If the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) fulfills all the commitments it made when signing the name deal in Prespes, northern Greece, it will become the fifth country in the United Nations with a geographical qualifier in its name: after South Africa, the Central African Republic, East Timor (also known as Timor-Leste) and more recently South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011.
A look at their constitutions shows us that in all cases – all of them! – the name of the state is the same as that of the people: “We, the People of South Africa,” “Le Peuple Centrafricain,” “We, the People of South Sudan,” “Povo de Timor-Leste.”
The same is the case for citizenship and nationality, which is referred to, everywhere, as South African, South Sudanese, etc. It is taken for granted that the citizens of a state do not identify themselves purely on the basis of the broader geographical district in which they reside. Thus, the citizens of South Africa don’t refer to themselves as Africans as if that were the name of their country, etc.
This self-evident factor was lost in the deal signed between Athens and Skopje in the Prespes lake district on June 17. The state will be called North Macedonia, but the people will not be known as “North Macedonians,” but as “Macedonians.”
On the surface, the agreement settles a problem that appeared in 1991 when FYROM became independent from Yugoslavia. In reality, though, it addresses an issue that dates back to the 19th century and concerns the ethnic identity of the Slavic-speaking Christian people residing in Macedonia.
One section chose to be Greek, another decided to become Bulgarian. The term “Macedonians” for the others who lived mainly in the area that went on to become a part of Yugoslavia started making an appearance after 1913. That is when the notion emerged of a “Macedonian nation” that had been fragmented between the three Balkan states that occupied parts of Macedonia.
By adopting the name “Republic of Macedonia” in 1991, Skopje chose to propagate the notion and take ownership of the name of the entire geographical area. The Prespes agreement achieved a change in the country’s name. This was, objectively, an accomplishment.
However, instead of the new name identifying the state in all of its public manifestations, as is self-evident, the agreement breaks that continuity. What Greece gained with the name change, it ceded by accepting the term “Macedonians.” Thus, one of the peoples of the geographical region of Macedonia has laid claim to the name that refers to the entirety of the people of that area.
The government justified the concession by saying that it could not encroach on the FYROM people’s right to self-determination. But the name of the citizens of a state – their citizenship/nationality – is not an issue of self-determination. It is a legal bond with the state.
The Greeks remaining in Istanbul or Gokceada (Imbros) are Turkish citizens however much they want to call themselves Greeks. Where they do have the right to self-determination is in regard to their ethnic identity. They are ethnic Greek Turkish citizens.
The fact that Greece failed on the issue of what the people of FYROM will call themselves is a sign of a poor negotiation. It is not treason.
Unfortunately, we seem to be moving rapidly from the talk of collaborators of 2015 to talk of sellouts today – rhetoric that is stoked by the government’s incredible arrogance and smugness. And that is the kind of thing that leaves deep scars on a society.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of International Law and Foreign Policy at Athens’s Panteion University.