/ 17 January 2018

Macedonia: The decades-long quarrel over its name

Rampaging Lions: Lionel Mapoe leads the charge as the Golden Lions turned on the style to trample the Cheetahs at Ellis Park last weekend. Photo: Gallo Images
Rampaging Lions: Lionel Mapoe leads the charge as the Golden Lions turned on the style to trample the Cheetahs at Ellis Park last weekend. Photo: Gallo Images

The name chosen by the small eastern European country of Macedonia at its independence 27 years ago has been steadfastly rejected by its neighbour Greece.

The bitter dispute has stalled the young Balkan nation’s efforts to take its place in the European Union and other international institutions. 

Amid a new push for a solution, here is an outline of the row:

Rejected from the start

Macedonia proclaims its independence from the former Yugoslavia in September 1991 but its recognition by the international community is immediately blocked by Greece, which claims the name as part of its own ancient heritage. 

Greece also has a northern province bordering the new country that has the same name and fears Skopje may be harbouring territorial ambitions.

A provisional name

It is only with the adoption of a provisional name—the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)—that the country is finally admitted into the United Nations in April 1993.

Most countries, including Russia and the United States, later recognise its constitutional title, the Republic of Macedonia.

Greece clamps down

In February 1994 Greece imposes an economic embargo on Macedonia, including stopping the landlocked country from using the port of Thessaloniki, its main trading post.

Greece also demands Macedonia drops from its flag the rayed sun of Vergina, which it claims is an ancient Greek symbol, and certain articles from its constitution.

A thaw in relations

In September 1995 the neighbours sign in New York an accord opening the way for a normalisation of their trade and political ties, but leave hanging the name dispute.

The following month they open liaison offices in their respective capitals and a new Macedonian flag — with the controversial sun replaced — is raised for the first time at the United Nations.

In 2001 Greece announces its support for its neighbour as it battles rebels from the significant Albanian minority.

New lows

Macedonia becomes a candidate for membership of the European Union in December 2005 but Greece blocks the start of negotiations, which must be agreed unanimously.

In April 2008 it presents itself as a candidate for membership of the NATO military alliance, under the provisional name, but is again met with a Greek veto.

Relations sink even further with the erection in Skopje in 2011 of a huge statue of Alexander the Great. Athens perceives this as an effort to appropriate the ancient conqueror, one of its greatest military heroes.

The flood of migrants into Europe fuels the tensions. In April 2016 Athens accuses Skopje of using excessive force against hundreds of migrants trying to cross the border into Macedonia.  

‘A solution is feasible’

Soon after his election in June 2017, new Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev promises a new push to end the dispute and relaunch the drive for EU and NATO membership.

“I know that if we have friendly relations and a good approach then a solution is feasible,” he tells reporters.