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In a Name: North Macedonia and Greece Clash over Historical and Cultural Legacies

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis lauded the new logo, released by the Greek Exporters Association at an event in November. The branding aims to promote local wine and foods produced in the northern region of the Mediterranean nation, but Mitsotakis sees more than that. The “GR” in “GReat” emphasizes the term “Macedonia” as Greek, which Greece claims should refer exclusively to the northern part of Greece, not the country immediately to the north. 

The publicity campaign surfaced a year after the governments of Greece and its northern neighbor signed a deal to rename the latter “North Macedonia” rather than “Macedonia,” the latest installment in a debate that has raged for over two decades.

“These poor Macedonians are being subjected to a great deal of pressure to basically find a new identity,” explained Simon Zdraveski, a financier of Macedonian birth. “Basically, whatever constitutes Macedonia is left to Greece.”

Zdraveski, born in 1966 in a small village in modern-day North Macedonia, moved to Australia with his parents when he was five years old. He spoke only Macedonian at the time, and eventually became the first in his family to graduate from university—from the University of Melbourne in 1986—before pursuing a career in finance and tax advising. 

Zdraveski married a woman of Italian descent. His children don’t consider themselves Macedonian. He did not closely follow news from his home country. He hasn’t lived in Macedonia for 48 years.

In 2018, after the controversial naming crisis with Greece, his relationship to the country changed.

***

“In one word, it was chaos,” according to Naum Petreski. Petreski, a history student at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje and a North Macedonian tour guide, was only a toddler at the time, but it has been recounted to him so many times he recalls it like it was his own memory.

In 1991, now-North Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia, backed by 96 percent of voters in a referendum. It was in that year that the residents named their nation “Macedonia.” 

The country’s name immediately became a contentious subject. Although it celebrated its independence in 1991, Petreski explained, “the country did not become a UN member until April 1993 because of the name issue with Greece.”

 “The name issue” refers to Greece’s efforts to prevent its neighbor from joining the United Nations under the name of “Macedonia.” The term “Macedonia” has historically referred to the northern region of Greece, considered the birthplace of the Ancient Macedonian Empire. The Empire, ruled by Phillip II and eventually expanded from South Asia to Central Europe by his son, Alexander the Great, retains prominence in the cultural identity of many Greeks. 

“The ruling Macedonians [at the time of the Empire] were mostly entirely Greek,” noted Paul Cartledge, British historian and A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge. “Today’s ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ occupies the territory occupied by the Paeonians in the time of Philip, who conquered them. The Paeonians were not Greek.” Cartledge then explained how the region saw a migration of Slavic peoples southwards into the Balkans in the sixth century AD. Today, people in modern-day North Macedonia are an ethnically Slavic people with a Slavic language. 

Consequently, Greece claimed the term “Macedonia” was solely Greek and refused to recognize its northern neighbor under that name. While Greece initially tried to block it from joining the UN, North Macedonia was able to become a member state in 1993 under the provisional name of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). However, over 140 countries recognized the nation under its constitutional name of Macedonia, including the United States, Russia, and China. 

“Greece is supposedly the home of democracy,” Zdraveski despaired. “What kind of democracy are we dealing with here when [the majority of the United Nations] accepted Macedonia as Macedonia?” 

Greece continued to express its frustration against then-Macedonia with an 18-month blockade that they imposed in 1994 on the tiny, landlocked nation of two million people. To this day, many Greek citizens refer to the country as Skopje, the country’s capital and largest city. 

The 2018 deal, called the Prespa Agreement, put an end to the decades-long dispute that had seen Greece block North Macedonia’s efforts to join the EU and NATO. The deal specified that residents of the tiny Balkan nation could refer to their ethnicity and language as “Macedonian,” but their country name would have to be “North Macedonia.” In exchange, Greece would offer its support in EU and NATO accession, as a single veto prevents any small European nation from joining the coveted organizations.

The tensions are far from over, though; the majority of both Greek and Macedonian citizens disapprove of the deal. On the surface, Greece and North Macedonia’s naming controversy seems trivial, an inconsequential question of semantics. For millions of Greeks and Macedonians, however, it is a fight for history, culture, and identity. 

***

Robert Major waxes poetic about the history of Macedonia. “Macedonia as a name,” he tells me, with a near-reminiscent air, “is older than the Bible itself.” 

Indeed, the name itself is a critical touchstone for self-titled ethnic Macedonians, many of whom feel they have been pushed around by stronger neighbors for centuries. Despite Greek claims to the term, ethnic Macedonians also boast historical ties. An official document from 1905 shows an immigrant by the name of Epta Naonmtche from modern-day North Macedonia. His documents list his nationality as “Macedonian” even though the region was under Turkish occupation.

Major moved from North Macedonia several years ago but still firmly identifies as Macedonian. “Does it matter where you live to know what is right and wrong? To know how you define yourself? Do you think that changing your living address can change your history? I don’t.” 

Zdraveski expressed a similar connection to his birthplace, despite living thousands of miles away. 

“This nation of mine, where I was born, is being basically systematically dissected,” he grieved. “The last straw for me,” he explained, “[is that the government] elected to eliminate the reference to our language within our school system over there.” The Prespa agreement had promised to allow citizens in North Macedonia to still refer to their Slavic language as Macedonian. Zdraveski had heard otherwise.

“In America, you study ‘English,’ correct?” Zdraveski asked. “In Macedonia, students will no longer be studying ‘Macedonian’; it will instead by labelled ‘The Mother Tongue.’” 

