Name War Ending or Civil War Starting?

A “name war” sounds like a playground dispute over who gets to call their doll, tamagotchi, or imaginary friend what, but the battle over the name ‘Macedonia’ is a real conflict dating back 27 years and it may finally be ending.  On February 6th, the Prime Minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Zoran Zaev, announced a strategy of compromise.  He declared that FYROM will enforce the solution proposed by UN mediator Matthew Nimet of adding a geographic qualifier to the name Macedonia. This solution aims to appease Greek claims to the name of the Northern region.  This could see FYROM, which is colloquially referred to as Macedonia, renamed Upper Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, Macedonia (Skopje), or New Macedonia.  This renaming will potentially end the conflict.  According to Al Jazeera, the dispute dates back to 1991 when Greece’s northern neighbor declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, naming itself Macedonia after the historic area of the Ottoman Empire which spread across the modern day FYROM, Greece, and Bulgaria.


This decision was substantiated by action when Zaev announced that both the international airport, Skopje Alexander the Great airport, and main road route to Greece, North-South Alexander the Great motorway, would change their names.  The former will simply become Skopje international airport, while the latter will be named the optimistic ‘Friendship Highway.’  According to Reuters, this is important because the old names associated with Alexander the Great have long upset Greeks.  Therefore, according to the Greek foreign ministry, as quoted in the Guardian, “This is an important development…We hope that it marks the start of a new chapter in the relations between our two countries and peoples.”  These moves could end the conflict which has nearly spawned three decades.


Nevertheless, this statement comes in the context of increasing Greek attitude against comprise.  Speaking to the Guardian, St Mary’s University Politics Professor James Ker-Lindsay argued, “From the perspective of Skopje, I think we are potentially close to an agreement…My big worry is Greece. Although the current Greek government wants to see the issue resolved, it is so politicized it is hard to see how they could push it through.”  Similarly, Pantheon University Professor Seraphim Seferiades expressed fear of “a real advent of nationalism, this is the first stage of a real Golden Dawn-like resurgence”.  These fears stem from two mass “Macedonia is Greek” protests.  The first occurred on January 21st  in the capital of the Macedonia region, Thessaloniki.  According to BBC, the rally  attracted 90,000 demonstrators.  The vandalism of a Holocaust monument exposed the involvement of the far-right in the conflict.  Notably this includes the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn, which according to Al Jazeera holds 16 seats in the Hellenic Parliament.  The second protest occurred on February 4th in Athens.  It saw up to 1.5 million far-right Nationalist protesters, as well as an anti-fascist counter-demonstration.  Most of the demonstrators took to the streets to reject any solution that involved the word Macedonia.  Notable Nationalist and celebrated composer Mikis Theodorakis was in attendance and calling for a referendum, according to the BBC.  Meanwhile, anti-fascists burned the Golden Dawn flag.  Coupled with other events, such as the death threats the BCC noted Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias recently received, there are increasing fears that the name dispute could become a civil conflict.


Overall, this is a positive step towards cooperation and compromise is key.  It will have more positive impacts, allowing FYROM to reapply to join the EU and NATO, a move Greece has continually blocked.  Hopefully the sentiment of  Petrus Constantinou, director of the anti-fascist group Keerfa, is true: “I don’t believe we are in the position to see people go back to the right wing.” However, the internal situation in Greece is something that the UN and other international bodies needs to watch.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.