Thousands Take To The Streets Protesting Macedonia’s Name Change

Almost thirty years since its independence, the small country of Macedonia formally changed its name to North Macedonia. The change is a direct result of a landmark deal the nation has made with Greece, which also has a province called Macedonia. Earlier that week, 100,000 Greeks poured into the streets of Athens to protest the name change according to a report from the Guardian. The peaceful protests quickly devolved into violence as protestors attempted to storm the parliament building and riot police responded in kind by firing tear gas into the crowd. The clash left dozens injured, including two photojournalists and 25 policemen, according to authorities.

To understand why this seemingly simple name change is causing so many issues, it is important to understand the history between the two countries. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece and Macedonia have constantly been at odds. One issue is the use of ‘Macedonia’ as the country’s name, which many Greeks believe is an appropriation of Greece’s Hellenic heritage. In particular, Greeks are enraged at the claiming of Alexander the Great by Slavic Macedonians, which is often seen as an affront to Greek national identity. In the past, Greece has retaliated by using its veto power to block its northern neighbor from joining NATO.

Although Greece’s President blamed the protests on far-right extremists, protestors disagreed. Speaking to the Guardian, Andreas Androutsos a young engineer, stated, “Macedonia is Greece. What the government is doing is fascistic. It is trying to pass an agreement that so many of us are against. Macedonia belongs to the Greek people, it doesn’t belong to any political party.”

Indeed, the deal is widely unpopular in Greece, with over two-thirds of the country against the agreement known as Prespes. The deal came up after the 2016 election of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia party, which promised to usher in a new era of Macedonian politics, according to the New York Times. Last year, a referendum over the deal failed tremendously, with over sixty percent of Macedonia not even participating. Still, the Athens-Skopje deal was made in July of 2018 with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greek President Alexis Tsipras. Several months later in a vote that nearly ousted Tsipras’s government, the Greek Parliament voted to approve the deal. Macedonia has also begun making preparations for the name change, including changing road signs and giving the capitol a grand makeover.

As a part of the agreement, NATO was finally able to successfully invite North Macedonia to join the alliance to the small Balkan nation. For European Union nations, the deal is an important sign of cementing stability at a time of increased Russian interference in the Balkan region. With a struggling economy, Macedonia has craved more economic stability and integration with the European Union and NATO. For Greece’s part, it is still suffering the humiliation of its previous economic crises and the deal is seen as a threat to nationalism. Observers are hoping Greeks can set aside their nationalist tendencies to allow the deal to proceed forward peacefully while North Macedonia hopes the addition of one word to its country name can open precious political doors in the international sphere.