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Inside the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

A dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia goes back more than seven decades, but now both neighbors have a political interest in finding a solution. The row isn’t over territory or where the border should be, it’s about what constitutes "Macedonia," the name taken by the small independent state that was born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

1. What’s the dispute about?

Greece says the name Macedonia should refer only to its northern region, which was Alexander the Great’s stronghold in ancient times, and today is split into eastern, western and central administrative divisions. To Greece, Macedonia, historically and culturally, has nothing to do with any other country, including the republic to its immediate north.

2. How did we get here?

The roots of the conflict go back to World War II. The southernmost of six Yugoslav republics, the "People’s Republic of Macedonia" was cultivated under federal leader Josip Broz Tito. The U.S. State Department, in a telegraph from December 1944, called the designation "unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality" and said it might be a front for aggression toward Greece. The dispute then simmered for decades until Yugoslavia disintegrated. In 1991, the southern region declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece lodged a protest at the United Nations Security Council, alleging theft of historic and cultural identity. In 1993, the new country joined the UN under the provisional name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

3. So why’s it news now?

The Republic of Macedonia wants to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, but Greece, like all members of both organizations, has a veto over new admissions. It blocked the republic’s accession to NATO in 2008 and later halted the start of EU negotiations pending resolution of the name dispute. The two sides resumed UN-mediated talks in December after a new government took office in the republic, replacing a nationalist party that ruled for more than a decade. Greek policy is to oppose the use of the name "Macedonia" without a qualifier. It would mean employing a compound name like "Northern Macedonia," "New Macedonia" or "Upper Macedonia."

4. What does Greece hope to get out of this?

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants a foreign-policy victory to foster security in a tense part of Europe and boost his standing at home before elections next year. Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbor, its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and the second-biggest bank.

5. What could go wrong?

Efforts to resolve the row could backfire for Tsipras. The naming dispute has divided Greece, prompting two rallies since talks resumed. Thousands of protester chanted “Macedonia is Greek” in Athens and Thessaloniki, capital of the region of Central Macedonia. Trailing in the polls, Tsipras can ill-afford to be depicted as a sellout. Plus, he governs in a coalition with a nationalist party that opposes any use of the M word by Greece’s northern neighbor. On the other hand, should the Republic of Macedonia continue to be barred from NATO and the EU, it would be a plus for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the western Balkans. The region is a traditional sphere of influence for Russia, which remains opposed to NATO expansion in Europe.

6. What’s the republic’s position?

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government is keen to get a deal done. A NATO summit scheduled for July offers an opportunity for accession to begin if the two countries come to an agreement in time. Zaev’s government has said it will accept a geographical qualifier to the country’s name. In a goodwill gesture, the prime minister promised to rename the country’s main airport, now called Alexander the Great, after the nearby capital city, Skopje. The main road to Greece, now called Alexander the Macedonian, he pledged will become the Friendship Highway.

7. What are the next steps?

Greece has agreed to present a preliminary agreement that would put some points of convergence on paper for the first time by the end of February. Tsipras is likely to propose a qualified name preferably written in its Slavic form so that "Macedonia" would become "Makedonjia," as it is in the local language. Greece has asked Zaev’s government to conduct a constitutional review that will clearly conclude that the country has no claim on Greek territory, history or culture. Zaev has promised a referendum on any solution.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky writes that the threat from Russia should motivate a resolution of the Macedonia conflict.
  • An International Crisis Group paper on the name dispute.
  • A commentary in Stratfor.com argues that the dispute is essentially a clash of national narratives.

— With assistance by Anne Cronin, and Samuel Dodge

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