What’s In A Name? A Brief History Of The Name Dispute Between Greece And Macedonia

Between Greece And Macedonia

Despite UN mediator Matthew Nimetz’s best efforts, for over 20 years Greece and Macedonia have been deadlocked in a long-term dispute over Macedonia’s name. Nimetz has been mediating the dispute since 1995 but until now no solution has been found to satisfy both countries. But how did the dispute come about and why has the dispute lasted so long?

The key to answering the first question is to understand Macedonia’s history. Until the early 1990s Macedonia was one of the six republics that formed Yugoslavia under the presidency of Josip Broz Tito, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. (BBC, 2012) The Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia was created and named by Tito in order to prevent Serbia from taking over control of the area and therefore acquire more power in the country. Around that time Macedonia became officially known as the People’s Socialist Republic of Macedonia. (Tito’s plan, 1999)

After Yugoslavia was formed in 1944, a huge campaign was organized for the newly created republic; history books were re-written by scholars according to the instructions of the communist league in Yugoslavia and maps drawn that demonstrated the extent of their territory extending as far as the northern half of Mount Olympus. (Gatzoulis and Templar, n.d.)

However, the area that Tito named as the Republic of Macedonia only comprised a small part of the original geographical area that made up ancient Macedonia, known as Vardarska Banovina, which included large parts of Bulgaria and Albania, as well as Greece – a large part of which is still known today as Macedonia.

After Tito’s death in 1980, nationalism among the individual Yugoslavian republics began to intensify and in 1991 the Yugoslavian citizens voted for independence by referendum and a new constitution was passed despite Albanian opposition. After the break up of Yugoslavia, several countries went independent including the Republic of Macedonia. It was after Macedonia’s independence that the dispute with Greece began; Greece did not accept the new country’s name due to the northern Greek province also named Macedonia. (BBC, 2012)

To make matters worse, after the declaration of independence, the People’s Socialist Republic of Macedonia officially changed its name to the “Republic of Macedonia”.  The country also appropriated symbols originally from northern Greece for its new flag displaying the Sun of Vergina and new currency with Thessaloniki’s white tower in the background. And, according to the country’s new constitution, Macedonia claimed the original territory of Vardarska Banovina (ancient Macedonia) for itself, the majority of which nowadays lies in Greece. (Gatzoulis and Templar, n.d.)

Unsurprisingly, Greece saw these actions as being provocative and decided to enact a trade embargo against Macedonia in 1994 in which no commercial products were allowed to cross the northern Greek border. It was only in 1995, after Macedonia decided to change their flag and currency and amend their constitution to state that the country did not have any territorial claims outside its present borders, that the embargo was lifted. (Gatzoulis and Templar, n.d.)

The embargo lasted 20 months in total and caused negative consequences for both countries. Macedonia lost approximately 40 million dollars per month, which reduced its export profits by 85%, and Greece had its reputation stained while they were holding the presidency of the EU. It also highlighted the EU’s inability to restrain Greece’s conduct and the lack of enforcement of any common foreign policy. (Kajfes, 2011)

Greece maintains that Macedonia, despite changing its constitution, still wants to claim lands belonging to it simply because successive Macedonian governments have refused to change their country’s name. The Greek government has in the past used this, and Macedonia’s appropriation of Greek culture and identity, to its advantage to stir up nationalist feelings at home in order to gain support for its actions such as objecting to Macedonia joining international organizations. (Kajfes, 2011)

The naming issue became such a problem that the United Nations (UN) was forced to work to reach an agreement in 1995 which stated that Macedonia would be provisionally recognized as being “The Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (The FYROM)”[1] in order to allow Macedonia to participate in international organizations without Greece’s objection. (Gatzoulis and Templar, n.d.)

However, despite this agreement, Greece continued to object to Macedonia’s efforts to join international organizations. The most infamous incident happened during the 2008 NATO Bucharest conference when Greece blocked Macedonia’s invitation. This was considered to be a violation of the 1995 agreement between both countries as Macedonia had applied using the FYROM name. (EurActiv, 2012)

As a result, Macedonia appealed to the International Court of Justice in the Hague in 2009 and in 2011 the court ruled in favor of Macedonia confirming that Greece’s behavior had been inappropriate. (BBC, 2012)

How do you solve a problem like Greece & Macedonia?

Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle once commented that to solve the Greece and Macedonia problem:“It takes two to tango”. (Langer, 2010)

The two decade long dispute is currently being mediated by UN representative Matthew Nimetz, but despite the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers meeting frequently since 2010, there has been no further progress in finding a solution. Furthermore, the Macedonian government has recently reinforced their stance and threatened to leave the negotiation process with Macedonian Prime minister Nikola Gruevski declaring that no resolution involving changing the name of the Republic of Macedonia would be supported. (Ordanoski, 2011)

Macedonia has also recently initiated an aggressive policy of appropriating the cultural and historical heritage of Greece, mirroring the country’s actions of the early 1990s. It renamed the capital city’s airport, Skopje, ‘Alexander the Great’ (king of Macedon in the North of ancient Greece), erected a 36m tall monument of the same hero in the center of the capital and built a large Greek Orthodox church nearby. These actions have proved to be a major setback in the negotiations between both countries and many people believe that the current Macedonian government is using the dispute for its own purposes to gain more votes for being patriotic or, in case of political failures, to use it as a scapegoat. (Ordanoski, 2011)

Since no progress has so far been achieved, the negotiation process between both countries has moved back into stalemate[2]. Macedonia has said it is willing to set a time frame to end the stalemate and ultimately solve the dispute that is preventing them from entering the EU and NATO (Balkan Insight, 2011). But actions speak louder than words, and its recent provocations have done nothing but help to further alienate Greece and make negotiations even more difficult.

With the current economic crisis that has hit Greece particularly hard, the name dispute has been somewhat overshadowed. Macedonia, too, is dealing with the consequences of the crisis both economically and politically, and the dispute is doing nothing to help. (Slovenia Times, 2012)

With the crisis distracting attention and neither side’s willingness to find a solution, there is no doubt in many people’s minds that the name dispute might continue for many years to come.


[1] UN Resolutions #817 of April 7 and #845 of June 18 of 1993

[2] A stalemate can be considered to be an equilibrium in which no-one is satisfied nor achieves their objectives.

*This Article is based on the original work made for the Lecture “International Mediation”, which is part of the Master’s Curriculum at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy in Erfurt, Germany.

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