Recent developments have seen the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Greece re-enter into negotiations over the name issue. Greece’s official position has been consistent over the last couple of decades. In particular, Greece proposes that the name FYROM be replaced by a compound name with a geographical qualifier before the word “Macedonia,” to be recognized by all countries and for all purposes. On the other hand, FYROM’s official position has oscillated between a hard-line stance and a more moderate one; the former attempts to monopolize the use of the word “Macedonia” and was predominant during Nikola Gruevski’s 10-year rule of the country. The latter is willing to accept a compound name, albeit in terms of a bilateral agreement, without having an effect on FYROM’s constitutional name, currently “Republic of Macedonia.”
The geographical area of Macedonia is primarily split between Greece, FYROM and Bulgaria. Although home to distinct peoples, within each sub-region the population identifies as Macedonian. For example, in northern Greece people regard themselves to be both Macedonian and Greek, in a cultural and historical sense. The usage of the term is pervasive, with an airport, newspaper, television network and university among the institutions bearing the name “Macedonia” in northern Greece.
In spite of this, when Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, the southernmost part of that federation sought international recognition under the maximalist name “Republic of Macedonia,” thus effectively claiming the name and identity of Macedonia exclusively for itself. This was not simply an expression of sovereignty, but a threat to the stability of the region. This becomes clearer when combined with other actions taken by the new republic, such as (i) irredentist claims in the constitution, (ii) official government-funded documents publishing maps of a “United Macedonia,” a nationalistic concept that claims Greek and Bulgarian territory, (iii) adopting a national flag depicting the “Sun of Vergina,” an ancient symbol found in the Greek region of Macedonia, and (iv) promotion of a national narrative claiming links to Ancient Macedonia, whose prominent archaeological sites lie exclusively within the borders of Greece. In 1995 FYROM agreed to use a different flag and make some constitutional amendments, following an interim accord with Greece. In exchange, Greece agreed to lift a 19-month trade embargo.
Unfortunately, expansionism and cultural appropriation have continued to be promoted within FYROM, even at the highest levels of governance. Maps of “United Macedonia” remained part of the school curriculum. The exorbitant Skopje 2014 project involved the expenditure of more than 8 percent of GDP for redeveloping the capital of FYROM to have a more classical character. This included statues of historical figures whose birthplaces are within Greece, with the purpose of supporting expansionism by reinforcing claims on Ancient Macedonia.
The same elements of aggression and irredentism that manifest themselves externally against FYROM’s neighbors also manifest themselves internally within FYROM itself. Indeed, FYROM’s hard-line stance has exacerbated deep rifts within its own society and undermined stability, civil society and democratic norms.
The first of these rifts is between nationalists and moderates. The latter denounce expansionism and irredentism, desiring stable relations with Greece. The nationalist assertion of ties between FYROM and Ancient Macedonia alienates those moderates who see their own language, culture and identity as a Slavic one, unrelated to Ancient Macedonia. Unfortunately, this view was oppressed over the 10-year rule of former prime minister Gruevski, who dichotomized society into “patriots” and “traitors.” This led to demagoguery and increasing authoritarianism, culminating in election fraud and spying on so-called “traitors.” In 2015 a major scandal broke involving the wiretapping of approximately 20,000 FYROM citizens, including more than 100 journalists as well as politicians from across the political spectrum.
Nationalists within FYROM often envision their country as an ethno-state rather than a civic state, a view that provokes and intimidates the country’s sizable Albanian minority. This represents the second major rift within society in FYROM. In 2011, FYROM deliberately scrapped its decennial census, to conceal demographic developments that might have led to calls for greater political representation for ethnic Albanians. Also, despite the parliament recently passing a law granting Albanian equal status as an official language, at the time of writing the president of the country, Gjorge Ivanov, still refuses to grant his assent. Notably Gruevski, who remains highly influential despite being under investigation, tried to stop the parliamentary procedure using physical force and had to be stopped by security guards from coming to blows with the parliamentary speaker, Talat Xhaferi.
It is often posited, correctly in our view, that joining the EU and NATO would be beneficial for FYROM’s stability and economic prospects. At the same time, it is important to realize that nationalism poses a far greater threat to FYROM’s interests, as well as the stability of the Balkans. The fact that FYROM cannot successfully stage a military invasion of Greece should not lead to complacency in the face of ultranationalism and expansionism within FYROM when these attitudes should be condemned independently of FYROM’s military capabilities.
The only viable, long-term solution to the name issue is a compromise that (i) sufficiently differentiates between the two peoples, (ii) respects the fact that each side claims a Macedonian identity, but should not monopolize it, and (iii) has a permanent character by means of ratification of the new resolution – whatever that might be – in FYROM’s constitution. The international community should no longer turn a blind eye to nationalism and should actively encourage the two countries to reach a compromise and achieve a viable solution.
* Dr Anastasios Panagiotelis and Dr Vasilis Sarafidis are members of the Executive Board of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies.