In the United States, the word “Macedonia” typically spurs lukewarm reactions. Some associate it with the legacy of Alexander the Great, while others vaguely recognize it as a reference to the country that lies “somewhere close-ish to Russia?” I doubt, however, that many find themselves struggling with the use of that word or experiencing the unconscious jolt spurred by the mention of the name.
Determining what to call this country has a deeply political connotation. In international discourse, several actors refer to it as the “Republic of Macedonia” or just “Macedonia,” while others address it as “Former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia.” The first two terms provoke intensely negative reactions in Greece, while the latter is vehemently opposed by natives who reject its association to Yugoslavia. The term most accepted by the two countries in question is “Skopje,” a reference to the country’s capital city. Therefore, for the purposes of this article, the term “Skopje” will be adopted.
Since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the question of what the emerging republic between Bulgaria and Albania should be called has troubled politicians and international organizations alike. Greece and Skopje have found themselves at a deadlock, with both nations claiming ownership over the term “Macedonia.” The dispute, which has colored the Yugoslav wars and tainted the relationship between the nations since Skopje gained independence, stems from the ambiguity and interchangeability between the nomenclature of the Republic of Macedonia — referring to Skopje — the Northern Greek geographic region of Macedonia and the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, which is known in the context of Alexander the Great and his reign.
The impasse, which has lasted for a quarter of a century, has prevented Skopje from entering the European Union or NATO, and most recently has allowed Greek politicians to deflect public attention from pressing domestic issues to the naming dispute. In the last few weeks, however, people from around the world have started to look up “maps of Eastern Europe” in an attempt to locate this country, whose population is smaller than Houston, Texas. The newly elected prime minister of Skopje, Zoran Zaev, has revitalized hopes for the resolution of the naming dispute, and the Greek government, led by Alexis Tsipras, seems willing to play ball.
At this point you are probably wondering how an incomprehensible dispute between two small, distant countries, such as these, affect our lives at Yale?
For better or worse, our perfect Yale microcosm contains within it myriads of seemingly distanced, insignificant tensions. Our social and cultural mosaic is comprised of people who come from places that have long-standing conflicts and political disputes. Cypriots and Turks, Taiwanese and Chinese, Ukrainian and Russian, Israelis and Palestinians — and the list goes on and on. More often than not, the tensions between the countries manifest in historical arguments used to preserve or construct national identity.
According to Paris Aslanidis, a lecturer in Yale’s Political Science Department, the two forces that have come to butt heads in this dispute are Greek and Skopjean nationalism. The international pressure on both nations to reach a compromise is exacerbated and complicated by the domestic tensions in both countries.
Daphne Martin ’19, president of the Hellenic Society, confirmed the importance of the dispute, saying that “it demonstrates the continued influence of the classical past on the formation of Greece’s national identity.”
The domestic situation in Skopje is defined by decades of political instability and ethnic divisions between those who identify as Albanian and those who identify as Macedonian. The association with the ancient Greek republic of Macedonia is a relatively new narrative that emerged in the 1990s. It was adopted and heavily promoted by the former Macedonian Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski.
Gruevski’s rule was characterized by corruption and a failure of many public services such as health care and education. The former Prime Minister revitalized the nationalist sentiment related to the “Macedonian” identity in an effort to distract from domestic problems. In 2016 Skopje witnessed a wave of protests, known domestically as “the colorful revolution,” which were incited by evidence of a political scandal that involved tapping various politicians’ phones. Gruevski came under heavy criticism, but President Gjorje Ivanov ultimately decided to halt the investigation against him, instigating a strong public reaction in Skopje.
Amidst the turmoil, the dispute with Greece lost much of its traction, since domestic issues dominated political discourse. However, with the election of Zaev, widely viewed across Europe as a progressive and liberal figure, the question of the relations between Skopje and Greece reemerged once again. Earlier this year, Zaev extended an olive branch to Greece, according to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, by announcing the intention to rename the country’s main airport and major highway so that they no longer feature the name of Alexander the Great.
Mimi Kostoska ’21, who hails from Skopje, offered a nuanced take on the issue. According to her, the name “Macedonia” is rooted in modern history, at least from the perspective of many in Skopje. The importance of the name lies in distinguishing the nation from its Yugoslavic heritage. In addition, Kostoska argued that many of those who identify today as Aegean Macedonians were people who were driven out of Greece after the fall of Yugoslavia. Reclaiming their Macedonian heritage is a way for this demographic to voice its grievances.
“The reason why Zaev insists on not removing the term ‘Macedonia’ completely is because, for some people, that is an inextricable part of their identity,” Kostoska said.
Meanwhile in Greece, the issue remains politically electrified, and public opinion is vehemently opposed to any solution that includes the term “Macedonia” in the new name for Skopje. In January, a protest against the use of “Macedonia” in Thessaloniki attracted approximately 100,000 people, while a similar protest in Athens in early February attracted even more, with estimates ranging from 140,000, a figure from police reports, to 1.5 million, which is purported by organizers of the protest.
However, it would certainly be a mistake to assume that this raucous nationalist rhetoric is embraced by the majority in either country. Many people in both Skopje and Greece have grown tired of the drawn-out dispute and look forward to a peaceful resolution, as expressed by Bujar Osmani, the Skopjean deputy prime minister in charge of European integration. According to Osmani, this dragged-out dispute has created “a general feeling of fatigue in both countries.”
“The dispute should have been solved 20 years ago,” Viktor Dimas ’20 said, a student from Greece, “but political brinkmanship got in the way.” As for Skopje, Andrea Aldrich, a lecturer in Yale’s Political Science Department, noted that a substantial portion of the population in Skopje is still against the name change and added that this division “reflects some important political and ethnic cleavages in Macedonia.” But, both Kostoska and Aldrich emphasized that the majority in Skopje believe that the nation’s priority should be gaining entry into the EU and NATO, which is why they are willing to make concessions on this naming dispute.
So what can we expect for the future of this dispute and the relation of the two neighboring nations?
Whether Skopje joins the EU and NATO and whether Greece gains a new ally in Skopje will depend on the weight both countries grant to nationalistic rhetoric. “Identity has much more gravity than national interests,” Aslanidis said, ”which is why nationalism is so appealing.”
It is important to note the generational gap present in these discussions. While the voices from the nationalist faction might be loud in both countries, many among the younger generations feel less intensely than their parents and grandparents who lived through the peak of the dispute. This is evidenced by the strong youth support for the current Greek government, which is in favor of resolving the dispute. More so, a number of Greek youth parties, such as the youth party of Syriza, have published statements supporting the resolution of the dispute. Kostoska also stated that in her country many people support resolving the dispute, since entry into the EU and NATO is a national priority.
In realizing the pragmatic realities of modern international relations, both countries stand to win by making compromises. Dimas emphasized this point by saying that “the norms of good neighborhood should be based on mutual trust and good faith.” He based his optimism on recent examples of good faith on both sides, such as the renaming of the airport in Skopje and the proposal of the mayor of Thessaloniki, the biggest Greek city in Greek Macedonia, that the city’s airport also be renamed. Aldrich also noted that the renaming of the airport and Zaev’s declaration that Skopje would accept adding a qualifier to its name “perhaps signals that an agreement is closer than ever before.”
The case of Greece and Skopje might seem like a unique case — faraway and irrelevant to our lives in New Haven.
It is not. Much like the countries of Greece and Skopje have a long and tainted history, so do a number of other nations across the world. For those of us who hail from such countries, it is liberating to put those political, historical and social contention behind us when we come to Yale, and it is tempting to pretend as if those issues do not relate to us any longer.
While most of us shy away from having these difficult conversations, there are a handful of organizations dedicated to bringing these questions to light. An example is the Middle Eastern Resolution through Education Action and Dialogue, a campus group that “sets out to fill in a void that Yale campus has in regard to approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to fill that void in a productive, pro-peace voice.” In providing a space for this conversation to take place and in being willing to have challenging, uncomfortable or even upsetting conversations, this group and others like it embody the reason we all came here: to challenge our own biases and engage with people around us in an effort to learn from them.
Avoidance is far easier. It requires less effort, less discomfort and less intellectual labor. But the only way to cast light into long historical shadows, such as the one that taints the current naming dispute of Macedonia, is to take advantage of the diverse community of which we are lucky enough to be a part.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org