AP Explains: What the Greek-Macedonian name deal is about
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — “What’s in a name?” asks Juliet in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.”
Not in the ethnically jumbled Balkans region of Europe, where centuries-old collective memories still stir strong feelings. For 27 years, Greece and Macedonia have been bedeviled by one of the oddest disputes in international diplomacy — what the smaller, younger and landlocked country of 2.1 million should be called, at home and abroad.
A tentative agreement between their prime ministers could now lead to full normalization of the two neighbors’ relations, while clearing the main obstacle to realizing Macedonia’s dream of becoming part of NATO and the European Union.
Like many things, it all began with the ancient Greeks.
About 2,300 years ago, the uppity Greek-speaking kingdom of Macedonia subjugated the fractious southern city-states that now comprise Greece and then organized an all-Greek military expedition under King Alexander the Great that established an empire reaching as far as India. Many of the battered southerners regarded the Macedonians as unsavory redneck cousins, but enjoyed the empire-building.
Modern Greeks look back with pride on the period as a high point in their history.
Centuries of Slavic and Turkish invasions muddled the ethnic makeup of the population, but the name Macedonia stuck to an area now including Macedonia, parts of Greece — whose large northern province of Macedonia includes the heart of the ancient kingdom — and Bulgaria. Macedonia became part of Yugoslavia and wouldn’t become an independent nation-state until 1991.
BUT WHAT WENT WRONG?
When the infant state tried to call itself Macedonia, Greece cried foul, citing a possible threat to its own adjoining province of Macedonia. Nationalist fervor found an outlet in mass rallies. It didn’t help that Macedonian nationalists laid claim, through the concept of a “Greater Macedonia,” to much of Greek Macedonia.
While most of Macedonia’s people are Slavs or ethnic Albanians in descent and language — the nationalists presented themselves as the heirs of Alexander’s Greek-speaking countrymen. The country’s former flag portrayed an ancient sun motif excavated in the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip, in northern Greece.
In an attempt to set boundaries, Athens clobbered its neighbor with a crippling trade embargo. An unwieldy compromise of a name — the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” or FYROM — was adopted, and it’s what the United Nations and other global bodies still call the country. About 140 countries, however, ditched the diplomatic name for plain Macedonia.
Unpleasantness ensued at international sports encounters, with Greek delegations frequently taking umbrage and stomping out when Macedonian teams were not labeled FYROM. Athens vetoed Macedonia’s bid to join NATO.
Macedonia’s conservative government saw fit to name the country’s main airport and highway after Alexander, whose statues sprouted all over the place. Greece had already renamed the airport of Thessaloniki — capital of Greek Macedonia — “Macedonia Airport.”
SO WHAT’S CHANGED?
After a decade of conservative rule in Macedonia, a left-led government led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s took over last year in Skopje, pledging to work for a compromise that would enable his country’s NATO and EU accession. In Athens, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ fellow left-led administration was equally amenable to a forward-looking deal.
Western countries also have a rekindled interest in expanding NATO to counter what they see as increased Russian influence in the region.
Meanwhile, Greek companies have a strong presence in Macedonia and Macedonian tourists like to spend their holidays on northern Greek beaches.
IS EVERYONE HAPPY WITH THE DEAL?
No. Conservative main opposition parties in both countries are against the deal, arguing that it is too generous to the other side. But neither would be able, on its own, to block parliamentary approval of the agreement.
In Athens, matters are complicated by Tsipras’ junior, nationalist coalition partner rejecting the deal. However, other opposition parties have indicated that they could provide the necessary parliamentary backing for the deal to be approved.
Macedonia’s head of state, conservative-rooted President Gjorge Ivanov, has unequivocally rejected changing the country’s name in its constitution. By law, his signature is necessary for the agreement approved in parliament to be legal, but it is unclear whether he will be able to derail it.
Public opinion in northern Greece is strongly against any use of the word Macedonia in the country’s name. A protest rally is planned in Athens on Friday.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The deal is designed to proceed in a series of complex lurches over coming months. First the foreign ministers sign it, probably this weekend while meeting by a border lake. Then, next week, a ratification vote would take place in Macedonia’s parliament.
From there, the idea is that NATO invites Macedonia to join and the EU starts lengthy membership talks. In September, Macedonia puts the whole deal to a binding referendum. If the result endorses the agreement, then Macedonia amends its constitution to formalize the new name. Failure to do so means that the NATO invitation is rescinded and the EU accession process is scuppered.
Finally, after the constitution is amended, Greece ratifies the agreement.
IS THE NEW NAME NORTH OR NORTHERN MACEDONIA?
Macedonia will put signs on its recently-erected statues of Alexander explaining that they “are symbols of Greek culture.” A particularly big one in Skopje will be signposted as symbolizing Greek-(North) Macedonian friendship.