A 27-year dispute has been put to rest in Europe after a name deal was sealed between Athens and Skopje. The Greek parliament has rejected Macedonia’s name for decades since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Following the name deal in January, Greece’s neighbour will now add ‘North’ to its title, taking on the new name of the Republic of North Macedonia.
The change of name holds a crucial importance to both sides in the debate, predominantly due to the fact that Greece, which is a member of both NATO and the European Union, has been restricting Macedonia’s membership into NATO and the beginning of an accession talk with the EU until the dispute was to be resolved. Thus, both countries have been under pressure to resolve the disagreement, as the further integration of Balkan countries into the EU and NATO is deemed an important factor in proving the stability of the region. Due to the recent deal, the newly named Republic of North Macedonia can now pursue its application.
The change of name holds a crucial importance to both sides in the debate
Greek indignation towards the Republic of North Macedonia’s previous name, the Republic of Macedonia, is due to what they believe to be historical appropriation. The Greeks, and particularly right-wing nationalist politicians, have long been claiming the name Macedonia as a piece of cultural heritage. Many believe that only the northern Greek region of Macedonia, site of the ancient kingdom of Macedon and the Ancient Macedonians, is truly entitled to claim the name as its own. They argue that, southern Slavs arrived 1000 years after that Kingdom, therefore, lacking any relation to ancient Macedonia or its Greek culture. The debate has hence been a particularly emotional subject for those in the capital of the Greek region of Macedonia, Thessaloniki.
The belief that Macedonia is unfairly appropriating Hellenic history was only exacerbated by the erection of a Statue of Alexander the Great, which Greece condemned as ‘provocative’ and claimed Alexander as exclusively part of their Hellenic Heritage. Greece used the issue to justify further blocking Macedonia’s bid to join the international communities of NATO and the EU. This statue, along with others, were part of a one billion-dollar public building programme that had been undertaken by the previous nationalist government and, subsequently, criticised by Zoran Zaev.
The election of pro-EU Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in 2017 has sped up and pushed forwards the issue towards a resolution; near to the beginning of the debate in June 2018 he described the negotiations as a chance for the countries to become ‘partners and allies.’ Following this, an agreement was reached the very same month to rename the country the Republic of North Macedonia. However, there has been a struggle to carry this through due to the continuance of domestic opposition faced by both prime ministers, especially from nationalist parties.
Local resistance in, what is now known as North Macedonia, had been fierce
Local resistance in, what is now known as North Macedonia, had been fierce. The fear exists among some of the population that the new deal represented a foreign power, Greece, attempting to claim Macedonian territory and, thus, many despised the Greek exercise of control and their restriction of access to the international community.
Resistance was not the only factor that slowed down the name change of Macedonia. The referendum for this deal which was held in September, although boasting a 94% success of backing for the deal, was ruled invalid because not enough of the electorate turned out.
The deal has since been ratified by the Macedonian parliament on January 11th, and Greek MPs were required to vote on agreement on January 25th, resulting in a success. Although this wasn’t without struggle; Prime Minister Alex Tsipras of Greece has faced opposition from his right-wing coalition partners Independent Greeks who were against the deal and, thus, departed. This prompted a vote of confidence in Tsipras in mid-January, which he survived.
NATO and the EU have since celebrated Greece’s ratification of the Prespes Agreement which recognises its neighbour as North Macedonia. In order to proceed with applications for these international communities, North Macedonia must convene a committee to review its monuments and public buildings. They are required to take appropriate ‘corrective action’, according to the agreement of any historical appropriation – essentially, Alexander the Great must come down. Furthermore, historic, archaeological and educational matters must be revised by the Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts in school textbooks, maps and teaching guides, to get rid of any incorrect claims of history and allusions to Ancient Macedon. Essentially, the next generation of North Macedonia is having its identity wholly redesigned by this deal, which has seen a decades long dispute come to an end.