Boris Grdanoski/AP
Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, right, and Gjorge Ivanov, left, candidate for
president of the Macedonian ruling coalition.

"Macedonia" Naming Dispute Comes Back to Fore

March 19, 2009 02:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
The ongoing debate between Greece and a former Yugoslav republic about who has the right to the name “Macedonia” heats up as the latter prepares for presidential elections.

Macedonia's Name Becomes Point of Political, Diplomatic Debate

Macedonia's upcoming presidential election on Sunday has led to national introspection. In the country's 18 years of independence, the nation's 2 million-odd people have stood united in their diversity. Ethnic Slavs, Albanians, Turks, Roma and Serbs, stirred up in part by the ethnic churn that was the Ottoman Empire, call the former Yugoslav republic just north of Greece home. They also call it "Macedonia," to the great displeasure of their Greek neighbors.

Last April, Greece effectively vetoed Macedonia's entrance into NATO into the alliance because of the name dispute. In November, the country known as Macedonia filed proceedings against Greece in the International Court of Justice, alleging that the latter country's move violated the Interim Accord of September 13, 1995.

Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski described the situation to German news magazine Der Spiegel as "classic blackmail." Gjorgie Ivanov, the presidential candidate from Gruevski's party, is pushing for a steadfast diplomatic approach against Athens. The opposition, which includes Kiro Gligorov, the first president of the independent Macedonia and a friend of the Yugoslav dictator Tito, seeks a compromise on what to call their country. Options on the list include Upper Macedonia, New Macedonia and Northern Macedonia.

The thought of any territory outside of Greece calling itself “Macedonia” stirs up nationalist fervor among many Greeks.

“It might sound very sentimental, but [the name] is embedded in the hearts and minds of Greeks,” said Nikos Karahalios, campaign manager for Greece’s New Democracy Party.

Macedonia goes by the official name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” when working with international organizations. Other names proposed by United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz include  “Republic of Upper Macedonia,” which was a hit with Greece, but unpopular in Macedonia.

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Background: Greece and Macedonia's name debate

Since its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, the country known colloquially as Macedonia has been at odds with its neighbor Greece over its name. The newer Macedonia sits at the United Nations as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or “FYROM” for short.

But Macedonia is already the name of a Greek province, known as the homeland of Alexander the Great. Greece says the use of the name is an affront to its territorial sovereignty and has vowed to veto the country’s requests to join NATO and the European Union. “As long as the neighboring country persists in a position of intransigence, the answer is 'no solution means no invitation,'” Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis was quoted as saying by the BBC.

In a clip from Greek network Skai TV, Greek and Macedonian students debated the name issue at a panel at Anatolian College in Thessaloniki, Greece. A Macedonian student says, “Alexander of Macedonia has been dead for 3,000 years … so many people have come through here … You just need to live in Macedonia to call yourself Macedonian.” An ethnic Greek retorted that no Greek politician will allow Macedonia entry into the European Union or NATO, saying, “I am a real Macedonian, and I’m not like you.”

Reactions: Greece’s historical claims, Macedonia says minority ethnic group needs protection

The Greek Foreign Ministry clearly outlines its positions on the naming issue in a statement on its Web site: “The choice of the name Macedonia by FYROM directly raises the issue of usurpation of the cultural heritage of a neighboring country. To call only the Slavo-Macedonians 'Macedonians' monopolizes the name for the Slavo-Macedonians.”

Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki pointed out in a March 2008 Newsweek article, however, that Greece did not name its province Macedonia until 1988, years after the Yugoslav republic had been using the name. “They still have a concept of a pure nation—one state, one nation, one religion, one culture, everything Greek. And they do not want to recognize that in Greece there is a big Turkish minority, a big Albanian minority and one small Macedonian minority. So the name issue started in 1991 because they were afraid independent Macedonia would somehow influence this minority rights issue,” Milososki continued.

Reference: NATO and its member countries

Related Topic: National name changes

BBC World Service Deputy News Editor Steve Titherington examines how the media has responded to changes in place names in recent history. Burma, whose junta changed the official name of the country to Myanmar in 1989, is still called Burma in BBC reports to keep journalistic neutrality. “You might hear Burma and Myanmar in a story … but never Myanmar alone.” The BBC uses Mumbai for Bombay, India, but not Kolkata for Calcutta. “The key point in the discussions here … is that we change a name when it is a settled … change. Burkina Faso, for instance (formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta).” He points out that the name Kampuchea for what is now known as Cambodia did not stick.

Closer to the home of the Macedonia naming debate, some in fellow former Ottoman Empire country Turkey are pushing for the name of the country in English to be changed to its Turkish name, “Türkiye” to lessen the country’s associations with the bird. Writes the author of Web site GungorKaya.com, a site that styles itself as a resource for Turkish business and travel, “I also support this cause since the name used to define our beautiful country of Türkiye in English is a very unfortunate name.” He mentioned a 180,000-person Facebook group in favor of the Türkiye cause.

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