On Sunday, around 140,000 Greeks gathered in Athens to protest the government’s negotiations with the neighboring Republic of Macedonia (which from here on will be referred to as its capital city, Skopje) over the long-standing dispute about the name of the former Yugoslav Republic.
The crux of the protests comes down to the fact that many Greeks refuse to grant the republic any form of “Macedonia” in its name. The argument — dating back to the 1991 when Skopje gained independence from Yugoslavia — is tainted with a bitter nationalism that has made significant progress on the issue politically difficult.
The basic argument from the Greeks, putting aside nationalism and bigotry, is legally legitimate, but not particularly rational. The concern is that by acknowledging the name of the Republic of Macedonia, Greece will concede that the Balkan Republic has claim to the Greek region that bears the same name. As a consequence, the Greek government has steadfastly blocked any of Skopje’s attempts to join NATO and the European Union, and has stated that they will not back down until the name dispute is resolved.
Demonstrations such as the one that took place Sunday are hardly a new occurrence in the Balkans. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city and the capital of the Greek region Macedonia, has been a hotbed for similar protests, beginning in 1992 when over a million Greeks marched took to the streets to protest over the name. More recently in January of this year, Thessaloniki was again the location for a protest where an estimated 90,000 people gathered to protest UN-mediated talks aimed at resolving the dispute.
For Greece, there is no significant consequence to delaying negotiations indefinitely, and, in fact, such a track would be beneficial to its incumbents. For Skopje, however, lack of progress has far more severe consequences. The country’s inability to gain membership to NATO and the EU has made many civilians in the country restless and disappointed in the present administration. Skopje’s defense minister Radmila Šekerinska said in an interview with The Guardian: “ is crucial. We need to show that there are developments — people do not expect everything to be solved tomorrow — but they expect progress because we have been stuck for 10 years. What happens will create either inspiration or frustration right across the Balkans.”
Skopje does not consider Greece’s concerns legitimate. In that same interview, Šekerinska said, “No one in Macedonia has territorial pretensions, literally no one. It is laughable. The only time when we might occupy Greece is when we pour to the Greek beaches as tourists.” However, Skopje is also aware that concession may be necessary to placate the Greeks.
The quickest and most obvious solution for Skopje is to concede to Greece and adopt a new name. However, this is where the resolution becomes murky. The far-right Independent Greeks party, a member of the incumbent coalition, insists the new name should not reference Macedonia at all. However, the UN’s Special Representative for the case Matthew Nimetz said in an interview, “I myself don’t think it’s realistic to expect the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, not to have Macedonia in some form in its name.”
Nimetz proposed five names to both countries in January, all of which included Macedonia in the name. The five names, all of which started with “Republic of” were New Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, Upper Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia and Macedonia. Moreover, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras seems to be supportive of these suggestions, saying in a recent interview: “ … it is not unreasonable to have the term Macedonia included in a compound name, with either a geographical or a chronological qualifier, for all uses, to make absolutely clear that nobody is claiming other people’s land or history.”
For Skopje, it is understandably difficult to give in and change a pivotal aspect of the country’s identity. Yielding to the insulting demands of its neighbor does not project any semblance of political strength, and instead presents Skopje as a state inferior to Greece. However, with the threat of Russia rising to prominence in the Balkans, concerns about relations escalating between ethnic Slavs and Albanians and Skopje’s desire to join the EU, the country may be forced to concede to an unfavorable agreement.