quicktake

A Guide to the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

A demonstrator holds a banner reading 'Macedonia' in front of the parliament building in Skopje on June 13. 

Photographer: Robert Atanasovski/AFP via Getty Images

The leaders of Greece and the Republic of Macedonia agreed, at least in principle, to end a dispute that has divided the Balkan neighbors for more than seven decades. The proposed solution to the row over what constitutes "Macedonia" is a new name that will do away with the ungainly "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" -- shorthanded as FYROM -- and pave the way for it to join the European Union and NATO. But it’s not a done deal, and there’s stiff opposition on both sides of the border.

1. What’s the new name?

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart, Zoran Zaev, agreed that the Republic of Macedonia -- the small independent state that was born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia -- will become the Republic of North Macedonia.

2. Why does the agreement matter?

Greece, like all members of the NATO and the EU, has a veto over new admissions. It used that veto to block the Republic of Macedonia’s accession to NATO in 2008 and later halted the start of negotiations to join the EU, pending resolution of the name dispute. The two sides resumed UN-mediated talks in December after Zaev’s new government took office, replacing a nationalist party that had ruled for more than a decade. Now, once the Republic of Macedonia changes its constitution to allow for the name switch, Tsipras said Greece will support its plans to start entry talks with the EU at a summit this month and receive an invitation to join NATO at a gathering in July.

3. Why was there a dispute in the first place?

Greece argued that 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.

4. 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 the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

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

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.

6. What could go wrong?

A lot. The naming dispute has divided Greece, with demonstrators taking to the streets chanting “Macedonia is Greek” in Athens and Thessaloniki, capital of the region of Central Macedonia as recently as last week. 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 EU and NATO expansion in Europe.

7. What about Macedonia?

Zaev has four main challenges. First, President Gjorge Ivanov denounced the agreement, saying it violated the constitution and hurt his country’s national interests and that he wouldn’t sign it. It’s not the first time Ivanov has tried to block legislation from the current government, with a law on languages coming into force despite the president vetoing it twice. Second, that may hinder Zaev from pushing the deal through parliament, where his ruling coalition holds a majority. Voters will then head to the polls in a fall referendum that will have a consultative role and needs to muster two-thirds of the votes in parliament to change the constitution with amendments that ensure the country makes no claims on Greek territory. Zaev doesn’t have that large of majority, and the opposition party VMRO-DPMNE, which backs Ivanov, has vowed to torpedo any changes. A final potential hurdle would be reluctance by EU members such as France and the Netherlands to granting a potential accession date. That would be a blow to Zaev’s government and could trigger instability across a volatile region.

The Reference Shelf

  • EU membership for all ex-Yugoslav states would be a beautiful ending to a tragic story, writes Bloomberg Opinion’s Leonid Bershidsky.
  • 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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