where the relation with the glorious past of ancient Macedonia is considered a source of national pride. For them the Republic of Macedonia is nothing more than a nationalistic, or even irredentist, attempt to their Greek land and history.

Since the declaration of independence, Greece has vehemently protested against the use of the name Macedonia in any form. It was only after negotiations that the provisional name FYROM was accepted as a temporal name and admission to the UN was acceptable for Greece. The UN Security Council stated in two resolutions <..> that further negotiations should take place to settle the name issue. The dispute however has not been settled. In the contrary, since then the dispute has led to the refusal by Greece to admit the Republic of Macedonia to NATO or the EU-membership. The veto on NATO-membership of Macedonia has even been subject of a ICJ-case.  The ICJ did not address the name dispute, but ruled that Greece breached its obligation by objecting the NATO-bid of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Although the political will to reach a compromise seems to be present in the leadership in both countries, national sentiments have sparked protests in both countries, signalling that whatever compromise can count on opposition.

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Librarian's choice

A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection

Danforth, L.M., The Macedonian conflict: ethnic nationalism in a transnational world, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995.

Deskoski, T., “Macedonian-Greek Relations and the ICJ Judgment of 5 December 2011” in: R. Wolfrum  et. al (eds.) Contemporary Developments in International Law: Essays in Honour of Budislav Vukas, Leiden, Brill Nijhoff, 2016, pp. 26-45.

Papavizas, G.C., Claiming Macedonia: the struggle for the heritage, territory and name of the historic Hellenic land, 1862-2004, Jefferson, McFarland, 2006.

Skordos, A., Griechenlands Makedonische Frage: Bürgerkrieg und Geschichtspolitik im Südosten Europas, 1945-1992, Göttingen, Wallstein Verlag, 2012.

Ruffer, A. “Macedonia's Ohrid Framework Agreement Reexamined in Response to Internal and External Crises: Reason for Cautious Optimism on Europe's Southeastern Border” Columbia journal of transnational law, 55 (2017), No. 2, pp. 457-498.

Vankovska, B., “History and memories of the Balkan Wars in the Republic of Macedonia: debates over the past”, in: J. Pettifer and T. Buchanan (eds.), History and memories of the Balkan Wars in the Republic of Macedonia : debates over the past, London, I.B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 115-138. (412921936)

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