The Macedonian Name Issue

The name issue arose in 1991, when the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) seceded from Yugoslavia and declared its independence under the name “Republic of Macedonia”.

“Macedonia” is a Greek word and historically refers to the Kingdom and culture of the ancient Macedonians.  Classical scholars and museum universally consider ancient Macedonia as part of Greek historical and cultural heritage, and classical Scholars from around the world sent a letter to President Barack Obama declaring that “Alexander the Great was thoroughly and indisputably Greek.

Geographically, the term “Macedonia” refers to a wider region extending into the current territory of various Balkan countries, with the largest part of the region being in Greece and smaller sections in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria and Albania. The core of what was ancient Macedonia lies within contemporary Greek borders, comprises the northern portion of the Greek state, and is called Macedonia. Some 2.5 million Greeks reside in this region today and they and their forebears have considered and called themselves Macedonians through the centuries.

From the moment of its independence, FYROM has made irredentist claims against Greek history and territory.  It has inappropriately used Greek historical symbols on its flag and currency, it has claimed Greek territory in its constitution and its textbooks and has incited nationalistic feelings against Greece.  As a result, Greece and FYROM have never been able to establish full diplomatic relations, and Greece has blocked FYROM’s accession to both NATO and the European Union until their irredentist behavior ceases.  A 1995 Interim Accord has governed the issue up until this year.  

In June of 2018, the Tsipras and Zaev Governments signed the Lake Prespa Agreement, which would obligate FYROM to change its constitutional name from “Republic of Macedonia” to “Republic of North Macedonia” and to use it universally.  It also obligates FYROM to renounce any claim on Greek history and culture, any territorial claim on Greek territory, and any other irredentist behavior.  There is controversy in Greece over the concessions the Tsipras government made in allowing for a “Macedonian” identity (albeit with the caveat that it has nothing to do with Greek history from antiquity until today) and a “Macedonian” language (albeit with a clear declaration that it is a Slavic language).

The process of ratification has begun and will only be complete once FYROM has (in this sequence): passed the agreement through Parliament; successfully held a referendum approving the deal; changed its constitution.  When this is complete, the agreement can be finalized via Greece’s Parliament approving the agreement.

Talking Points

 1.     There is no place for irredentism in NATO or the European Union

The Macedonian name issue is about more than a word.  FYROM has made open and brazen claims against Greek territory and history.  This 19th century behavior has no place in 21st century Western alliances.  It has to be made clear to the government of FYROM, to its citizens and to its diaspora that there is no sympathy or audience for their irredentist sentiments in the United States or in Europe.

2.     FYROM must prove itself a genuine partner for peace and stability

Since vetoing an invitation for FYROM to enter NATO at the 2008 NATO Summit, Athens has consistently signaled its willingness to compromise (accepting, for example, the principle of a composite name).  Successive governments in Skopje have responded with additional provocations (like renaming their airport “Alexander the Great Airport” or erecting statutes of Alexander the Great).  While the Zaev government has implemented promising Confidence Building Measures (renaming the airport once again), FYROM must renounce irredentism in a convincing and lasting manner.  Not only should it complete all steps required by the Lake Prespa Agreement but should simultaneously undertake further Confidence Building Measures – including all measures called for in the 110th Congress’ Senate Resolution 300 – to evidence the country’s commitment to not only the letter but the spirit of the agreement.

3.     FYROM still has to meet the standards for NATO membership

The democratic backsliding in FYROM must be reversed before Skopje can join the Western alliance, and there must be certainty that the previous government’s relationship with Russia does not have deep roots in the country.  Finally, the burden of proof is on Skopje to prove that it can constantly be on the same page – NATO is, after all, a consensus based body – with Athens.