'Macedonia' is more than a name to Greece

Greece Letter: Links with Alexander the Great and fears of a land grab behind dispute

"It's our name, our language and our identity," say the people of Macedonia, asking the international community to recognise their state as the Republic of Macedonia. Greeks reject this. At an Athens rally this month, cultural icon Mikis Theodorakis (92) declared "There is only one Macedonia, it is, was and always will be Greek."

Greece, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom), Nato and the United Nations are in the throes of a heated debate about Macedonia's future name. It's a complex issue that has simmered since 1992. Why is it so complex? Why do Greeks continue to object to the name "Republic of Macedonia" when over 100 countries have already agreed to use it? Why are Russia, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Turkey also involved?

A simple answer to this complexity is the single word: "Balkans". As early as 1986 the dissolution of Yugoslavia was being mooted. The federation, in existence since 1918, was founded more on hope and necessity than ethnicity, religion or political cohesion. Breaking it up in the 1990s into the constituent parts Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro changed the face of the Balkans – that amorphous crossroads of languages, ethnicities, religions and cultures between east and west.

As a result, we witnessed the wars of 1991-99 in Bosnia, Croatia and other constituents of Yugoslavia. We saw the reconfiguration of Serbia and the ethnic Albanian region of Kosovo – another dispute yet to be resolved. And for 25 years so far, we have watched Macedonia trying to find its official identity in the face of Greek opposition.


Politically, Greeks fear the irredentist ambition to regain control of that part of historical Macedonia which is still in Greece, with Thessaloniki as its capital

As Daniel McLaughlin has reported here, the populist rally in Thessaloniki on January 21 st attracted a huge crowd. So too did that in Athens on February 4th, although far less than its organisers had expected.

Alexander the Great

Greece opposes “Macedonia” for two reasons: sentimentally, Macedonia was the power centre of Alexander the Great, whom Greeks regard as a Greek hero. Vergina, the ancient capital of Macedonia, is still in Greece (and the brand name of a cheap but nonetheless tasty beer).

Politically, Greeks fear the irredentist ambition to regain control of that part of historical Macedonia which is still in Greece, with Thessaloniki as its capital. In the Balkans there are no such areas as “sidelines”, and “borders” are a moveable feast. Thessaloniki has been part of Greece only since 1913.

None of this can be seen in isolation – a word unknown in the Balkan lexicon. So in this melting-pot of conflicts we also see the EU-Turkish deal on movement of refugees at risk; the Albanian nationalist demand for a "Greater Albania" embracing Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and northern Greece; the ever-increasing momentum of the Chinese "One Belt One Road" commercial highway from Central Asia to Europe which will pass straight through the Balkans.

Russian financial interest in buying the port of Thessaloniki alarms the Americans, but not so much as American interest in Macedonia joining Nato alarms Russia.

That the US wishes to see the Balkans integrated into a "Euro-Atlantic" polity is the outcome of negotiations which began in 1944 when Churchill and Stalin carved up eastern Europe into their different spheres of influence.

If you bear in mind that the entire region was dominated by the Ottoman empire for four centuries, involving Christian-Muslim conflict, fluidity of languages, cultures and borders with repercussions today throughout the region, the immensity of the historical burden of the Balkans becomes clear.

Turkey’s proposed entry into European affairs is only a reflection of those morphologies.

Orthodox Church

UN negotiator Max Nimetz (struggling with this issue since 1999) has so far suggested "North Macedonia", "Northern Macedonia" and "Upper Macedonia" but the conservative junior coalition party in Greece, and the Orthodox Church, adamantly oppose any use of the word "Macedonia", which Nimetz insists is a prerequisite.

Meetings between the Macedonian and Greek prime ministers have resulted in a cosmetic job whereby “Alexander the Great Airport” in Skopje will be renamed, but this does not satisfy Greece, which wants the Macedonian constitution amended to remove its claims on northern Greece.

If you recall the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the 1937 Constitution relating to the Republic's claims on Northern Ireland, you'll see the diplomatic imperative if Greece is to be wooed.

And it works both ways: in the 1880s a Greek negotiator was asked at dinner “Would you like a little macedoine” (a posh word for mixed veg); he replied “All of it”.

Older readers will remember that it was once politically incorrect to refer to “Northern Ireland”; we had to call that tiny part of the UK “the Six Counties”. That same pussy-footing around the issue of naming an entire sovereign state is prevalent today. With both sides apparently intransigent, Nimetz has a thankless task.