The New York Times: What’s in a Name? For Macedonia, the Key to Peace and Security


The New York Times
Gevgelija

From the time he was a high school student and made his first discovery — graves dating to the Iron Age and coins 3,000 years old — Emil Slamkov said he wanted to be an archaeologist.

“For me, it is a chance to discover what the earth is hiding,” he said. “And then to try and find a way to bring it back to life and give meaning to what came before.”

In the Balkans, however, giving meaning to the past can be a fraught business.

In recent years, Mr. Slamkov, 52, has found his skills in demand as the government has poured money into excavating ancient sites with a single goal: finding connections to ancient Macedonia to add legitimacy to its claim on the name.

It is not an academic question. For more than two decades, this country of just two million people has been fighting with its southern neighbor Greece over the right to have Macedonia in its name.

Now the issue has come to the fore again, as Macedonia’s government earnestly renews a push to join NATO and the European Union, hoping to alleviate the Balkan country’s poverty and isolation.

Greece has blocked Macedonia from joining either institution, claiming that the name implies designs on Greece’s northern region of Macedonia.

A solution may be closer that it has been in decades, with the Greek foreign minister scheduled to visit the Macedonian capital, Skopje, later this week to continue negotiations.

Last week, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs told journalists in Skopje that conditions for reaching a compromise were “better than they have ever been.”

Still, it is a delicate moment. Mere word of possible compromise set off protests by thousands in Greece in recent months. If not handled properly, the issue has the potential to tear apart the fragile governing coalitions in both nations.

Those who want a solution fear that outside actors who do not want to see the expansion of NATO, namely Russia, are stoking opposition to compromise.

Russia recently warned Macedonia that its entry into NATO “might have negative consequences for regional security and bilateral relations.”

Even without outside agitation, the name issue has long been used to stir anger and resentment in both Greece and Macedonia, as it touches on questions of identity, history and culture.

For the European Union, which was founded in part to overcome tribal identity politics and unbridled nationalism, a solution could present a bit of good news as it faces a host of other difficult challenges in the region.

But failure could leave it with yet one more festering source of tension in the Balkans.

To appease Greece, the Macedonians have altered their Constitution, changed their flag — getting rid of the Vergina Sun that Greece claims as its own — and changed their name once to its current United Nations designation: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Even Mr. Slamkov, fiercely proud of his heritage, is willing to find further compromise. Up to a point.

He does not care what name politicians come up with for use outside the country — as long as it includes the word Macedonia.

Standing amid the ruins of one of the country’s most important dig sites, a few miles from the Greek border, where his team found a trove of coins stamped with the visage of Alexander the Great, he said that, like the artifacts in the ground, some things are just what they are.

“No one,” he said, “can tell you what to call yourself in your own home.”

The roots of the name dispute are as tangled as the finely woven silver jewelry for which this region is famous.

For some, it stretches back to fourth century B.C., when Philip II and his son Alexander the Great conquered much of the known world, establishing a kingdom that stretched from the Mediterranean to India.

Both governments lay claim to this history. For the Greeks, it is obvious: Philip and Alexander were born and based in what is now Greece.

For the Macedonians, it is equally obvious: The ancient Macedonian kingdom encompassed a large swath of the country. It is the name they have always called themselves.

Milan Boshkoski, a professor at the Institute of National History in Skopje, said that to understand the dispute, it was best to start during the period when the Ottomans ruled this territory — for around 500 years until the turn of the 20th century.

While researching a book about the history of the name Macedonia, he said, he found a document dating to 1902 that forbid the use of the term Macedonian. At the time, the Ottoman rulers were battling nationalists, and they worried that the name would give the rebels a sense of identity.

“It is a story that repeats itself,” he said. “But if an atom bomb destroyed this place, we would still be called Macedonians.”

The first Balkan wars ended in 1913 with Macedonia divided by three of the warring parties — Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria.

The Serbian enclave was later absorbed into the former Yugoslavia. But even then, the professor said, in a concession to the Greeks, textbooks excluded nearly all discussion of the ancient Macedonian kingdom.

The bad blood grew during the Greek civil war, when Slavic-speaking Macedonians sided with Greek Communists. In 1948, after they were defeated, many were expelled from northern Greece.

Some Greeks have expressed concern that if this country is allowed to call itself Macedonia, the families of those expelled will seek restitution.

After Macedonia became an independent republic in 1991, following the break up of Yugoslavia, the Greeks immediately opposed international recognition of the new country.

In 1995, a compromise was reached when the country agreed to temporarily call itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It also changed the Constitution to make it clear it had no territorial ambitions.

Still, the Greeks are not satisfied with the changes.

Politicians in Greece still refer to the country almost exclusively by its acronym, FYROM, or by the capital city, Skopje.

In recent months, with a new center-left government in Macedonia, relations between the two countries have improved. For the first time in a decade, there is cautious optimism.

“I believe we will be able to conclude the negotiations successfully by the NATO summit in July,” the Macedonian prime minister, Zoran Zaev, said in a recent interview with an Austrian radio station.

But the renewed talk of a possible deal has fueled protests among Greeks, who have their own narrative on the history of the name.

Western diplomats also say the opposition has been stoked by an aggressive disinformation campaign by Russia, which does not want to see NATO expanded, and they believe the Kremlin is working to undermine a deal.

For instance, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece recently noted in an interview that in ancient times there was no nation known as Macedonia.

His words were quickly distorted across the internet — starting with a website with ties Russia, according to a Western diplomat — so it seemed he had suggested that there had never been any country called Macedonia, an inaccurate and far more inflammatory comment.

“It is really difficult to be rational about this issue,” Macedonia’s foreign affairs minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said in an interview in his office in Skopje. “This is something I have to fight daily, even for myself.”

But this is bigger than the politics of the moment, he said.

“Macedonia has been locked in the waiting room,” he said, referring to its desire to be a part of NATO and the European Union. “I think it is fair to say we have lost a generation because of this issue.”

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