Newspapers have been splashed this past month with coverage of both Greeks and Macedonians taking to the streets in protest over the former country’s official name. This spat between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has been ongoing for more than 25 years, but it has gained particular attention as of late as the FYROM Government steps up its efforts to broker a deal with its southern neighbour amid renewed hopes of gaining accession into NATO and the European Union.
The backdrop of this perplexing controversy has been shrouded by the media’s oversimplification of the issue as a name game, painting Greeks as being upset simply for the fact that a nearby state took the same title as one of its provinces, also called Macedonia. In fact, the issue goes much deeper. When FYROM established itself as an independent state in 1991, emerging as the former “Yugoslav Federative Republic of Macedonia,” it included irredentist references in its constitution, referencing the possibility of changing its current borders to create a “Greater Macedonia” which would include the northern province of Greece.
Greeks see the naming of a country after a neighbouring region as a de facto threatening strategy aimed at destabilising the region and the country at large. The same goes for FYROM’s choice of emblem on its flag, the Vergina Sun, which is the symbol of the ancient Greek Macedonian dynasty, a lineage which includes Alexander the Great, former king of the Greek kingdom of Macedon.
FYROM citizens, for their part, have interpreted their government’s latest attempts to appease Greece, by offering several national renaming options, as catering to a bullying neighbour and betraying national interests. However, the FYROM Government has made clear that its highest priorities are joining the two international organisations that it is currently blocked from, almost solely over the issue at hand.
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In years past, both Greece and neighbour Bulgaria have used their member state power to block FYROM’s EU membership talks from transpiring, demanding that the country acknowledge the irredentist nature of its name and the contents of its constitution, and subsequently change them. This is an unresolved dispute that has been a constant sore spot in the Balkans since 1993, when the United Nations, acknowledging Greece’s position, admitted the republic into the organisation with the “temporary” name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
But the name stuck— for more than a quarter century. However, 2018 could be the year of change for the region, thanks to recently increased discord between Greece and Turkey, coupled with FYROM’s pressing desire to reach an agreement with its neighbour ahead of an EU meeting in June and a NATO summit in July. Analysts point to the fact that the countries’ overlapping timelines and their respective state interests have formed a unique window of opportunity for a potential compromise which would leave them both in stronger positions on the international stage.
While Athens previously stated that it would not consent to any national name containing the word “Macedonia,” FYROM has offered a compromise of including a geographic “qualifier” to ensure differentiation between the two territories (these include: Republic of North Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).) While Greece is not usually in the mood to bargain on the issue, increasing pressure from Turkey has forced the country to consider adjusting the hard line it has maintained for years.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Athens in December brought with it further souring of already strained relations between the two NATO allies. A long history of maritime and territorial disputes between these neighbours has heated up in recent months as Turkey’s president continues his attempts to exert increased political power domestically and internationally. Just last week Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers on suspicion of attempted espionage after they walked into a Turkish military zone (an accident that occurred due to bad weather, according to Greek authorities).
While Greece’s allies, including the US, are already pushing for a compromised solution with FYROM, the country’s heightened tension with its eastern neighbour is creating a need, stronger than ever, for Athens to have an ally on its northern border. Dissolving longstanding disagreements with FYROM could offer Greece a “buffer state” with which to face an increasingly unpredictable Turkey. Moreover, forming an alliance with its former Yugoslavian neighbour could offer Greece the chance to enhance its role as a stabilising force in the Balkans, an area that is in need of a regional leader.
There is no word yet on the subsequent United Nations’ mediated discussion between representatives since their last gathering in January.