What’s in a name? Eons of cultural sensitivity, if you’re Macedonia

In an event that has consumed a surprising number of newspaper columns and app notifications, the nation formerly known as The Republic of Macedonia will be renaming itself as the Republic of Northern Macedonia, ending tensions between Greece and Macedonia that have formally lasted for 27 years. Evidently, there’s more than one would expect in a name.

Why is this event as meaningful as it is. Why is the inclusion of “Northern” such a big deal?

The origins of the separatist sentiment

It all starts off with the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, a time period coinciding with the First World War. Countries like Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and the Ottoman Empire were playing a game of sorts, tossing pieces of land between one another in the thirst for expansion. In the middle of this instability and military fervour, a lot of political elements arose, many of which advocated for the independence of the Macedonian state. This was initiated by what was called the “United Macedonia” movement in the 1910s. They advocated the formalisation of a state consisting of just ethnic Macedonians. While this was directly shot down by the then-holders of modern-Republic of Macedonia, this idea continued to linger in the form of the Macedonian Youth Secret Revolutionary Organisation, the Macedonian Federative Organisation, the anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia, and other large acronyms that featured this peculiar 9-letter word starting from M.

The reason for Greece’s opposition

The problem, however, was that Macedonia was also the name given to a large chunk of land in Europe by the Romans back in around 170BC. Descendants of this province, and by extension, ethnic Macedonians mostly reside in modern-Greece.

Moreover, between 1992 and 1995, the flag of the Republic of Macedonia included a symbol—The Vergina Sun—that was of great symbolic importance to Ancient Greek art; another source of outrage.

Afraid of the encroachment this was on the representation of Ancient Macedonians in Greece, their culture and language wrongly identified as being part of the ‘Republic of Macedonia’, and the possibility of such pro-minority sentiment leading to Grecian Macedonians choosing to reside in this newly found state, Greece took a strict stance against the formation of such a nation.

Therefore, when in 1944, the Republic of Macedonia was officially announced as a subpart of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, and later in 1992, they gained independence from the collapsing Yugoslavia and sought UN’s formal acceptance, while 48 years had passed, Greece’s grudge was still as strong. The latter constantly called them out, proclaiming their disapproval, which ended up delaying their acceptance into the European Commission and the UN.

In defence of present-day Macedonia

Now, while we’ve understood why Greece was so persistent, Macedonia, too, were justified in their obstinacy.

In 1993, to avoid the crossfire between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, the UN, European Commission, members of the UN Security Council and several other parties neutral to this dispute, attempted to maintain their neutrality by referring to the Republic of Macedonia as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. However, this was immediately shot down by Macedonian representatives.

The reason for the same, upon reflection, seems rather obvious. As Serbia continued referring to the Republic of Macedonia as South Serbia, a name given to the former during the Balkan Wars when modern Macedonia was a part of the expanding Serbia, the fear of possible military territorial expansions such ambiguous names could inspire by previously Yugoslav elements, was legitimate. The paranoia, therefore, of Macedonia was the leading variable in their perseverance.

The UN walks a tightrope

In an attempt to resolve this dispute, the UN decided to, through two resolutions, form a middle ground stating that while this was the name they’ve decided to stick with, it was only temporary and a “reference” being used for a neutral party in the dispute.

This indecisiveness, however, angered both nations’ populaces. Feeling betrayed by the UN, people of both nations protested even as the then-Greek government lost the elections to a party that promised tougher anti-modern-Macedonian policy. At the same time, the then-modern-Macedonian government barely managed to pass the agreement by two votes in favour.

Reaching a compromise

After all the difficulties, Greece and Macedonia reached some form of agreement through an Interim Accord signed in 1995. This led to the Republic of Macedonia changing its flag and elements of the constitution that were assumed to be threats to Greek cultural and political sovereignty.

Yet, tensions hadn’t simmered down, as Greece continued to deny the nation formal recognition, sending a single Memorandum of Understanding 21 years later, in 2012.

Only in 2018 have we witnessed mutually agreed upon terms between the 2 nations, where as a part of the deal, Macedonia will include “Northern” in its name, once again weed out any apparently provocative elements in the Macedonian Constitution in return for which Macedonia will be allowed to formally call their language and people Macedonian. A lone outlier of constructive progress in this otherwise destructive dispute.

Here’s the ‘big deal’

So, what’s in a name? To summarise, a long story of separatist sentiment politically fought for years, of ancient provinces thousands of years old, of fears of cultural encroachment, territorial expansion by neighbours and the fury of the domestic nationalism: quite a lot resides in the addition of the single word ‘Northern’ to the name of the nation formerly known as the ‘Republic of Macedonia’.

While in an ideal world, such negotiations may mean the end of a chapter that has already lasted far too long, both nations continue to face large-scale protests domestically, and only time will tell if the governments will be able to hold their ground amidst this nationalist whirlwind. Alternatively, they may be stripped away and replaced by a party that foils all these advancements.

Rishit Jain is a writing analyst at Qrius