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Macedonia’s Identity Crisis

On 30th September 2018, Macedonians went to the polls for a historic referendum: should they officially rename their country to the Republic of North Macedonia? Over 90% voted in favour, but only about a third of voters turned out, making the result void. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has declared he will try to force through the change anyway. So why does Zaev want to change the country’s name? And what will this mean for the future of Macedonia?

The problem goes back to 1991, when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia. The new country took the name Republic of Macedonia, as it sat within the region of Macedonia, which covers much of the Balkan Peninsula. However, this choice of name infuriated Greece. For Greeks, the term Macedonia is inherently tied to Greece and its history. Alexander the Great, the ancient King of Macedon, is a national hero and icon in Greece. Macedonia has therefore been accused of stealing Greek heritage by claiming Alexander as their own. Greeks particularly see this as cultural appropriation since modern Macedonians are a Slavic rather than a Hellenic people. In addition, because the large northern region of Greece was already called Macedonia, Greeks also accuse the Republic of Macedonia of having territorial ambitions against Greece.

Macedonia erected statues of Alexander the Great nationwide, angering many Greeks (Photo: Juan Antonio Segal, Flickr)

As a result, Greece has effectively made opposing Macedonia a national purpose. When Macedonia joined the United Nations, it was Greece that forced it to use the unflattering name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The name has stuck to Macedonia internationally ever since. Importantly, Greece has vehemently opposed Macedonia joining either NATO or the EU – both of which Macedonia is keen to join. Macedonia hopes that joining the EU would strengthen its trade prospects, especially given that neighbours Greece and Bulgaria are already members; and that joining NATO would guarantee Macedonia’s safety. However, as a member of both organisations, Greece can veto any Macedonian attempt to join, saying it would not allow Macedonia to join unless it changes its name and ceases its claim on Greek heritage.

Enter Zaev. Elected as Prime Minister in 2017, Zaev made resolving the dispute a priority, and so opened talks with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras. As shows of good faith, several statues of Alexander the Great were taken down, and his name was removed from both Skopje International Airport and Macedonia’s biggest highway, which was renamed the ‘Friendship Highway’.

After months of negotiations, an agreement was finally reached on 12th June, and signed at Lake Prespa 5 days later. In the deal, dubbed the Prespa Agreement, Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia (which Greece would officially recognise), and the people and language would be recognised as ‘Macedonian’. Crucially though, Macedonia would revoke all claims to Hellenic Macedonia and its history. In exchange, Greece would allow Macedonia to join NATO and the EU. The Prespa Agreement was welcomed warmly in the West. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg Declared NATO was “ready to welcome” Macedonia, and US Vice President Mike Pence praised the agreement for how it would “bolster the region’s prosperity and stability”. Now the agreement only had to pass a national referendum in Macedonia, and the deal would be completed, and the long-running dispute officially resolved.

Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev shook hands after the agreement was signed at Lake Prespa, which is divided between Greece, Macedonia and Albania.

In Greece though, it quickly became clear the Prespa Agreement was not good enough, as protests broke out nationwide. Protesters accused the government of giving too much to Macedonia by allowing it to keep the word Macedonia in its name, insisting it should use a different name altogether. At times, protests turned violent, and riot police fired tear gas at protesters. On 16th June, the very day before the Agreement was signed, Tsipras had to survive a vote of no-confidence in the Greek Parliament over it. Meanwhile, protestors outside chanted “traitor, traitor”. There are concerns that by supposedly solving an international dispute, Tsipras may have doomed his domestic reputation.

Reception to the deal was also poor in Macedonia, with protesters complaining Macedonia should not have to appease Greece. As the referendum required a 50% voter turnout to be valid, protesters called for a national boycott to defeat the Agreement. A week before the referendum, President Gjorge Ivanov, who is part of the opposition party, backed the boycott, decrying the agreement as “harmful and defeating” for Macedonia. Of course, there have been accusations of Russian meddling, as many believe Russia funds the opposition in Macedonia, and Russia dislikes the idea of Macedonia moving closer to Western Europe. However, there has been no proof of Russian involvement.

On 30th September, Macedonia finally went to polls. Those who voted overwhelmingly backed the Agreement, but turnout was too low for the result to be valid. The opposition has therefore labelled the boycott a success, and a sign that Macedonians have rejected the Prespa Agreement. However, Zaev has vowed to press on, and try to push the Agreement through parliament instead. His coalition government does have a majority; however, it lacks the two thirds super-majority it needs to pass the Agreement. Zaev therefore needs to convince the opposition to change sides – a seemingly impossible task. For his first attempt, Zaev tried to threaten opposition MPs with early elections if they do not pass the Agreement, but the opposition actually welcomed that idea.

Whether Macedonia becomes North Macedonia or not therefore waits to be seen. However, the Prespa Agreement has seemingly fractured Macedonia – one side willing to give appeasement for progress, and the other arguing for stronger national pride and character. Over the border in Greece, the situation is not much different. If Macedonia does change its name then, it may indeed increase Macedonia’s presence on the international landscape, but what effects will it have on the future of Macedonian and Greek politics?

Tristan Fleming-Froy 

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