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What's In a Name: A Baltic Perspective on the Greece-FYROM Dispute

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By Prof. Vladislav B. Sotirovic*
The writer is professor at Mykolas Romeris University’s Institute of Political Sciences, Vilnius, Lithuania.
The ‘Macedonian Question’ is today actual for several reasons of which two are of fundamental importance: 1. Albanian secession in FYROM; and 2. the Greek dispute with the FYROM authorities over several issues (1).
For the matter of illustration, for instance, Greece is so far blocking Macedonia’s joining NATO and the EU because of an ongoing dispute between FYROM and Greece. The main disputable issue is a title of ‘Macedonia’ used in the country’s constitution in the form of the official state-name — the Republic of Macedonia(2).
When the ex-Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia voted for independence on Sept. 8, 1991(3) as the Republic of Macedonia (confirmed as the official constitutional name in November 1991)(4), Greece became, with great reason, immediately reluctant to recognize the country’s official name in addition to some other significant disputable issues in regard to the independence of FYROM.
In essence, according to the Greek administration, the use of this name brings a direct cultural, national and territorial threat to Greece and the Greek people. The Greeks feel that by using such a name, FYROM imposes an open territorial claim on the territory of northern Greece that is also called (the Aegean) Macedonia.
To make things clear, Greece claims, and with a right reason, to have exclusive copyright on the use of the name of Macedonia as the history and culture of ancient Macedonia were and are integral parts of the Greek national history and civilization and nothing to do with the present-day ‘Macedonians’ who are the artificial creation of the Titoist regime of socialist Yugoslavia after WWII. (5)
A Basic Historical Background
The present-day territory of FYROM was formerly part of the Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian empires until 1371/1395 when it became included into the Ottoman Sultanate, followed by a process of Islamization. The Christian population of the land was constantly migrating from Macedonia especially after the Austrian-Ottoman wars and uprisings against Ottoman rule.
After the 1878 Berlin Congress, Bulgaria started to work on the annexation of all historical-geographic Macedonia and for that reason it established in 1893 the openly pro-Bulgarian Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (the IMRO). After the Second Balkan War in 1913 Macedonian territory became partitioned between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. During WWI, Macedonia was the scene of heavy battles between the forces of the Central Powers and the Entente (the Salonika Front or the Macedonian Front).
After WWI, according to the Treaty of Neuilly, the territorial division of historical-geographical Macedonia between Serbia (now the Yugoslav state), Greece and Bulgaria was confirmed, followed in the next years by a large population movement which transformed the ethnic and confessional composition of Macedonia’s population primarily due to the population exchange between Greece and Turkey after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919−1922.
In the interwar period, despite continued activism by IMRO terrorists from Bulgaria, the aim to annex Yugoslav (Vardar) Macedonia remained unfulfilled. After WWII, Vardar Macedonia became transformed into one of six Yugoslav socialist republics (the Socialist Republic of Macedonia) followed by the official recognition of the Macedonian nation, language and alphabet by the Yugoslav communist authorities — a decision which alienated Bulgaria and Greece.(6)
The proclamation of state independence of the Yugoslav portion of Macedonia under the official name the Republic of Macedonia immediately created an extremely tense relationship with neighboring Greece as Macedonia developed rival claims for ethnicity and statehood, followed by the appropriation of ancient Macedonian history and culture.
This Greco-Macedonian rivalry became epitomized in the dispute on Macedonia’s official state-name for the very reason that Greece objected to the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ in any combination of the name of the state of its northern neighbor.
Origin of the Dispute
The dispute between Greece and FYROM came on the agenda when the ex-Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia adopted its new constitution in November 1991 in which the country’s official name was declared as the Republic of Macedonia.
Greece blocked the European Union from recognizing Macedonia’s independence (7) and on Dec. 4, 1991, the Greek government officially declared its goodwill to recognize the independence of FYROM but only if it would:
1. Made a clear constitutional guarantee of having no claims to Greek territory.
2. Stop hostile propaganda against Greece.
3. Exclude the term ‘Macedonia’ and its derivatives from a new official name of the state.
The first of these three conditions was a Greek reaction to the Article 49 in Macedonia’s new constitution which declared that the Republic of Macedonia cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in all neighboring countries as well as the Macedonian expatriates, assisting in their cultural development, and promoting links with them.(8)
This article was interpreted by Greece as an indirect reference to the (unrecognized) Macedonian minority (i.e. ‘Slavophile Greeks’) in North Greece (Aegean Macedonia) and it was perceived as a threat to the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Greece.
The EU supported Greece and stated in the same month that it would only recognize a new Macedonian state if it guaranteed to have no territorial claims against any neighboring EU member state (9) and not to engage in any act against such state, including and the use of a state-name that potentially could imply territorial claims.
Under pressure from Brussels, the parliament (Sobranie) in Skopje amended Macedonia’s constitution in January 1992 and as a result, the formal constitutional guarantees were provided that the country would not interfere in the internal affairs of other states and would respect the inviolability of the international borders of any state.
