PhD Thesis on the “Name Issue” between Greece and Macedonia

Last September Vera Lalchevska defended her PhD thesis in Development Studies, entitled “The Importance of Being Macedonian:  Origins and Consequences of the ‘Name Issue’ between Greece and Macedonia” at the Graduate Institute. Professor Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou presided the committee, which included Professor Isabelle Schulte-Tenckhoff, Thesis Director, and Professor Todor Cepreganov, from the University of Goce Delcev, Republic of Macedonia. Her dissertation explores what the “name issue” means to Macedonians and argues that, far from being a mere technical dispute about the label of a country, it revolves around one of the most basic and essential human rights: the right of the Macedonian people to their ethnic and national identity, and to their language. Ms Lalchevska outlines below the background to her research as well as her methodology, findings and conclusions.

Can you remind us what the “name issue” between Greece and Macedonia is?

I’ll start with a revealing anecdote. When Macedonian-born, Academy Award-nominated New York film director Milco Mancevski arrived in Venice to present his film Before the Rain at the Mostra del Cinema in 1994, he was greeted by a curious incident, which he reports in these terms: “The first day, I was summoned to the offices of the Festival. I was told that there was a diplomatic ‘issue’. Namely, the Greek embassy in Italy has complained to the Festival, demanding that they remove the name ‘Macedonian’ when describing the name of the language spoken in my film. The Greek embassy had claimed that such a language did not exist. I asked the very nice lady representing the Festival whether I looked like a character from a cartoon. One that does not exist. We both laughed and concluded the matter then and there.” (“Interview with Milco Mancevski”, La rivista di engramma, December 2011.)

Unfortunately for other Macedonians, such incidents would grow in size and number, and were not to be concluded so quickly and easily.  The so-called “name issue” between Greece and Macedonia came to life on 7 April 1993, with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 817/93, following Macedonia’s application for membership to the United Nations.  This resolution stated that “the State whose application is contained in document S/25147 be admitted to membership in the United Nations, this State being provisionally referred to for all purposes within the United Nations as ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ pending settlement of the difference that has arisen over the name of the State” (UN Security Council 3196th Meeting, Resolution 817 (S/RES/817/1993), 7 April 1993). The Security Council urged the two parties to come to a speedy settlement of this difference, and requested the Secretary General to report on the outcome. The Secretary-General, in turn, appointed a Special Representative to mediate between the two parties. Twenty-four years later, no “settlement” of the “difference” over the constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia has been achieved. In the meantime, the “difference” has come to be popularly known as the “name issue” and has reached global and critical dimensions.

Why did you choose this “name issue” as your research topic?

It was the topic that chose me, not me who chose the topic. Let me explain. Imagine you wake up one normal sunny day, sipping your coffee and reading the international newspaper, when, suddenly, the front page grabs your attention: “Macedonia does not exist”, the headline reads, followed by: “Greece blames Macedonia for having usurped a historic name that belonged exclusively to Greece.” The article explains further down that “ancient Macedonians were Greeks and that there is no such thing as a separate ethnic Macedonian identity or a Macedonian language – there never was. Allegedly, the current people who call themselves Macedonians as well their language were both invented by former Yugoslav President Tito some fifty years ago.” Bewildered, you laugh it off as a joke, and continue sipping your coffee and going about your everyday business… until this inconceivable assertion invades your life and that of your family and friends – in fact, the entire country – so drastically and in so many ways that you are compelled to face it and to do something about it. And I did. Though I was at Duke University at the time, a human rights activist at heart, I remembered the words of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That was when I decided that I would write a doctoral thesis on this topic, knowing that writing was one of my primary strengths and not being able to bear the burden of injustice anymore.

So, what is the “importance” of being Macedonian – as it stands in your title?

