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Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

It’s called North Macedonia, not Macedonia

Prespa agreement came to solve a 27-year-long naming dispute between Greece and North Macedonia and we should all accept this new reality.

Feb 16, 2019

Macedonia is a region in Southeastern Europe that has its greatest percentage in Greece and covers the whole country of North Macedonia, and parts of Bulgaria, Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. The region was named after the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, which flourished during the ancient times under Alexander the Great, and the name Macedon in Greek (Μακεδόνας, Μακεδνόν) means tall or slim and was first attested by Herodotus. Having passed through the possession of a number of empires, including the Byzantine and the Ottoman, the contentious region became the center of a naming dispute after 1991. After Yugoslavia’s dissolution in 1992, a newly formed country claimed independence using the name Republic of Macedonia. Greece did not accept this name and instead adopted the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for the newly formed country. Greeks opposed the name Macedonia on the grounds that using the name Macedonia would allow the neighboring country to exploit the history of the region by asserting that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great and the Ancient Macedonian kingdom that he built. This disagreement led to the creation of an ongoing naming dispute.
After all these years, the two sides came together in January 2019 and ratified the Prespa Agreement, in which both governments agreed on the name Republic of North Macedonia for Greece’s neighbouring country.
The reactions in both countries varied. Not everyone in Greece has accepted this agreement. They lament its signing. Ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great’s legacy is part of their story, their identity and their history. Moreover, they feel that accepting this will put the agreement into doubt, even though the legal document has many clear stipulations. For those who grew up in North Macedonia, it will take some time to get used to the new officially accepted naming of their own country.
Writing as a Greek, I grew up calling people from North Macedonia Skopians, or people coming from FYROM. It will take not only time but also understanding and empathy for us as students of both countries to be able to shift mindsets and use the new nomenclature to refer to one another. I will need to change my language, but so will they.
But what is the truth about the ancient and modern Macedonians?
According to leading historians who have studied the region and, as reported by Chris Parkas in 1997, “ancient Macedonians were Dorian-Makednoi Greeks who spoke the Aeolic dialect, which was common to the Greek-speaking tribes. The Macedonians worshipped the same gods as the southern Greeks and they participated in the Olympic Games, which was an exclusive Greek privilege. Macedonia eventually united the ancient Greek city-states as one Greek nation and, under Alexander the Great, conquered and Hellenized the ancient world.”
Professor Nicholas Hammond, a leading historian and expert on Macedonian history, was the first to identify Vergina region in northern Greece as the early capital of ancient Macedonia, and home to Royal Macedonian Tombs. Later excavations, brought the discovery of the tomb of Phillip II – father of Alexander the Great – and other tombs of the royal Macedonian Tombs that revealed Macedonian Hellenism to the modern world. As a result, Professor Hammond reported in 1994 that, “the people of FYROM have no connection historically or ancestrally with the ancient Greek Macedonians”.
The ancient Macedonian Kingdom eventually fell, and the region experienced invasions by the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires for 2,000 years. Before World War II, these territories were not homogenous, including Yugoslavian, Albanian and Bulgarian populations.
In his paper titled, The United States, Greece and the Macedonian Situation, Parkas argues that the situation of mixed national identities, created a fertile ground for Tito – the former president of Yugoslavia – to build a revisionist and irredentist campaign that started in 1944 and aimed to create a “disinformation program according to which the ancient Macedonians were not Greek, but were a separate race from which FYROM claimed historical continuity. Tito’s policy was aiming at the formation of the Second Yugoslavia. Having these territorial claims, there was a clear strategy toward a political end: for a greater Macedonian nationalism encompassing the Bulgarian and Greek Macedonian territory to the Aegean. This was Tito’s strategy in creating FYROM.
Tito’s dream came true over the years and we reach 1991, when the Macedonian region of Yugoslavia, which included some parts of the Greek Ancient Macedonia in its territories, claimed its independence from Yugoslavia. Since then, the government of the newly formed country wanted to call itself “Republic of Macedonia” or simply “Macedonia.” This, in combination with the Croatian Independence War against Serbia that had just begun, created turmoil that ensued and spread the fear that the Balkans would once again be the trigger of widespread unrest and conflict in Europe.
The naming of the neighboring country sent shock waves throughout Greece, raising both historical, political and territorial concerns. In order to stabilize the situation in the Balkans and not create further issues, the Greek side only accepted and agreed on the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as a short-term solution, until both sides could decide on a commonly accepted name.
Finally, on January 25 2019 the Prespa agreement was ratified by both countries and brought a long-awaited solution to the ongoing naming dispute by calling the country Republic of North Macedonia or in short North Macedonia. This name is to be accepted erga omnes – toward everyone – which means that since both parliaments agreed on it, and it should be accepted internationally.
Article 7 of the agreement clearly states that the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” refer to a different historical context and cultural heritage. For Greece, they refer to the Hellenic civilization, history, culture and heritage of the Greek part of Macedonia. For North Macedonia, these terms refer to the country’s “territory, language, people and their attributes with their own history, culture and heritage,” but distinctly different from those referring to Greece.
Article 8, Point 3 of the agreement states that North Macedonia “shall not use again in any way and in all its forms the symbol formerly displayed on its former national flag,” protecting in that way the Vergina Star, symbol of the ancient Macedonian kingdom.
In fact, there exists not one, but two Macedonian identities, a Greek and a Slavic one each with different histories, as different as night and day. It is critical to note that what must be recognized by all is that the Greek Macedonia is the only one with the ancient history and heritage of the Kingdom built by Alexander the Great – a fact that has finally been ratified through the Prespa Agreement. The Slavic Macedonian identity recognized through the agreement is that people of North Macedonia inhabit the ancient Macedonian region. Not only are the ethnicities of the country highly mixed, comprised by a number of Albanians and Bulgarians as well – which are under no circumstances connected to the ancient Greek Macedonians – but the Macedonian language spoken is a South Slavic language, not connected to the Aeolic dialect historically spoken by ancient Greek Macedonians.
Linking this agreement to our everyday life at NYU Abu Dhabi, since the two governments agreed on an international treaty, we should respect the decision as well. During daily discussions, when introducing themselves in classes, students from North Macedonia, when asked: “Where are you from?”, ought to respond, “I am from North Macedonia.”
Stating, “I am from Macedonia”, is not only offensive, but it also hides irredentist motives, shifting the focus from the fact that the biggest part of the so-called Macedonian history has its roots in the Hellenistic – Greek – period. Apart from that, what else is to be respected by students from North Macedonia, is the use of the term Macedonian without intentions of irredentism towards Greek history.
Ancient Macedonia is one and it is Greek. The Slav-Macedonian identity created later on is accepted as well. Both identities are reflected throughout history. An international agreement ratified by both countries affirmed both identities. Citizens of the whole world will follow it and we, as global leaders, should to enforce it. With respect to our moral duty not to forge history and promote a climate of cooperation in the Balkan region, everyone ought to respect both identities and refer to our dear neighbors as citizens of North Macedonia.
Nicholas Patas is a contributing writer. Email him at
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