News & Politics

What's in a Name? Huge Protests in Athens Over Macedonia Dispute

Greek army veterans salute as they sing the national anthem during a rally in Athens, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. Protesters from across Greece converged Sunday on Athens' main square outside parliament to protest a potential Greek compromise in a dispute with neighboring Macedonia over the former Yugoslav republic's official name. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

For almost 2,500 years, Macedonia has been identified with Greece. Alexander the Great was a Macedonian king who conquered most of the known world in the 3rd century BC.

But there is a former Yugoslavian republic named Macedonia and, as an independent country today, it wants to be admitted to NATO and the European Union. This has set off huge protests in Greece because the country of Macedonia wants to maintain its name while Greeks demand that they change it.

“Here are the borders. This is Macedonia … Macedonia is Greek, no one can take this name, no one can use it,” said one protester, according to Reuters. That sentiment brought down a Greek government in 1993 after the country of Macedonia was established following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Now, it threatens the shaky coalition that currently governs in Greece.

Due to Greece’s objections, Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations with the provisional name “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” in 1993, which remains its official title in international organizations. A majority of countries in the world refer to it simply as Macedonia.

Greece’s leftist-led government has proposed a compound name, with a geographical qualifier, which would be the only name that could be used for the country.

But opinion polls in recent weeks have shown a majority of Greeks oppose the use of “Macedonia” in any solution. About 300,000 people turned out at a demonstration on Jan. 21 in Thessaloniki, capital of Greece’s Macedonia region.

The issue has also strained relations between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party and his small coalition ally, the right-wing Independent Greeks. The coalition government controls 154 seats in the 300-seat parliament.

The land upon which the Republic of Macedonia sits got its name when the Romans conquered it in the 2nd century BC. In an administrative move, the Romans consolidated a large area into one province that included the Greek region of Macedonia. Over the centuries as the land currently occupied by the republic was conquered by several different empires, the Greek region of Macedonia was eventually returned to Greece. The Republic of Macedonia is a remnant of an old Roman province named Macedonia that is unrelated to the ancient Greek region known as Macedonia for 3,000 years.

Got that? I’m glad someone understands it.

The Greeks understand it perfectly. And they have hit the streets in their hundreds of thousands to make their feelings known to the government:

Protesters hoisted a giant Greek flag over the demonstration with a crane on Sunday. They held banners reading “Hands off Macedonia!” and chanted the national anthem.

“I‘m here for Macedonia. Macedonia is ours, it’s part of Greece. We won’t let them take it from us,” said 72-year old Persefoni Platsouri clutching a Greek flag.

The case evokes strong emotions among Greeks who consider Macedonia, the ancient kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great, to be an integral part of their homeland and heritage.

Talks also reopened at a sensitive time for a country which is struggling to emerge from its worst debt crisis in decades and to regain sovereignty over economic policy-making after years of austerity mandated by international lenders.

Among Sunday’s speakers was world-renowned Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, who said the eight-year economic crisis had not wiped Greece’s history from people’s memories.

“If we give in, we are leaving the doors wide open for a tragic historical lie to come through and stay forever,” the 93-year old leftist, a symbol of resistance against the 1967-1974 military junta, told a cheering crowd.

The Republic of Macedonia has come a long way since its independence. Adopting a free market economy has caused living standards to rise. While small, it is an ancient and proud country with a growing middle class. Some NATO experts wonder what the Republic of Macedonia could bring to the alliance, given its small size and tiny army. But as a matter of national image, the Republic of Macedonia could be called a country “on the make” and membership in the alliance would give it prestige.

Two regions both thousands of years old sharing the same name. I don’t think this issue is ever going to be resolved.