My title was inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – a farcical comedy in which the protagonists maintain fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. I liken this farce to the  situation in Macedonia where Macedonians are compelled to maintain a fictitious identity (or, more precisely, to change their real identity) in order to be accepted by the international society. This is a burdensome obligation, to say the least. In fact, it is so intolerable that I conclude that the “name issue” has led to a collective and individual trauma – within society in Macedonia and within the hearts and minds of individuals – throwing Macedonians into a perplexing dilemma for this day and age, namely, the dilemma of “to be or not to be”. If they choose “to be”, they will lose their right to be part of the European Union and NATO, their status in the United Nations will become vulnerable, and their future and the future of their children will be condemned to isolationism – which, for a small country, could be suicidal. On the other hand, if they choose “not to be”, they will lose something very precious and innate – the right to their identity and their language. Macedonians are being blackmailed into a conundrum that is most paradoxical for this era of human rights, an era in which the right to self-determination is so essential that it is the only common article – and not just any article, but Article 1 – to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. These two binding documents are unparalleled in that they derive from the single most important human rights declaration in the history of mankind, namely the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The absurdity of the situation is magnified when one realises that those who are urging Macedonians to give up their name, identity and language are not dictators, but diplomats and politicians representing the very entities that were meant to be the gatekeepers of human rights: the United Nations and the European Union. Not to mention the additional irony that the country behind all this, namely Greece, is renowned for being the bastion of democracy and the cradle of European civilisation.

Who would have thought that one of the oldest documented peoples in the world, who have a place in the Bible and who persevered throughout all times in history – including repressions, assimilations, exoduses, population exchanges and wars – would be denied the right to their identity in the middle of the twenty-first century, in a time of peace and an era of the supremacy of human rights? And who but a Macedonian could better explain this Macedonian saga to the rest of the world?

Your dissertation is then a vehicle for academic activism. What methodology did you use to write this saga?

I would describe it more as a revelation of a hitherto silenced history of the ongoing violations of an essential human right of a people in the heart of Europe, under the nose of the European Union and the United Nations and with these entities’ unconcealed approval. I reveal this through meticulous research, based on a historical, political, legal and human rights analysis of primary and secondary research, including fieldwork. My fieldwork involved conducting over 70 interviews using the random sampling and snowball approach, mainly in Greece and in Macedonia, over a time span of five years.

What conclusions did you draw from your research and interviews?

My first major finding is that the “name issue” between Greece and Macedonia is far from “just” a procedural dispute between two countries regarding the constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia.  Rather, it is the consequence of a century-old, ongoing assimilationist policy by Greek authorities towards the Macedonian minority in Greece, and that same policy’s translation into Greek foreign policy towards the Republic of Macedonia (i.e. the “name issue”). I find that both policies (domestic and foreign) have one and the same goal: the technical elimination of the existence of a separate ethnic and national Macedonian identity and language. In other words, the “name issue” is a smoke screen for a technical ethnocide orchestrated by Greece and assisted by the United Nations, the European Union and the international community at large, via the mechanisms of conditionality for membership. My second major finding is that the “name issue” has caused individual and collective trauma among Macedonians within the Republic of Macedonia and beyond. 

Can your research help solve the “name issue”?

I think it can. While talks between Greece and Macedonia are ongoing, my findings point to a completely different way of looking at the “name issue” – and thus of resolving it. I strongly believe that in order for any issue to be resolved sustainably, the resolution process must recognise its root causes. Given the root causes of the “name issue” pointed out above, the first and foremost step in the resolution of this conflict, therefore, would not be forcing Macedonians to change the name of their country “for all purposes (erga omnes) – external and internal” and to discuss with Greece an “adjective that determines the nation, an adjective that determines the language and an adjective that determines the ethnicity” – as the Greek negotiating position in 2009 proposed (“Positions of the Hellenic Republic instructed by the alternative Minister of Foreign Affairs Droutsas, agreed with Prime Minister Papandreou, 13 November 2009, New York” – source: confidential). This would only reinforce the century-old policy of denial, not only for the Macedonian minority within Greece, but, shockingly, for all Macedonians, within the Republic of Macedonia and around the world. Rather, the first step to a long-term sustainable solution would be recognising this denial.

Is there continuity between your research and your postdoctoral life?

As it happens, I am working on a paper that would propose a long-term sustainable solution to the “name issue”. This solution would be the public recognition of the century-old denial of the Macedonian identity and language, on the part of both Greek authorities and the international community. The second step would be a public apology, by Greek authorities, towards the Macedonian minority in Greece and the hundreds of thousands of expulsed Macedonian refugees from Greece during the Greek Civil War (1946–1949), as well as throughout various periods of time during the twentieth century, starting from 1913.

I am also involved in the planning of a high-level academic and political world conference with the aim of revealing the root causes of the “name issue”. Finally, and perhaps most excitingly, I am working on a documentary film on this topic, together with several other individuals and organisations, internationally.  

Full citation of the PhD thesis: Lalchevska, Vera. “The Importance of Being Macedonian:  Origins and Consequences of the ‘Name Issue’ between Greece and Macedonia”. PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2016.


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