Macedonia’s authorities fulfilled only minor EU requirements, hopping to be soon recognized by the same organization, but two crucial problem-issues (the state-name of Macedonia and Article 49 of the constitution) which caused fundamental Greek dissatisfaction, still remained unchanged. Therefore, the EU sided with Greece and decided in June 1992 not to recognize the republic if it used the term Macedonia in its official state title. (10)
However, at the first glance, it may seem that the EU supported the Greek policy in 1991 toward the Macedonian question as it aligned itself with Greece as a member state of the bloc, but in fact, it was not the case. Greece’s position and arguments have been publicly rejected and even ridiculed by the officials from several EU member states, but three crucial realpolitik reasons made the EU officially side in 1992 with Greece in her dispute with FYROM:
1. In exchange for EU support on the Macedonian question, Greece promised to ratify the Maastricht Treaty (signed in February 1993), to participate in sanctions against Serbia (its traditional ally), and to ratify the EU financial protocol with Turkey.
2. By taking the same position as Greece, the EU demonstrated its own internal political cohesion and unity, trying at the same time to thwart the use of Greek veto rights in order to protect its own national interest within the EU.
3. A last factor that contributed to EU support for the Greek case was a fear that the Greek government might fall if the Republic of Macedonia were recognized under that name.(11)
Alternative Official Names for Macedonia
A variety of alternative names for the ex-Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia were proposed after 1991 in order to solve the problem and normalize relations with Greece – Macedonia’s neighbor and economic partner.
It was quite clear that Greece herself would not accept any kind of state-name that includes the term ‘Macedonia’ and therefore a variety of solutions without the term ‘Macedonia’ were suggested by Athens, ranging from Dardania and Paeonia (used in antiquity to name regions to the north of the ancient Macedonia) to the names of the South Slavia, the Vardar Republic (12), the Central Balkan Republic and the Republic of Skopje (named after Macedonia’s capital).
All other name suggestions which used the designation Macedonia, mainly proposed by the Macedonian side, were in no way acceptable to Greece for political, historical and moral reasons.
What Greece could accept as a kind of temporal solution was the state-name of the country with the designation Macedonia but only to make clear difference between Macedonia as a former republic of Yugoslavia and Macedonia that is a region in northern Greece.
These solutions included names such as, for instance, North Macedonia, New Macedonia or the Slavic Republic of Macedonia. (13)
Greece even suggested that a new state of Macedonia could adopt two names: 1. One official for the external use, without mentioning designation Macedonia, and 2. One unofficial for internal use, which could include the designation Macedonia.
However, all these Greek solutions were rejected by the Macedonian authorities who insisted on the recognition of Macedonia’s independence exactly under the constitutional name of the Republic of Macedonia. (14)
FYROM and the ‘Sun of Vergina’
The ex-Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia was gaining international recognition step by step, although not in a majority cases under its constitutional name as the Republic of Macedonia.
By early 1993 the new state was able to become a member of the International Monetary Fund (the IMF) under the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)(15) and by April 1993 the United Nations (the UN) also admitted Macedonia under the provisional name as a temporary compromise between the Macedonian and the Greek authorities.
It was agreed that a permanent state-name of Macedonia that is going to be used in the foreign affairs had to be decided later through a process of mediation by the UN. However, FYROM was not allowed to fly its original state flag (from 1991) at the UN headquarters as the official state emblem as Greece strongly opposed such an idea.
The real reason for this Greek decision was basically of the essential nature of the political conflict with the authorities in Skopje as the flag was composed of the yellow-colored sixteen-ray sun of star from Vergina on a red-colored background.
The background color was not a problematic issue, but the yellow ‘Sun of Vergina’ on the flag, however, created a fundamental dispute between two states, together with the issue of the official state-name of Macedonia.
The Greek government strongly opposed the Macedonian authorities’ use the ‘Sun of Vergina’ as a state emblem at least for two good reasons:
1. It was an insignia of the ancient Macedonians of the Macedonian Empire.
2. It was found between two world wars in Vergina, an ancient town on the territory of present-day Greece but not of FYROM.
The Greek authorities’ understanding of the ‘Sun of Vergina’ as a symbol which has nothing to do either with the territory of FYROM or with the ethnic Macedonians, or better to say, with Macedonia’s Slavs. (16)
The Greeks are clear in this matter, having a position that the history and culture of the ancient Macedonians does not belong to the historical and ethnic heritage of the FYROM but on the contrary, they belong to the Greek (Hellenic) inheritance.
Therefore, the use of the ‘Sun of Vergina’ by the FYROM authorities is seen by Greece as an act of falsification of history and cultural aggression on the state territory of Greece with unpredictable political consequences in the future.
It is the same with cases of naming certain institutions and public objects with the names of Philip II (the national soccer stadium in Skopje) or Alexander the Great (a highway in FYROM as well as the Skopje airport) or with the building of monuments devoted to them (as in the main city square in Skopje).
Embargo and Further Negotiations
In 1993 several states recognized Macedonia under the official state-name as FYROM but there were also those states which recognized the country as the Republic of Macedonia.
Macedonia was recognized by six EU members, followed by the U.S. and Australia by early 1994. However, the Greek government experienced this recognition of independence as a great diplomatic and national defeat.