***

Almost no country in the modern era has voluntarily renamed itself during a time of peace. Burma to Myanmar, Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Khmer Republic to Cambodia—almost all involved violence and resulted from regime collapses.  

In a way, North Macedonia’s name change is not completely voluntary either. 

North Macedonia has struggled economically ever since independence. The country was surrounded by political turmoil that seeped in during the 1990s and early 2000s, but even relative stability in the Balkans over the last decade didn’t bring prosperity to the small nation. About a third of the population currently lives below the poverty line. The allure of opportunities that would come from joining the EU entices many Macedonians, though it remains to be seen whether European accession can solve many of the structural issues the country faces. 

“This issue should’ve been addressed at the United Nations–not at some bilateral forum where Greeks basically have a gun to your head saying if you want to join the EU, you have to do this,” lamented Zdraveski. Greece’s veto would’ve been enough to indefinitely block accession to NATO and the EU, so a deal was required for entering these international bodies. 

Many Macedonians feel not only pressured by their neighbor, but also betrayed by their own government as well. In the September 2018 referendum on the agreement, the people voted overwhelmingly to approve, at 95 percent. But the voter turnout was a measly 37 percent, below the necessary threshold to validate the results. Both sides claimed victory, though in the end it didn’t matter. The government was able to push the resolution through Parliament regardless of how the people felt. 

***

“I was there, and we were on the roads, yes,” Maria Kaliambou recalled. Her office on the second floor of Luce Hall is filled with stacks of Greek books fitting of a library collection. “It was kind of common in every school, the teacher and our fellow students went and protested that Alexander is ours. It’s emotional.” 

Kaliambou, now a professor of Modern Greek at Yale, clearly remembers the 1990s protests when the Greek government and its citizens accelerated efforts to dispute their northern neighbor’s name. 

Protestors from all walks of Greek life and all political ideologies joined the popular chorus: “Macedonia is one and it is Greek.” 

George Mourgkos ’22 grew up listening to stories of his mother’s involvement in the protests. She always described the 1990s protests with a resigned air. Mourgkos recalled, “There were thousands of people protesting, and despite that, the government did nothing that was requested.”

To Greeks today, the northern country’s name—even with “North” in front of it—seems a blatant appropriation of their culture. Symbols such as Alexander the Great and the Vergina Sun hold an important place in the historical and cultural identities of many Greeks, especially in Greece’s northern region. Cartledge explained: “The Macedonians of what became FYROM had called themselves ‘Macedonians’ since the late 19th century, but this was an appropriation of an originally Hellenic name.” So in early 2018, when the Prespa Agreement was signed, over two-thirds of the Greek population was unsatisfied. 

“My friends in Thessaloniki are angry,” Kaliambou shared. “[Macedonians] usurped history for their own political purposes. This is not scholarship, this is not science, this is not logic. This is just propaganda.” 

Resignedly, she added: “I think we lost the name, the name is now for them.”

Like in the 1990s, Greek protesters have taken to the streets. Thousands surrounded the country’s Parliament—up to 100,000 on some days—and riot police responded with tear gas and flash bombs. 

Mourgkos and his family thought about joining the activists. “My mom said that it would be futile for us to go protest,” he told me. She was too disillusioned from the last time she had tried to speak up. “She had lost hope in the government listening to us.”

***

A few years back, Zdraveski took his family back to the village where he grew up. When he left in 1971, the village had not even 100 residents, and the majority of homes did not have electricity. Only one family remains in this village in 2015—distant cousins who reopened their home to him during his visit so he could show his six-year-old, eight-year-old, and ten-year-old sons where he spent his formative years. 

In the last year, Alexander the Great Airport in Skopje has been renamed Skopje International Airport. The Macedonian Opera and Ballet became the National Opera and Ballet. Over 130 different state agency names in North Macedonia have been changed. Zdraveski was incensed: “They’ve basically eliminated any reference to Macedonia in all government institutions.” 

Although Cartledge and other Classical History scholars agree that Greece’s claim to the term Macedonia is undeniable—by some reports, an over 2,500-year-old legacy—it is difficult for a country to lay exclusive claim to a history that was millenia ago. Contrary to Greek portrayals, the term Macedonia was not simply taken in the 1990s for the country to build a new identity from scratch: It has been used for at least over a century to refer to these Slavic people. 

Many Macedonians today don’t want to lay claim to Alexander the Great as an ethnic Macedonian—they simply want to embrace the word their family has used for generations. Petreski explained,“My ancestors used to identify with the name Macedonia, so I see it as cultural heritage and as a pillar of the national identity along with the language.”

Greek people are not entirely unsympathetic to these claims. “There were many people who said the term Macedonia should not be in the name at all. I just thought that was a non-feasible thing to ask for,” explained Mourgkos. Kaliambou agreed, adding, “Let’s say you have a fellow sitting here born in North Macedonia raised with this mentality and this history in their books. How do you tell those kids and the younger generation that this is just an insane mistake?” 

For now, the future of North Macedonia and its relationship with Greece and the rest of Europe is largely unclear. Tensions between Greece and North Macedonia will likely continue over the next few months at the very least, as specificities from the deal are worked out and people in both countries will likely call themselves Macedonian for the near future. The EU issue is also still unsettled, as French President Emmanuel Macron blocked North Macedonia’s accession in November. 

The Prespa Agreement promises that “nothing in this agreement is intended to denigrate in any way, or to alter or affect, the usage [of the word Macedonia] by the citizens of either party.” 

Regardless of what follows on both sides, this promise seems already to have failed.