WHAT'S IN A NAME? THE MACEDONIA-NAMING DISPUTE HAS RISEN ONCE AGAIN
BY MARIA STEVENS
BY MARIA STEVENS
What’s in a name? The Macedonian naming dispute has risen once again!
Despite perhaps legitimate claims to historical appropriation, it is in fact the psychological defeat of a sovereign Greece and the capitalisation of the right that powers forward the mass protests.
You may never have heard of it, but there is no doubting the strong political and emotional reactions it produces. The ‘Macedonia-naming dispute’ is in the spotlight once again leading to mass protests and rallies across Greece involving hundreds of thousands of people, but what is the dispute about and is it really just about a name?
‘Naming’-dispute? Yes, this is really an issue that at least on the surface regards the use of the name ‘Macedonia’. While it may be common within other countries to immediately think of the separate nation state of Macedonia with the capital city Skopje on hearing the word ‘Macedonia’, many Greeks and Greek politicians regard the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ by that country as completely illegitimate. Macedonia is a historical region encompassing the regions of northern Greece, still today referred to in Greece as the regional district of Macedonia, as well as areas of the nation states of Macedonia and Bulgaria. Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki, lies within the Greek region of Macedonia, and many Greeks regard the inheritance of the name Macedonia as rightfully belonging solely to the state of Greece.
Landlocked by Greece to the south, Serbia and Kosovo to the north, and Albania and Bulgaria to the west and east respectively, Macedonia, officially called the ‘Republic of Macedonia’ but referred to by international organisations such as NATO, the EU and United Nations as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) has been an independent state since it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991. The borders of the current Macedonian state had existed within a Federal Yugoslavia between 1944 and 1991 as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, one of the six other constituent states, now all independent states, that made up the then Yugoslavia.
Macedonia as a geographical area and peoples can be traced back to the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia, a historical institution so old that it can be difficult for historians to interpret what is legend and what is historical fact. Certainly though, a Kingdom of Macedonia was headed, perhaps founded, by Carnasus of Macedon over 2,800 years ago. During the 4th century BC the Macedonian Empire had expanded via diplomacy across the independent city states of Ancient Greece and later under Alexander the Great the Macedonian Empire became briefly the most powerful empire in the world.
So what is the issue? Greek rejection of the use of the term Macedonia, as the title of the nation state, tends to be based predominantly on claims of historical and cultural ‘appropriation’. However, thrown in with this predominant accusation is the irredentist claim that groups within Macedonia, or the FYROM state itself, wish to take under its control the northern Macedonian region of Greece. The veracity of the irredentist claim as a real threat to the modern Greek state or its sovereign territory, or whether anyone outside of fringe Macedonian politics actually is making such a claim, is highly suspect in that very few could imagine that the FYROM state could in any way realistically threaten Greek sovereignty.
The claim of historical and cultural appropriation made by some Greeks against the nation of Macedonia is perhaps not without rational merit. In using the term ‘Macedonia’ the nation could be giving the impression that it is the direct descendent of the Macedonian Empire of ancient times. The ancient Kingdom of Macedonia was overwhelmingly found within modern Greece as oppose to modern FYROM and some historians even suggest that the majority of modern FYROM did not sit within the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia at all.
The modern nation state of FYROM has indeed to a large extent forcefully and purposely co-opted the imagery and historical narrative of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia and not simply the geographical name ‘Macedonia’. The Macedonian national flag is a representation of the Vergina sun, the symbol of the ancient empire, despite the fact that the town of Vergina from where the flag is inspired sits deep within modern northern Greece. Likewise, the modern FYROM state has whole heartedly embraced the imagery of Alexander the Great, a gargantuan statue of the pupil of Aristotle and former leader of the Macedonian empire stands proudly a-top his horse in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, a capital city which itself was never part of the ancient kingdom. The nation’s main highway and the international airport also carry the name of Alexander. The problem perceived here lies in that Alexander the Great, much like the origin of the Vergina sun, was born in modern day Greece, not FYROM.
These statues and iconography it should be stressed have not been a permanent feature of Macedonia, even since independence, but emerged to a large extent after the rise to power of a right-wing nationalist government in FYROM. This process has been called “antiquisation” and carried out to a large extent by the staunchly anti-communist, and allegedly ethnic-nationalist, VMRO-DPMNE party who held power in the nation of Macedonia between 2006 and 2014.
THE MODERN POLITICAL BACK AND FORTH – TIMELINE:
In 1991 with independence there arose immediate mass rejection in Greece of the use of the name Macedonia by the newly independent state. Greek political parties overwhelmingly stood against accepting the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ and 1 million Greeks, 10% of the total population rallied in Greek cities.
The use of the name meant that Greece moved to block the newly independent state from joining the United Nations. However, in 1993 Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis under pressure from the international community accepted the use of the term FYROM and the United Nations recognised the new state on the agreement that the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is a provisional term to be used only until the dispute was resolved”.
In 2005 it is suggested by a United Nations representative that a compromise may be reached whereby the state would call itself the “Republic of Macedonia-Skopje”. While Greek governments had not said outright that it would block Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU on the basis of the name dispute up to this point (something they reserve the right to do as a member) in 2007 Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis stated that if the issue was not resolved Greece would not accept FYROM into either organisation while it continued to have ‘Macedonia’ in its name. This more hard-line position by the Greek government of blocking FYROM from the EU and NATO emerged just as the process of antiquitisation began under the newly elected right-wing government in FYROM.
