In 1991 the country today recognized internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia – it called itself the Republic of Macedonia. This constitutional name strongly angered many Greeks, who felt their neighbors had stolen the designation from the northern Greek region of the same name, located directly south of the Macedonian-Greek border. The Republic of Macedonia and Greece are neighboring countries that claim to be committed to the defense of democratic values and the strategic goal of a stable, united and prosperous Europe. Today, instead of working together to achieve these goals, Macedonia and Greece are trapped in emotions evoked by the spirit of Alexander the Great, who died some 2300 years ago. Both countries share parts of the territory of Alexander’s legendary Kingdom and claim their rights to ancient Macedonian heritage including the name “Macedonia”. This conflict has persisted for nearly thirty years, affecting political, economic, and cultural and security relations between the two countries. Also, Greece is a member of NATO and the EU and Macedonia pursues a membership in both organizations, but Greece has the advantage of using its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia’s path to EU membership.
The Republic of Macedonia became an independent state on September 8, 1991, and was admitted to the United Nations in April 1993, pursuant to the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 817 (1993). In view of the “difference” between Greece and the new country concerning the constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia, the resolution provided that the country should be “provisionally referred to…within the United Nations” as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” until “settlement of the difference between Macedonia and Greece is reached”. The resolution stated that the issue should be resolved in the interest of peace and good neighborly relations in the region. At the time, it appeared that the basic characteristic of the name dispute involved mainly the use and control of symbols related to the words “Macedonia” and “Macedonian.” The conflict, however, turned into a political confrontation between the two neighbors. The adoption of Resolution 817 (1993) and later Resolution 845 (1993) by the UN Security Council directly acknowledged the potential of the name dispute to escalate into a security conflict. In order to avoid this, the UN resolutions requested that the parties resume bilateral talks under the auspices of the UN Secretary General in an effort to find a solution.
The talks between Macedonia and Greece have been an ongoing process carried by several governments in both countries but with no significant success. Meanwhile in 2008, Macedonia was denied a NATO membership invitation because of a Greek veto. At the Bucharest summit NATO leaders refused Macedonia an invitation to join the alliance for now after Greece vetoed the decision in a dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told at a news conference “We have agreed that an invitation to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be issued as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached.” The official position of the Greek Foreign Ministry was that “there is no chance of FYROM acceding to the EU and NATO under the name Republic of Macedonia” and that “FYROM Slavo-Macedonians insistence in standing by their intransigent and negative stance towards efforts to resolve the issue”. But since Greece blocked the issuing of an invitation for Macedonia to join NATO in Bucharest in April 2008, the VMRO-DPMNE-led government of Nikola Gruevski launched a series of projects celebrating Alexander the Great and constructing a new identity for Macedonia on the basis of a presumed link to the world of Antiquity, known locally as Antiquisation. The Government launched the project Skopje 2014 in the capital of the country to revamp Skopje in a neoclassical style with the aim of strengthening national identity, attracting foreign tourists and according to some, provoke Greece. One complaint was that the campaign is placing new strains on a fragile multi-ethnic society in which the dissatisfaction of the large ethnic Albanian minority (25% of the population) was already growing. Another fear was that the emphasis on Classical Antiquity was dividing ethnic Macedonians into two groups, separating those who back ‘Antiquisation’ from others who think of themselves as Slavs.
The two sides resumed UN-mediated talks in December 2017 after a new government took office in the Republic of Macedonia replacing a nationalist party VMRO –DPMNE that ruled for more than a decade. Greek policy is to oppose the use of the name “Macedonia” without a qualifier. It would mean employing a compound name like “Northern Macedonia,” “New Macedonia” or “Upper Macedonia”. The current Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants a foreign-policy victory to foster security in a tense part of Europe and boost his standing at home before elections next year. Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbor, its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and the second-biggest bank. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government is keen to get a deal done. A NATO summit scheduled for July offers an opportunity for accession to begin if the two countries come to an agreement in time. Zaev’s government has said it will accept a geographical qualifier to the country’s name. In a goodwill gesture, the prime minister renamed the country’s main airport, which was called Alexander the Great, after the nearby capital city, Skopje. The main road to Greece, now called Alexander the Macedonian, he pledged will become the Friendship Highway. The both parties supported by the international community have intensified meetings in order to find a mutual agreement for resolving the “name issue” and while options are open the only name that Greek diplomats refuse to negotiate is Republic of Macedonia. According to recent statements by the Greek foreign minister, Kotzias, Athens is prepared to discuss four out of five names that are currently on the table of UN-mediated talks. Even if a deal is reached, it will face obstacles to pass into law. The authorities of the Republic of Macedonia intend to put it to a referendum, and any changes to the country’s constitution must pass through its Parliament where Zaev’s government does not have an absolute majority. But Macedonia’s diplomats argue that a deal would be secure as the country’s top courts have never deemed the constitution to override international agreements.
In 17th June 2018, a landmark agreement was signed by the Republic of Macedonia to change its name to North Macedonia, sealing a deal with Greece that would, if ratified, resolve a decades-old dispute and pave the way for the enlargement of the European Union and NATO. However this agreement must still pass a referendum in Macedonia and ratification in the parliaments of both countries. Macedonia has started the preparations for the referendum which is foreseen to take place in September or October 2018. In order to be successfully implemented the name agreement has to be supported by a majority of voters in Macedonia in a referendum slated for early September or late October. This means that a minimum of 900,000 people will have to go and vote and of them more than half will have to support the deal. So far, the opposition right wing VMRO DPMNE party, which opposes the deal with Greece, describing it as treason, said that it will insist on an obligatory referendum but SDSM prime minister Zaev also said that no matter the type of referendum, its outcome will be respected by the government.
A poll taken ahead of 30 September referendum in Macedonia shows that majority of citizens are planning to vote “yes”, reports EUROACTIV. The question, reading “Are you in favour of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?” is referring to the agreement that would change the former country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia. According to the poll, 41.5% intend to vote for the acceptance of the agreement, while 35.1% will vote against. Almost 20% of polled citizens plan to boycott the referendum, while 66.4% are going to cast their vote. However, differences between the two biggest ethnic groups in the country are stark: 88% of Albanians support the agreement, while only 27% of ethnic Macedonians do, with 45% being against.
Despite the name of the state contested by Greece, Macedonia also has the following open issues with its neighbors: an Orthodox Church unrecognized by Serbia (and, consequently, by the rest of the Orthodox world), an official language and indistinct national identity – or rather “history” – unrecognized by Bulgaria.
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Pop-Angelov, M., 2010. A DISPUTED NAME: IS THERE A SOLUTION TO THE NAME ISSUE BETWEEN MACEDONIA AND GREECE?. s.l., s.n.