In response, Athens imposed a strict trade embargo on FYROM on Feb. 17, 1994 to more firmly point out its unchanged position regarding several problematic issues in dealing with its northern neighbor.
The embargo had a very large, and negative, impact on Macedonia’s economy as its export earnings fell by 85 percent and its food supplies dropped by 40 percent. On the other side, the economic blockade was very much criticized by the international community, including the EU and, therefore, was lifted in 1995 but after successful negotiations between Greece and FYROM, these two countries finally recognized each other and established diplomatic relations.
FYROM, as a part of a settlement package with Greece, was also forced to change the official flag of the state — the ‘Sun of Vergina’ was replaced with the ‘Macedonian Sun’. (17)
However, negotiations between FYROM and Greece in regard to a permanent state-name of Macedonia are still being conducted by the UN, and this problem remains unsolved to the present day.
The issue arose several times when concerning the possibility of FYROM joining both NATO and the EU; Greece (a member state of both organizations) threatened to veto Macedonia’s admission if the problem of its state-name was not solved in Greece’s favor.
Talks between FYROM and Greece have produced some new alternative state-name proposals by both sides, for instance, the Constitutional Republic of Macedonia, the Democratic Republic of Macedonia, the Independent Republic of Macedonia, the New Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Upper-Macedonia.
Nevertheless, the talks proved that none of these proposals is acceptable to both parties. FYROM proposed as a workable solution to use a changed state-name only in relations to Greece, but at the same time to keep its constitutional state-name in all other international relations.
However, even this proposal did not lead to a final and sincere solution as Greece insisted that a final deal must be applied internationally.
The UN mediator’s compromising proposal was to rename the state as the Republic Macedonia-Skopje.
Nevertheless, despite all possible efforts made to solve the problem, no agreement has been reached so far and, therefore, NATO and EU membership for FYROM are very problematic as one of the membership requirements is to reach agreements with Greece on all disputable political questions, including the official Macedonian state-name. (18)
Concluding Remarks
It is quite remarkable that a dispute between FYROM and Greece on Macedonia’s official state-name after 1991, which looks probably quite trivial on the first sight, can have such large political and other implications with unpredictable consequences in the future. One can wonder how Greece and FYROM became firmly stuck to their positions for a quarter of century. However, the fact is that this dispute is actually directly connected with their national identities and cultural inheritance.
1 James Pettifer (ed), The New Macedonian Question, New York: Palgrave, 2001, 15−27.
2 The term Macedonia is of Greek origin.
3 This day is celebrated in FYROM as Independence Day.
4 James Pettifer (ed), The New Macedonian Question, New York: Palgrave, 2001, xxv.
5 Nicolaos K. Martis, The Falsification of Macedonian History, Athens: Graphic Arts, 1983.
6 Bulgaria never recognized a separate Macedonian nationality, language and alphabet. For Bulgarians, all Macedonia’s Slavs are of Bulgarian origin. Greece is recognizing only the existence of the Macedonian Slavs but not on its own territory where all Slavs are considered as Slavophone Greeks [Hugh Poulton, The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict, London: Minority Rights Publications, 1994, 175].
7 Greece has been a member of the EU since 1981.
8 The constitution’s adoption was on Nov. 17, 1991 and came into force on Nov. 20, 1991.
9 At that time, it was the European Community which became the European Union the following year.
10 Victor Roudometof, “Nationalism and Identity Politics in the Balkans: Greece and the Macedonian Question”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 14 (2), 1996, 253−301.
11 Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, 9 (4), 1993, 3−10.
12 The territory of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is also known as the Vardar Macedonia, contrary to the Macedonian territory in Bulgaria – the Pirin Macedonia, and in Greece – the Aegean Macedonia. A geographical-historical territory of Macedonia became divided between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria as a consequence of the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913: “…Bulgaria who had only a little piece of Macedonia in her share: the Struma Valley between Gorna Dzumaja (Blagoevgrad) and Petric with the Strumica enclave. Greece received all Macedonia south of Lake Ohrid and the coast with Thessalonika and Kavala. Serbia was given Northern Macedonia and the center up to Ohrid, Monastir (Bitola) and the Vardar” [Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans from Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 381]. In essence, Greece received 60%, Serbia 30% and Bulgaria 10% of the geographic-historical territory of Macedonia. A Present-day FYROM is in fact the Vardar Macedonia that became annexed by the Kingdom of Serbia in 1913 known in Titoist Yugoslavia as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia with the capital in Skopje.
13 The Greeks are not Slavs.
14 Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, 9 (4), 1993, 3−10.
15 Victor Roudometof, “Nationalism and Identity Politics in the Balkans: Greece and the Macedonian Question”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 14 (2), 1996, 253−301.
16 Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, 9 (4), 1993, 3−10.
17 The Greeks in the Aegean Macedonia are using regularly a blue flag with the “Sun of Vergina” which is also in many cases put on the state flag of Greece as a historical emblem of North Greece.
18 FYROM is currently a candidate for EU membership together with Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro.

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