Athens has vowed to veto NATO’s enlargement, not allowing the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM — the country’s official United Nations name) to enter the Alliance at the April Bucharest Summit, unless there is a prior satisfactory resolution of the bilateral name dispute (what FYROM’s final name should be). In Greece, this threat enjoys wide popular support as well as blanket partisan approval. However, it is not well-understood by many international actors, think tanks and newspapers, often deemed unacceptable or simply “absurd.”
To imply that a nation and its politicians have been essentially behaving irrationally for more than 15 years does not really explain this issue, but rather explains it away. True, Greek diplomacy has committed mistakes and the Greek army is so much stronger than that of the neighboring republic’s that no serious military threat has to be feared or contemplated for the foreseeable future. However, it is worth keeping in mind that it is also laughable to consider the United States threatened by Cuba, and yet economic and political policies are maintained against the island for perfectly legitimate (if debatable) reasons.
The Macedonian name dispute has to be understood within a framework that involves a different set of nonmilitary criteria. For example, symbols have played a tremendous role. In the past, Athens insisted successfully that FYROM change its flag that depicted the ancient Macedonian star of Vergina. Flags are not mere pieces of cloth but the most potent of symbols. Consider the emotional and political ramifications that flying the Confederate flag elicits in America even today.
Perhaps even more significantly, when discussing the name issue, matters of identity come to the forefront. Can there be any more visceral or important subject for an individual than that of his or her identity that inevitably includes considerations of history, culture and symbols?
The name dispute directly addresses such concerns. Greece contains the region of Greek Macedonia and makes a direct claim to the ancient Macedonian heritage. By aiming for U.N. recognition with the name “Republic of Macedonia,” Greece’s neighbor can make (and has been making) claims to the entire cultural, historical and geographic legacy of Macedonia (even though Slavs only came to the region in the sixth century A.D.). This can create problems and confusion as to the identity of Greek Macedonians.
The Athens government’s current position is that a single name should be found that includes the term Macedonia but also a fair geographic (and not ethnic) connotation, thus preventing monopolization of all things Macedonian by FYROM.
Contrary to much discussion and argument, the Macedonian name dispute is not simply about antiquity but also about modern developments and history. Greeks fought over Macedonia during the “Macedonian Struggle” (1904-08 guerrilla warfare during Ottoman times), as well as during two Balkan Wars and two World Wars. Crucially, Greek Macedonia was contested during the Greek Civil War.
In other words, there has been a dramatic and traumatic historical record relating to Macedonian issues. The American Civil War was concluded in April 1865, but political, cultural and economic consequences continued for more than a century — some might say they are in many ways still around. The Greek Civil War ended only in 1949. Greek sensitivities hence should be both respected and better understood.
The name issue also has an economic dimension involving the trademark of many Greek products that include the term Macedonian (such as Macedonian wine or halva). The resolution will have to address these commercial concerns as well.
During the last few months the young political leadership in Skopje has made a point of provoking Greece. Gratuitously provocative statements, the renaming of the Skopje and Ochrid airports as “Alexander the Great” and “St. Paul the Apostle” respectively (to find out why the latter is an affront to Greece, see the Acts of the Apostles) and an unwillingness to negotiate in a meaningful way, have worsened matters and ensured that the veto threat remains credible and popular. The arrogance and counterproductive nature of these provocations should be taken into account before Greek positions are routinely and all too easily condemned.
The Macedonian name dispute relates to matters of identity, symbols, history, products and provocations. This is a potent combination that deserves deeper scrutiny and understanding. Nevertheless, it is possible to finally resolve this most intractable of issues. Both Athens and Skopje ultimately have a common interest in the region’s stability and eventual inclusion in Euro-Atlantic institutions. There is still time for an agreement.
Aristotle Tziampiris is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Piraeus and research associate at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). The views expressed are his own.