As someone whose research and teaching center on modern Eastern Europe, the most recent news from across the Atlantic is just more fodder for a great lecture. For the umpteenth time, the Greek government has vetoed Macedonia’s entry into a European structure–in this case NATO–because those pesky Macedonians persist in calling their country Macedonia. Can you believe the nerve of those guys?
If you have followed events in the Balkans since 1989 at all, you know that this particular comic opera is one of the few comedic moments since the wars in the former Yugoslavia began. If you haven’t been following Balkan events, read on to find out why the Macedonian ambassador to the United Nations has to site behind a nameplate that reads FYROM rather than Macedonia. That’s Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for those not up on the abbreviations.
The root of the problem is a dispute about history, which is why this story makes a good lecture topic. Any Greek nationalist worth his or her stripes will tell you that the ancient kingdom of Macedon was a Greek state. And any Macedonian nationalist worth his or her stripes would shake his or her head and with great weariness remind you that, no, Macedon was a Macedonian kingdom and so when Alexander the Great conquered the rest of the Greek states, Greece became Macedonian, not the other way around.
For something like 2,000 years no one thought to argue about whether that territory north of what is now the Greek state was or wasn’t Macedonia. But in the late 19th century the new Balkan kingdoms of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece all cast their covetous eyes on the place. During the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I, some of the worst fighting was in and over Macedonia.
After World War II, though, the real trouble started, because Greek communist fighters operating out of Yugoslavia tried to topple the Greek government and many Greeks came to believe that Tito had named his country’s southernmost province Macedonia as a way of claiming sovereignty over northern Greece.
But so what? The communist insurgency failed and Yugoslavia behaved. The name of that southern Yugoslav province still rankled plenty of people in Greece, but in the end, what was there to do? I suppose there are people in Mexico who don’t like the fact that the United States has a state called New Mexico either.
The real trouble started after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991. Can you believe it? The people who call themselves “Macedonians” and who speak a language called “Macedonian” decided to call their new country “Macedonia.”
No! No! No! The Greeks shouted. Posters, buttons, bumper stickers, even patriotic songs (in Greek) trumpeted the slogan “Macedonia is Greek!” And the Greek government used its leverage as a NATO, EC (later EU) and UN member to prevent the newly independent Macedonian state from calling itself Macedonia, hence the FYROM compromise.
When I was living in Slovakia in the mid-1990s I met a American human rights lawyer who was working in Macedonia. He had recently traveled to Greece for a conference and when he crossed the border into northern Greece, the border guards stamped “Invalidated” (in Greek) on his Macedonian visa and work permit. Not surprisingly, when he returned to Macedonia, the Macedonian border guards just shrugged and snickered at those silly Greek border guards.
As recently as this past February, the U.S. State Department proposed what we might call the “New Mexico” solution, trying to convince the Macedonians to call their state “New Macedonia” in their membership in various multilateral organizations like NATO and the UN. Wisely, the Macedonians declined.
During the height of the first phase of this controversy in the 1990s, a Bulgarian friend told me that Bulgaria’s foreign minister had proposed that the Macedonians try something similar. His suggestion was that they call their country “Not Macedonia”. That way, whenever the Greeks complained, they could say, “But it’s Not Macedonia.” I have no idea if this story is true or not, but if it is, I think it’s the best solution anyone has come up with.
I’ll conclude by pointing out that the Macedonians are definitely winning the naming dispute, all aggravations about NATO membership to the contrary. The Wikipedia entry for Macedonia calls the country the Republic of Macedonia or just Macedonia. And if Wikipedia says that’s your name, well, that’s your name…isn’t it?
[NB: After two weeks of energetic discussion by a number of readers (see the comments below), I have cut off comments on this post, in part because the discussion had ceased to be civil. TMK]