Special Briefing: Why Is Macedonia’s Name So Inflammatory?

Why you should care

Because a conflict over tiny Macedonia is pitting Russia and Europe against each other.

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This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.

WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Another controversial vote. On Sunday, Macedonians gathered to vote on changing the name of their country to North Macedonia. Well, some Macedonians did — but not enough, as it turns out: Only about 36 percent of the country’s eligible voters showed up, far short of the 50 percent needed to make the referendum legally valid.

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Protest against FYROM (Macedonia) name change takes place in Thessaloniki city, capital of Macedonia province in Greece as same time people in FYROM (Macedonia) head to the polls to vote for the referendum on their countrys name change to Northern Macedonia after having a deal with Greece. The officially name of this Balkan state will change from FYROM, Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia, bearing a similar name to a region in Greece. Greece asked for constitutional change and clearing territorial expansionist ambitions in exchange of the name recognition and an invitation for EU and NATO. Protesters happily ended the protest with the first exit polls, showing abstention of the polls greater than 50%, fact that the referendum can not be valid. Sunday 30 September 2018 - Thessaloniki, Greece

Source Nicolas Economou/Getty

What’s in a name? The proposed change was an attempt to placate Greece in a longstanding dispute over the name Macedonia. Athens signed the Prespa Agreement in June, in which it promised that in exchange for the name change, it would withdraw its objections to the former Yugoslav republic joining both the EU and NATO. Such accession could potentially increase employment and economic opportunities for Macedonia’s struggling younger generation, even though opposing factions say Greece is being a bully and Macedonia should hold its ground on the name front.

Why does it matter? The EU and U.S. have lined up against Russia over influence in the tiny country, with the latter suspected of meddling in the vote. Meanwhile, Western powers are still pushing Macedonia to try and get the name change through Parliament, which could be politically dangerous for local politicians, but would allow the country to move forward in a way it’s long hoped to do.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

It’s about heritage. Macedonia’s proposed name change to North Macedonia stems from a long dispute with Greece, which also has a region called Macedonia. Both are part of a former Roman province bearing the name and claim links to Alexander the Great. During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Greece opposed the new country’s proposed name, seeing it as an attempt to lay claim to the Greek territory and telling the UN it would only accept the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). But the name “Macedonia” stuck anyway. Other suggested name changes include New Macedonia, Nova Makedonija, Slavo-Macedonia, the Republic of Skopje, the Upper Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Upper Macedonia. North Macedonia was suggested earlier this year.

Call me by your name. Macedonia’s future in the EU and NATO is now in limbo. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev says he’ll still call a parliamentary vote on the name change — but such a constitutional change could be derailed by the opposition arguing that low turnout rendered the vote invalid. European leaders are still offering their encouragement, however, with heads of NATO and the EU calling on Macedonians to “seize this historic opportunity.” Meanwhile, an early national election may be called to shore up support if the change doesn’t pass Parliament, postponing the naming for at least 45 days.

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Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gives a press conference about the referendum to re-name Macedonia in Skopje, on September 30, 2018. - Voters across the Balkan state of Macedonia will decide on September 30, 2018 whether to re-name their country North Macedonia, an emotional vote that could end a bitter row with Greece and unlock a path to NATO and the EU. It is a loaded question for many in the nation of around 2.1 million, which has tussled with Greece for 27 years over its name and history.

Source ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/Getty

Winners and losers. The results of the plebiscite allowed both sides to claim victory. While the ruling party and pro-EU groups cited the 90-percent voter support for a name change, Macedonia’s nationalist opposition claimed victory after their successful boycott invalidated the results by dampening turnout enough to keep the referendum from official legitimacy. It was also seen as a victory for Russia, which is accused of spreading online disinformation and funding right-wing groups in Macedonia in order to curb the Western influence that would likely result should the country join NATO and the EU.

Buy in. Many countries have changed their names for reasons varying from marketing to self-determination, especially after gaining independence. Earlier this year, Swaziland’s King Mswati III announced an official name change to “eSwatini,” which he says will lessen confusion with the name Switzerland. Cities have also changed their names: Leningrad in Russia changed its name to St. Petersburg after a 1991 referendum, reverting to its original name after it was changed following Communist leader Vladimir Lenin’s death in 1924. Sometimes new names fail to catch on, as when the Czech Republic changed its official short name in English to Czechia in 2016 — a switch that has failed to penetrate international consciousness.

WHAT TO READ

For Macedonia, Is Joining NATO and the EU Worth the Trouble? by Florian Bieber at Foreign Policy

“Before the global economic and financial crisis, the Greek bailout, Brexit, and the refugee crises, citizens of the Western Balkans widely saw joining the union as a guarantee for prosperity and stability. Today, it is seen somewhat differently.”

The Man Who Has Focused on One Word for 23 Years, on the BBC

“One ordinary citizen in Skopje once said to me: ‘When I get up in the morning and I’m shaving, I look in the mirror and say, I’m a Macedonian. Well, tomorrow, when I’m shaving, do you expect me to say, I’m a New Macedonian or I’m an Upper Macedonian?’ ”

WHAT TO WATCH

Macedonian President George Ivanov Addresses the United Nations

“We are told: You are smaller, you are weaker, and therefore you must accept Athens’ ultimatum.”

Watch at United Nations on YouTube:

Greeks Rally Over Macedonian Name Dispute

“When one defends the rights of his or her country and people, this is not nationalism — it is patriotism.”

Watch at Euronews on YouTube:

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATER COOLER

Statue of limitations. In March this year, Macedonia removed a statue of Alexander the Great from its main airport terminal as a goodwill gesture to Greece. A gift from the Turkish airport operator, TAV — operator of Skopje’s airport — the statue had been there for seven years. Its removal was a bid to appease the neighbors and strengthen its chances of joining the EU. Macedonia also renamed the airport and a main highway whose monikers referenced Alexander the Great to International Airport Skopje and Friendship Highway, respectively.

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