Macedonian Question

Whose people, whose Republic?

Calls for Macedonia to resolve its 'name crisis’ with Greece and join the EU and NATO grow more urgent by the day. But how could this be done?

Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov (R) meets with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias in Skopje, Macedonia August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski

Renewed bouts of Russian meddling and Russophobia are rekindling old fears in the Balkans, and the tiny Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) lies at the center of the storm.

But the last thing a divided society such as that of FYROM needs is an etymological quagmire of nation-dismantling proportions.

Having chosen the name “Macedonia” after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, a name shared by a neighboring region which is also the northernmost, largest, and second-most populous region in Greece, the small republic has encountered great difficulties in joining international organizations.

Athens’ veto power in the EU and NATO is the main obstacle.

According to the Greeks, the name masks both geopolitical ambitions along its border (extremely unlikely) and, with Macedonia renaming everything it can after Alexander the Great, “cultural appropriation” (hardly worth denying).

Why bygones aren’t gone by now

After sixteen years of blackballing FYROM, in 2007 Athens finally announced it would concede the right to include ‘Macedonia’ in its name, if modified of course, to include a qualifier such as ‘upper,’ ‘new,’ or ‘northern.’

Unfortunately, this was at the beginning of Macedonia’s right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Nikola Grueski’s controversial decade in power (2006-2016).

With the backing of Russia, and ever eager to antagonize Athens, he organized a massive monument-building bonanza and renamed the national airport, biggest football stadium, and principal highway ‘Alexander the Great.’

But a year after ‘swallowing its pride,’ in 2008 Greece vetoed Macedonia’s NATO application—a crucial year for potential club applicants with the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Due in no small part to his nationalist grandstanding, Grueski was finally forced to resign in January 2016. His successor, Social-Democrat Zoran Zaev, immediately called for normalization of relations with Greece upon taking office in June 2017.

As a result, this September both countries’ foreign ministers held successful talks in Athens and Skopje, declaring they were closer than ever since 1991 to resolving the dispute. Whatever modified moniker is chosen, Zaev was adamant to stress, would first have to pass a plebiscite in FYROM.

Too many questions, too few answers

If resolved, this seemingly trivial issue would be a small but crucial piece in one of the thorniest puzzles of the 19th and 20th centuries: the lingering fallout from the ‘Eastern Question.’

In layman’s terms, this boiled down to who would get which bits of the Ottoman Empire once it finally collapsed—central to which had always been the ‘Macedonian Question.’

Indeed, Macedonians were crucial to removing the final footing from the crumbling Ottoman fauteuil.

Mass terror committed by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO)—on paper a non-sectarian movement fighting for ‘pan-Macedonian’ autonomy within the Ottoman Empire but in reality a pro-Bulgarian secessionist group—was key to sparking the Balkan Wars (1912-1913).

Yet it was the Kingdom of Serbia that absorbed what is today the FYROM at the end of these conflicts.

Though Bulgaria would capture and hold it throughout WWI as a key German and Austro-Hungarian ally, the fall of the Central Powers allowed Belgrade to assert control from 1918-1941 as part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.Yet Bulgaria, long considered the natural older brother of the Slavic-speaking Christians in what is now the FYROM, was not giving up on the idea of Greater Macedonia.

Retaking the area in 1941 with the help of the Nazis, the Bulgarians governed present-day FYROM as well as large chunks of Greek Macedonia and Thrace throughout the war, with an iron fist.

Yet given Sofia’s chronic inability to pick a winner, in 1946 the FYROM was reincorporated into Yugoslavia as, in keeping with the times, the People’s Republic of Macedonia.

The Greeks, miffed but too busy with their own civil war (1946-1949), could only grumble about this new appellation.

Only when Macedonia was given full independence in 1991, and the greater existential concerns of the Cold War were behind them, could the real etymological griping could begin.

New leaf for an old bush

Now that a solution seems imminent more than a quarter-century later, the timing could not be better.

A small rhetorical-psychological victory, not to mention a more integrated economic partnership with its northern neighbor, would open up the most natural portal to the rest of the Western Balkans for Greece.
In a perpetual state of social and economic crisis since 2008, the country would be served well by improverd relations with FYROM.

For the latter, the benefits are even greater.

Though torn between violently opposing factions—one of which has even incorporated the infamous “IMRO” moniker into its party-name—each of the country’s major political camps support entry into NATO and the EU.

As such, resolving the Macedonian name dispute comes as close as one can get to a win-win situation in a decidedly sticky situation; the only player that stands to lose is Russia.

A century after Europe’s monarchies committed mass suicide, is the jury in on the Macedonian Question?

As the spark that led to the Balkan Wars, WWI, and the destruction of the old world, even a rhetorical resolution would be cause for celebration.

Just don’t expect Putin to be raising his glass.