By 2017 the VMRO-DPMNE FYROM government had been defeated and replaced with a moderate government intent on solving the crisis.
There are numerous speculations as to why the current SYRIZA Greek government has also perhaps or is at least rumoured to be seeking a compromise. First among them is the alleged pressure applied by the institutions of NATO and the EU.
It is speculated that the current economic crisis in Greece, and with the significant power the EU led institutions have over the economy of the country, alongside the desire for NATO to expand in Eastern Europe to pre-empt a more confident Russia looking to also expand its influence, has led both of these institutions to seek a compromise from Greece in order to halt their veto of the EU and NATO and bring FYROM into the fold.
The feeling that a compromise may be brought about by both sides has greatly intensified feelings among Greeks who reject any use of the term Macedonia.
In Thessaloniki it is estimated 100,000 Greeks marched in January 2018, with a further 200,000 marching in Athens early February. Both demonstrations involved huge mobilisations by political parties, mainstream and far-right, as well as the Greek Orthodox church. The demonstrations were not without consequences, after the Thessaloniki demonstration far-right extremists attacked and vandalised the Thessaloniki holocaust memorial and burned to the ground a house being squatted by an anarchist group. In Athens there were smaller less serious confrontations.
While there may be justification for Greece opposing the use of the Macedonia name, and there was without a doubt between 2006 and 2014 in Macedonia an overt attempt at putting a historical claim upon the history of the Macedonian Empire the reality is that these protests seen in Thessaloniki and Athens are the result of much deeper unease and anxieties within Greek society.
No one truly believes any irredentist claims by Macedonia on the northern Macedonia region of Greece. Macedonia remains one of Europe’s poorest countries with poor infrastructure, poor defences and the simple lack of desire amongst society or politicians to in any way violate the sovereign territory of Greece. If Greeks are to fear a military threat to their sovereignty their eyes would turn to their old nemesis Turkey, led by an authoritarian, expansionist government with a much more powerful armed forces who regularly make statements regarding the Turkish right to certain parts of Greek territory. Let’s not forget that Turkey is itself a NATO member and in the last months has invaded sovereign territory in Syria.
Clearly if Greeks were worried about their sovereign territory they would be out in their hundreds of thousands against Turkey and not out against tiny and weak Macedonia.
So is it really the case that Greeks are protesting en-masse simply about the use of the name? They did after all do so in the early 90s when FYROM emerged as a state. Is it not the fact that as the issue may be coming to an agreed conclusion that the anxieties of historical appropriation are simply returning?
This may be the case to a large extent. People simply do not want their history ‘taken from them’ as many would put it. However, this time there is something deeper at play.
The economic crisis has hit Greece harder than any other country in the Western world, not only was this a crisis that hurt Greece in economic terms but it was also a crisis that involved austerity demanded by forces out with Greece itself, namely the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Greeks were hit financially but also clearly lost a great deal of sovereignty over their internal political issues, not to mention pride. In regards to the Macedonian dispute, it is again suggested that forces out with Greece (the other EU and NATO nations) are the ones pushing for a resolution to the naming-dispute.
First is the humiliation of economic downturn and subservience to international forces, then it appears to many Greeks that their very history is being eroded, again by forces out with their control. It is not hard to understand the psychology at work here.
Prime Minister Tsipras of the governing SYRIZA party swept to power in 2015 winning a referendum on rejecting a bailout agreement only to later capitulate to the international economic pressure of the IMF and the ECB. He has lost all credibility as a force for change, and his party has slumped in the polls. SYRIZA’s opponents to the right now see the perfect opportunity to strike.
They can claim that not only did he sell out his nation to international economic forces, against the democratic will of the people with a referendum he himself called, but now the right can claim that he is selling out the very history of Greece itself.
SYRIZA’s main opponents, the conservative New Democracy party who are leading Greek polls, are however in somewhat of a dilemma. They themselves reject any use of the name Macedonia but they are also profoundly pro-EU, pro-Euro and neoliberal in outlook. It would be easy to imagine them coming to power to only find themselves under the same pressures as Tsipras does today in regards to the naming-dispute. It is the radical right with their economic protectionism, anti-EU, anti-Euro stance that could therefore be the prime winners.
So what is in a name? While there are legitimate claims to make in terms of Greece rejecting the historical appropriation of the term Macedonia, and a hard-right government that for 8 years pursued a policy of overtly attempting to seize the historicism of Macedonia these current rounds of protests within Greece hold a much deeper in meaning. The defeat of SYRIZA’s left-populist ‘nationalism’, the organisation of the centre and far-right (as well as the churches) around the Macedonian issue as a weapon to further discredit the current government and the loss of sovereignty by Greece to international organisations can only serve as a basis from which those on the right can claim that not only is the current government selling us out economically, but also selling out Greek history itself.
The issue can even be seen as a microcosm of the globalised economy whereby national governments have lost significant sovereignty, and where the only products on sale to the electorate are those related to a reactionary view of national identity.