It all felt like the end of a James Bond movie: a flotilla of motorboats sailing across a peaceful lake in a Balkan landscape. On the shores of Lake Prespa, the prime ministers of Greece and soon-to-be North Macedonia had just signed an agreement ending a 27-year dispute. These were historic moments. Protracted international conflicts don’t end every day. If this is indeed the last chapter, the Macedonian question will be moved to the history shelf, like others that changed the fate of the world but are now scarcely remembered (who speaks today of Alsace-Lorraine or Schleswig-Holstein?) It seemed so easy that it is impossible not to wonder: why has this dispute taken so long to resolve?
To many observers it just seemed bizarre: why couldn’t Macedonians be called what they wanted? Even choosing the terms to discuss a conflict about a name was confusing. This was never exactly a dispute between Macedonians and Greeks. It is about different kinds of Macedonians who disagree about what to call each other. The agreement spells this out. There are at least two meanings of Macedonia, depending on which side of the border you come from. For the first time in international law, it is not the borders of a territory but its cultural meaning that is determined. The outcome was laissez fare, to each his own. “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” will mean something different to people north and south of this border.
How did this dual reality come to be? It dates back to the division during the early 20th century of what used to be a multiethnic territory between Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. In the process of solidifying their border, each state engaged in a process of “erasing” the other from public discourse and memory. After the Greek Civil War, most Slavs of Greek Macedonia fled to the communist bloc; Greece was left with a very small Slavic minority that was easy to assimilate or ignore. The history taught at schools emphasized everything Greek about Macedonia. The “others”—Slavs, Bulgarians—were aliens who had tried to take the land away from Greeks and failed. It was convenient that the territories of Ancient and Modern Greek Macedonia overlapped. The Yugoslav communists privileged a different view: Macedonians were a separate Slavic nation—a new alphabet was developed to differentiate their language from Bulgarian. Everything about the region’s ancient and medieval past was reinterpreted as exclusively Macedonian, neither Greek nor Bulgarian. Both Bulgaria and Greece objected to this narrative, but the issue remained subsumed as long as Yugoslavia was united.
In the four decades between the end of the Greek Civil War and the fall of communism, these parallel realities were solidified. South of the border between Greece and Yugoslavia, everything Macedonian was Greek; north of the border, Greek was the opposite of Macedonian. In Greek Macedonia there was hardly any talk of non-Greek minorities (I only found out that my grandfather spoke Vlach, a Romanian dialect, after he died). In the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Macedonian Slavs who had identified as Bulgarian or who had fought alongside Greeks in various conflicts where revised or edited out. When our “Berlin Wall” fell, the encounter was a shock. Unlike East and West Germany, unified by language and a common former statehood, the Macedonians across this border had become complete strangers. To the north, a Slavic nation with an Albanian minority declared independence under the only name conceivable: Macedonia. To its south, a Greek region with the same name reacted with outrage to the creation of a state that counterfeited everything Greek Macedonians considered their own.
Being Greece’s largest region and with a population slightly larger than the former Yugoslav republic, Greek Macedonia has the electoral weight to make the Macedonian question matter in Greek politics. Greece vetoed its northern neighbor’s admission to international forums. A US-brokered interim accord in 1995 ended up with an awkward stopgap measure that left both sides unhappy: the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” would be used in international organizations until the two sides reached an agreement. A tug-of-war continued for two decades as Greece took advantage of its EU and NATO membership and the Republic of Macedonia/FYROM bet on time. Over the years, concerned about the country’s internal stability after conflict with the Albanian minority, many governments recognized it simply as “Macedonia”. Surely, it wouldn’t be long until Greece gave in. Except it couldn’t.
The issue is equally existential on both sides of the border. Both Macedonian identities are constructed in a way to make no space for the other. For the Macedonian Slavs, it was immensely frustrating to be deprived of normalcy as Greece objected to their very name and identity. To Macedonian Greeks, another country being called just “Macedonia” meant that, by default, everything Macedonian was becoming associated with a foreign culture—this was identity theft on a national scale.
The emotional impact this conflict left on my generation has ranged from humorous to traumatic. Everything in Greek Macedonia was stamped with the sixteen-ray sun (an ancient symbol unearthed in excavations in the 1970s, which the former Yugoslav Republic had placed on its flag until forced to remove it in 1995). The other day I stepped out of Salonika airport and noticed that the ancient star had been engraved on the covers of public sewers… What a sordid use of the ornament adorning the golden chest with the cremated ashes of King Philip!
Meanwhile, Skopje, the capital of “rival Macedonia”, erected giant statues of Philip and Alexander—a sweet revenge to convince yourself that the enemy’s heroes are, somehow, your own. Internet forums full of ethnic slurs, awkward encounters with Macedonians from the “other” side, screaming contests with our compatriots about what name to settle with and how to break the impasse; this was our daily routine. The sheer exercise of having to explain to foreigners that I am both Macedonian and Greek: nightmare.
Gap on the map closed
One can only hope that this agreement will change things. It may not make all the problems of self- and other-identification go away, but it might make them diminish and one day subside. The agreement involves painful compromises for both sides. The much-hated “former Yugoslav Republic” term will disappear, but it will be replaced by the name North Macedonia, a differentiation suffix insisted on by Greece, which many Macedonian Slavs do not welcome. Greece will accept the terms Macedonian language and Macedonian nationality (used alternatively with the expression “of North Macedonia”), which it hitherto objected to. Issues relating to brand names, exports and schoolbooks have been delegated to future bilateral committees to work out.
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The agreement between Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, brokered by the veteran UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, still has many hurdles to overcome. The country-formerly-known-as-the-Former-Yugoslav-Republic-of-Macedonia must change its constitution in order to change its name, so that Greece will lift its veto and let it join NATO and, eventually, the EU. Such a constitutional amendment will require a two-thirds majority vote in parliament, and possibly a referendum. Neither of these will be easy for Zaev. In other words, the celebrations might be premature. We can rest assured, though, that the US and the EU, both keen to see this dispute and the gap on the map of the Western Balkans close, will put all of their weight behind this deal in the months to come.
It became commonplace among commentators to describe Macedonians (of all types) as victims of history, victims of their elites, believers of what they were told to believe. This is a truism applied to peoples across the globe. But elites don’t appear out of thin air. Under democracy or dictatorship, we are often told what we want to hear. The ideas about ourselves that we, Macedonians, created during the 20th century were largely of our own choosing. It is up to us, everyday Macedonians, not just our politicians, to engage with each other, to discuss who we are, to find ways of talking about ourselves and each other that are accepting and less conflictual. When we achieve that—a formal interstate agreement is just a start—we will be able to close the final chapter of the Macedonian question.
Evangelos Liaras is an assistant professor of international relations at IE University, Spain. Born in Salonika, he holds a BA in history from Harvard University and an MA and PhD in political science from MIT. He has worked for the OSCE mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and as a researcher or instructor at various institutes and universities in the US (George Washington University), UK (Chatham House), Spain (CEPC) and Turkey (Koç University, Boğaziçi University).