The big fuss about Macedonia's name change

GREProtests18ATHENS— Greece and Macedonia leaders are expected to meet over the weekend to officially change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to Northern Macedonia.

And voters of both Balkan countries are already dusting off their flags and cheap copies of ancient warrior helmets to protest it – again.

Why all the furor over a name? It goes back to Alexander the Great.

Greeks like 54-year-old miner George Papavasiliou, who lives in the northern Greek region of Macedonia, say only people living in his region should be known as Macedonians – because they are descendants of the legendary ancient Greek warrior-king who hailed from the region.

And even though population movements in the Balkans have been taking place for thousands of years – leaving a mixed ethnic heritage today – he says people in the Republic of Macedonia are ethnically Slavs or Albanians, not Greeks.

“I’d only agree to a name that doesn’t include the word Macedonia,” he said. "(Otherwise), if like FYROM, India wants to be called Macedonia, they could, since Alexander, the Macedonian king, reached and occupied India too.”

Across the border, in Skopje, protesters gathered outside parliament this week to ask for a referendum because they oppose the name change, too. People here want to be known as Macedonians – it's key to their developing sense of themselves as a nation, say analysts.

That's because FYROM is a relatively new country, one of seven formed after the breakdown of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

“These new countries needed nationalism to construct, in a sense, their own national history and their own national uniqueness,” said Anastasia Karakasidou, professor of anthropology at Wellesley College, and author of a book on nationalism and ethnic rivalry in the Balkans. “Countries like Greece and Bulgaria had gone through their national ideology construction much earlier and felt a kind of a threat from these new countries.”
Karakasidou believes the new name, Northern Macedonia, is a good solution for both countries.

“The name is different and it is not different,” she said. “Logically speaking it’s not very different. But emotionally speaking it’s different for the Greek people.”

It's different for those in Skopje, too.

“I don’t think this will pass here smoothly, as it’s a very sensitive and emotional issue for most Macedonians,” Filip Nelkovski, a 39-year-old business consultant in Skopje. "Whatever (the agreement) is, it will not end the name dispute issue."

Meanwhile, even though the Republic of Macedonia has been recognized by more than 140 countries, including the US and most of the EU, for more than 25 years, Greece has been vetoing Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the EU because it was worried that Macedonia had territorial claims against Greece’s northern region with the same name.

That matters to the EU and the US because of pro-Russian sentiments within the country: The West wants FYROM firmly and squarely in the Western camps of the EU and NATO, analysts say.

With the signing of the name-change agreement Saturday, Macedonia is expected to change its constitution and rename itself by the end of the year – and renounce any territorial designs on the Macedonian region of Greece.

It is also expected to change its history books to reflect that its people are not direct descendants of ancient Macedonians, and return statues of ancient Macedonians – or mark them clearly to reflect they were ancient Macedonian (Greek).

In exchange, Greece will agree to Macedonia’s NATO and EU membership.

Even so, as some politicians in both countries oppose the agreement, it could take some time, and more protests on both sides of the border are expected.

And then there is the historical mistrust.

“Greece is famous for not staying true to its previous commitments not to block Macedonia for membership in transatlantic bodies,” said Nelkovski. “And I am not sure (what will happen) if the Greek government changes – everything will likely stay on paper.”

"I cannot see for sure that we will enter NATO or the EU fast enough," he added. "I don’t think this will pass here, unless the Americans push harder.”

Still, as a goodwill gesture, the signs of the airport in Skopje have already been changed from Alexander the Great Airport to Skopje International Airport, and the Motorway Alexander of Macedonia has been changed to Friendship Motorway.

Next are license plate designations – from MK to NM or NMK. And the two countries will convene a panel to decide on commercial names, trademarks, and brand names.

Now is the time, some say, to let go of history.

“I don't think anybody should or can claim they're direct descendants of Alexander's,” said Karakasidou, speaking from her grandmother’s home in Thessaloniki, the heart of Greek Macedonia. “Since the Republic of Macedonia is a relatively new nation, it's more important to them, while Greeks also have to overcome this sentimental response to the ancient Greeks."

"I think we should leave Alexander alone," she added. "He was what he was.”

Photo: February 4, 2018 - Athens, Greece - Screenshot of Greeks protesting in front of the Greek Parliament against the use of the term "Macedonia" in the new name of FYROM. 
Credit: Courtesy of Twitter user Demetrios Ioannou (02/04/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/15/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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