Greece and Northern Macedonia – a choice of name that democracy should have resolved

3 mins read

By Antonios Antoniadis

The controversial name dispute regarding the area of Macedonia in Southern Europe has recently ended. With the approval of the Greek and North Macedonian parliaments the historical region will be called North Macedonia, but many Greeks are infuriated over their government’s decision. They demand exclusive right to the name of Macedonia because of its historical connection to Greece, and this choice of name has affected politics beyond the Mediterranean area.

To understand the dynamics of the Greek-Macedonian conflict we must consider the geographical composition of the ancient world. Greece was a dominant culture and the area of the southern Balkans, known as Macedonia, was inhabited by the Greeks. Around 400 BC Macedonia was very powerful and eventually became the stronghold of Alexander the Great, on which he built his great empire.

Greece didn’t exist as a united country by today’s measures, but the ancient kingdom of Macedonia had a Greek culture, sharing the same traditions and speaking a dialect of the Greek language. Macedonia was a Greek state and many Greeks living in the Macedonian part of Greece today feel like Macedonia is part of their identity.

They feel like the name belongs to them and their history because of its historical roots, and maybe above all because they have always called themselves “Macedonians”. Many believe that there is only one Macedonia and it should be a part of Greece, thus claiming that the name of Macedonia should exclusively refer to the Greek region and its people.    

The modern dispute started in the end of the 20th century with the breakup of Yugoslavia. The geographical area of Macedonia was divided between northern Greece and the south of Yugoslavia. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, a part of the region became an independent country called Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.O.M).

This gave rise to extensive protests in Greece because many didn’t want F.Y.R.O.M. to use the word “Macedonia” at all. Since then the conflict has been ongoing for 27 years. Macedonia even named their biggest airport after Alexander the Great and built a big statue of him, something that rather increased the tensions between the two sides.

One key aspect in the conflict was Macedonia’s entering in the EU and NATO, pushed by the US and its allies. Every member has a right to veto new states and because of the name Greece prevented Macedonia from joining for many years. But due to the importance of Macedonia’s geographical position in Europe, their membership became of greater and greater importance, which started to put pressure on the countries to solve their dispute.

Consequently, in June of 2018, an agreement was reached that would resolve this polemical choice of name. The so called Prespa agreement was signed by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries and recognized the name Republic of Northern Macedonia as official and undeniable. In the beginning of 2019, the agreement was ratified in both parliaments and seems to have marked the end of a long-standing conflict.

The disappointment in Greece has been significant, especially in the north. Many feel betrayed and are disappointed with the government’s decision to confirm the new name. A change in the agreement seems unlikely, though, since it is ergaomnes, which means it is legally binding and cannot be replaced by any new agreement.

In Northern Macedonia, however, the new name has received less opposition. In September 2018, a referendum was held in Macedonia to approximate the public support, but due to a low voter turnout the result, which was in favor for the agreement, was declared invalid. It could, however, indicate that the Macedonian people had a somewhat neutral standpoint in the question, in contrast to Greece.

Despite many protests and demonstrations the Greek government approved the agreement without arranging a referendum. In the country where democracy was born the people had no choice in a question that was of great importance to them. Some say it was a calculated decision not to have a referendum because the result would have been overwhelmingly against the proposition, others think the question just wasn’t important enough.

All speculations aside, the Prespa Agreement will probably affect Greek politics further in the future. With legislative elections to be held in Greece in October 2019, the leading party Syriza have lost substantial support and trustworthiness, much because of the name dispute. In the north people are very upset and this will probably have a great influence on the outcome of the elections.

Also on a global scale we can expect consequences of the agreement. Northern Macedonia will most likely join the EU and NATO, thus providing the US with a strategically lucrative position for their military bases in Europe. For Russia this means a setback giving that they would like to be ally with the Balkan countries, and decrease the influence of NATO in Europe.

To decide what is right and wrong in this question is not easy. The Greek people deserve respect for their history and cultural identification but at the same time the Macedonian people need an independent and appropriate name for their country that is located in ancient Macedonia.

The real problem seems to be that the people of Greece weren’t handed a choice, their opinion wasn’t respected as it should have been. Pressure from the US and NATO probably affected the two governments, and holding a referendum in Greece might have been too complicated. But politics are always complicated and if we don’t let the voice of the people decide, then what kind of democracy are we really applying?

Cover photo: Wikimedia Commons

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