Amidst a world climate wracked with political uncertainties, exacerbated by the ever-present Donald Trump and his adversary Kim Jon-un, a twenty-five-year dispute over something as trivial as a name should be low on the to-do list of the current Greek government and yet it remains at the top of Parliament’s agenda. In the same week that negotiations are supposed to begin about the Macedonian dispute it was announced that Greece comes second, only to Venezuela, at the top of the wealth loss list, a much greater crisis which government resources should be designated towards and yet the government’s current priorities are clearly misplaced.
Greece…intensified bilateral tensions on the premise that using the term ‘Macedonia’ robs Greeks of their ethnicity, language and identity.
Although the diplomatic issue began in 1991, with the breakup of Yugoslavia, the roots of the conflict can be traced back to as far as the early 20th century during the Balkan Wars. In antiquity, there was ancient Macedonia (which corresponds with the modern Greek region of Macedonia) and the kingdom of Paeonia, which constitutes the present-day Republic of Macedonia. Following the Roman invasion in 168 BC, the empire combined numerous regions and named the larger province Macedonia.
Interestingly, the basis for the conflict is identity politics. Greece opposes the name Macedonia and the identifier of being ‘Macedonian’ because millions of ethnic Greeks perceive themselves as Macedonians, distinct from the Slavic people residing in the Republic of Macedonia. Theories, which unpack nations and nationalism as well as the movements they inspire, focus on various themes which most nationalist narratives hold true. One of which is the motif of cultural superiority. This is evidently manifested in the case of Greece who intensified bilateral tensions on the premise that using the term ‘Macedonia’ robs Greeks of their ethnicity, language and identity.
The Greek region of Macedonia not only houses Thessaloniki, the second largest Greek city, but is associated with the legacy of Alexander the Great. Alexander played a pivotal role as a national hero, leading the Greeks in their conquest of Persia and his relationship as tutee under Aristotle, arguably the greatest Greek philosopher, is a source of Hellenistic pride. Therefore, the issue of Macedonia seemingly threatens this rich history of the Greek empire. In particular, the former flag of the Republic of Macedonia housed the ‘star of Vergina’, which was the symbol of Alexander the Great and his accomplishments. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu stresses the power behind naming, as to name something seemingly brings it into existence. Thus, the Republic of Macedonia is accused of appropriating symbols and figures associated with the Greek culture as part of a greater political goal to place territorial claims on Balkan states.
However, unpacking the height of the conflict during the early-1990s, nationalist sentiments concerning the Greek identity as being tied to Macedonia were merely manipulated. The purpose of this was so competing political parties within Greece could maximise their parliamentary power. This was evident in the case of Mitsotakis’ leadership in Nea Demokratia, whose use of nationalist propaganda strengthened its electoral appeal.
Although this dispute appears trivial, for the Republic of Macedonia, it has thwarted their ambitions of joining NATO and the European Union. Thus, following this weeks debate they hope to put a relative end to the conflict. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias who is engaged in the debates has dubbed these talks as merely “linguistic acrobatics”. The negotiations include a referendum within the Republic of Macedonia where the name options merely include geographical qualifiers such as the Republic of Upper Macedonia and Northern Macedonia.
This begs the question whether these negotiations will have an impact. On January 21st hundreds of thousands of Greeks participated in a demonstration, spearheaded by the Greek Orthodox Church, against any use by the neighboring state of the name Macedonia. The number of protestors was unparalleled, even when contrasted against the numerous anti-austerity protests seen in Greece over the past eight years. Thus, evidencing the potency of Hellenic nationalist sentiments but perhaps also highlights the misplaced Greek priorities.
One has to wonder what kind of government, industry and country the European Union and the Syriza government have left Greece with?
What these protests and complacent diplomatic talks of the Greek government appear to be is a mere distraction from the significant amount of reforms, which need to be imposed in order to successfully fulfill Syriza’s €86bn bailout. Although the economy is seeing growth, with the predicted exit date from foreign aid being August 2018, the citizen trust in the government is at an all-time low. One has to wonder what kind of government, industry and country the European Union and the Syriza government have left Greece with?