Place naming matters. Never more so than when the place in question is contested. All over the world we have examples of disputes, such as in the case of Judea and Samaria as opposed to the West Bank, or the Falkland Islands and its Argentine/Latin American alternative, Islas Malvinas. Place names perform multiple roles – they help to identify and locate particular points on the Earth; they convey a sense of ownership and sovereignty; they connect to personal and collective identities, and they offer up clues to past histories and geographies.
One of the liveliest current examples of place naming controversy involves Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). At the root of the dispute is the name ‘Macedonia’, and Greek concerns that the political leadership of the FYROM needs to change its national constitution and publicly reject any lingering claims to ‘recovering’ lost territory. For the new country, formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, only covers two fifths of the territory known as Macedonia - the rest is in Bulgaria or Greece. For Greek nationalists, Macedonia is integral to Greek culture, landscape and identity and has been so for millennia.
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the FYROM declared independence in 1991 and was only admitted as a UN member after accepting that it was to be officially known as FYROM and not the Republic of Macedonia (ROM). NATO and the EU recognise Macedonia as FYROM and not ROM because of Greek objections. For more than 25 years, the two countries have argued over who has the right to the name ‘Macedonia’. In recent weeks, a protest rally attracting at least 140,000 people marched through Athens chanting ‘Macedonia is Greece’.
The naming dispute is partly existential because it does tap into respective nationalist cultures. But it is not just a matter of identity politics. In 2003, FYROM was identified by the EU as a potential candidate state. A year later the FYROM applied for EU membership and its candidature was accepted in principle. However, full membership will not be finalised until an agreement can be reached with Greece over the place naming dispute. Accession negotiations with the EU which started in 2009 are in effect stalled. Now, however, Greece is under pressure to resolve matters so that FYROM can join both the EU and NATO.
Elsewhere, the US, China and Russia recognise the Republic of Macedonia, and what worries the EU and NATO is that this lingering controversy provides Russia with yet another opportunity to make its strategic presence felt in the region. In 2017, controversy erupted over a disputed election result in FYROM/ROM, resulting in street protests and complaints from some voters that the EU, NATO and Russia were all meddling in their internal affairs. Complicating matters still further is the fact that 25 per cent of the population is Albanian, leading some FYROM nationalists to worry that there might be a nefarious Albanian plot to undermine the country and pursue a ‘greater Albania’.
If Greece is concerned about FYROM (and let us not forget Turkey and the divided island of Cyprus) then FYROM is concerned about Greece and Albania. In addition, Greece and Turkey are arguing over the ownership of small islands in the Aegean Sea and there have been several incidents involving their respective navies. The recent refugee crisis exacerbated existing tensions with both countries at loggerheads about maritime sovereignty and patrolling.
So the geopolitical stakes are high. NATO and the EU want to resolve this quickly. For Greece, the naming dispute is tied up to a wider set of concerns stretching from desired changes to the new state’s constitution (which acknowledges explicitly the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Greece) to the manner in which Macedonians are taught national history and geography. Greece’s government (led by Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza Party) will probably need the support of an opposition party such as the New Democrats to have any chance of progressing things politically. The current coalition partner of Syriza is the Independent Greek party, which is in no mood to compromise on the Macedonian issue.
Are there signs that progress is possible? It was reported in January that the Macedonian government agreed to change the name of its national airport from Alexander the Great to Skopje International Airport. Optimism exists in some quarters that Macedonia could even become a NATO member (which is easier to resolve than EU membership) this summer. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been vocal in her support and urged both sides to find a resolution. Meanwhile, FYROM remains under pressure to improve the rule of law and civil rights.
Finding a solution to this place naming imbroglio will demand goodwill. The Republic of Northern Macedonia or Republic of New Macedonia might be two future naming possibilities. While pontification continues, many countries will simply continue to speak of a Republic of Macedonia regardless.
This was published in the April 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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