Why Greece and Macedonia are Disputing the Name Macedonia

A divisive figure: Alexander the Great, a statue in Thessaloniki | pixabay / ©  dimitrisvetsikas1969
A divisive figure: Alexander the Great, a statue in Thessaloniki | pixabay / © dimitrisvetsikas1969
The last month has seen protests in The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece over the use of ‘Macedonia’. Culture Trip investigates why a name is causing so much debate.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), as the country has formally been recognised by international bodies such as the United Nations since 1993, is a direct neighbour of Greece.

The country was created after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. However, Macedonia is also the name of a region in Northern Greece. The use of the name Macedonia has cast the question of national identity in both countries, and engendered fierce debate over who has rights to the name.

Both sides draw from ancient history to prove ownership. The Kingdom of Macedonia was ruled by Alexander the Great. FYROM argues that Alexander the Great therefore represents the nation’s founding father. The former Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, erected a 22 metre high statue of Alexander the Great in the central square of Skopje back in 2011.

The move was seen as highly provocative by Greece, which views Alexander the Great as a core part of its own country’s history. As such, the adoption of Alexander the Great as a national figure by FYROM is seen as cultural appropriation. Some Greeks also believe that the name Macedonia implies expansionist desires on northern Greece.

This ongoing debate has erupted again as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia renews efforts to join the EU and Nato, under their new left-wing Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Zaev has been in power for less than a year and has reportedly expressed that finding a resolution to the ongoing dispute around the name is a high priority. The contentious issue of the name Macedonia has previously played a role in halting the country’s efforts to join the aforementioned organisations.

The last month has seen Greek protests in Athens and Thessaloniki as discussions around the topic began again. The Athens protest was rumoured to bringca a million people to the capital. Although on the day the number of protestors was far less, around 140,000, the tension around the topic continues to be a nation-wide grievance. Greek nationalists argue that the only use of Macedonia should be in relation to Greece.

However the sense of nationalism is strong on both sides. At a recent rally in FYROM’s capital Skopje, protestors argued that they were Macedonian and should be named as such. FYROM nationalists are instead demanding that the name Macedonia be given recognition by the United Nations.

The desire of Zoran Zaev to resolve this debate certainly offers a new sense of optimism. The Prime Minister has already made concessions, such as changing the name of the airport from Skopje Alexander the Great airport to Skopje International Airport. Proposed names by Zoran Zaev include Republic of North Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).

However with strong nationalist sentiment from both sides, it may yet prove difficult to come to a final agreement.