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The Political Discourse Surrounding A Name Issue

To talk solely about nomenclature is to reduce a multifaceted discourse into a single variable.

Mar 2, 2019

The Macedonian naming dispute has been an ongoing disagreement between – what is now – North Macedonia and Greece. With its roots in the early 20th-century, the dispute gained momentum in 1991, when Macedonia declared its independence from the Yugoslavian Federation under the constitutional name Republic of Macedonia.
Greece opposed the name on the grounds that it implied territorial ambitions over the northern Greek territory of the same name, as well as appropriation of Ancient Macedonian history all the way back to Alexander the Great in 3rd-century B.C.E. The moderate Macedonian position, which was publicly endorsed by the first Macedonian president, is that modern Macedonians have no relation to Alexander the Great; rather, the majority of the population are Slavic people whose ancestors settled in the territory of contemporary Macedonia in the 6th-century C.E.
The 28-year-long disagreement and negotiation talks led to the ratification of the Prespa Agreement, and a bilateral compromise for Macedonia to change its official name to “Republic of North Macedonia." While the historical accord evoked a formal compromise, it was greeted with protests in both countries. The arguments are different on both ends, and there is a spectrum of political opinions within both populations. The public discourse surrounding the name change thereby remains: in our respective countries, internationally and inevitably, at NYU Abu Dhabi.
I am far from the opinion that this is the most significant discourse in modern day history. Yet, I write this article to start a dialogue with an earlier piece published in The Gazelle, which suggests that Macedonian students on campus when asked: “Where are you from?” ought to respond, “I am from North Macedonia,” to respect our “moral duty not to forge history” and “accept [the] new reality [of the Prespa Agreement.]”
I hold that, as NYUAD students, what we ought to do is hold ourselves to a higher standard. The political discourse surrounding the name dispute is a complex one, and we should treat it as such. At its core are questions on the legitimacy of historical narratives, the influence of national rhetoric and the construction of national identities. To talk solely about nomenclature is to reduce a multifaceted discourse into a single variable. Instead, I suggest that we engage in a constructive and respectful political discourse — one that considers the nuances of the dispute, recognizes the extent to which our distinctive upbringings and national narratives demarcate our political opinions, and most importantly, one that seeks to understand, rather than to provoke contrasting opinions on the sensitive topic of one’s national identity. In writing this article, I hope to start a larger conversation — both about where and why we disagree on this particular dispute, as well as the broader picture about the way in which we engage in political discourse at NYUAD.
First, we should acknowledge that there are multiple interpretations of history and no scholarly consensus on “the truth about ancient and modern Macedonians.” The question of whether ancient Macedonians were a Greek or a non-Greek population was contested in antiquity, and continues to be at the center of both nationalist and scholarly debates today. Interestingly enough, the acknowledgement of different historical narratives is also implied in the Prespa Agreement; Article 8.5 stipulates the formation of a “Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historic, archeological and educational matters, to consider the objective, scientific interpretation of historical events based on authentic, evidence-based and scientifically sound historical sources and archeological findings.” It is therefore valuable to recognize that historical population dynamics in the region have been both complex and fluid, resulting in differences in modern-day interpretation of history. If we seek to portray a single narrative as the absolute truth, we fail to engage in deeper historiographical debates that acknowledge historical biases and the role of history in shaping national identity in both countries.
Secondly, there are a number of historical and contemporary political events that have strongly influenced the creation of different national narratives in both countries. One example is the issue of recognizing minority rights of Slavic-speaking Macedonians in Greece. Following the aftermath of the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, and the partitioning of Macedonia among Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, the Greek government “denied the existence of a Macedonian minority and instead adopted a policy of forced assimilation toward Slavic-speaking inhabitants of northern Greece.” On one hand, some of the Aegean Macedonians sought refuge in Macedonia after World War II, and had an inevitable effect on the public narrative in Macedonia, at the time and still today. On the other hand, the existence of the remaining Slav-speaking minority population in northern Greece to this day has also been recognized as an irredentist claim for territorial pretensions.
This is just one example of how a commonly accepted truth, the existence of a Slav-speaking minority in northern Macedonia, has been perceived differently in both countries. Another example of the effect of strong national fervor is the antiquisation policy of North Macedonia’s former government and the counter-antiquisation policy of the succeeding administration. All of these historical and contemporary events are important: they make up textbooks and the daily news, and thus have the potential to be framed differently to reflect different national agendas. What is important is that we not be blindsided by these national influences, but rather, recognize them and examine the extent to which they have had an influence in formulating our political opinions.
Thirdly, nomenclature is inevitably a reflection of a bigger debate about the construction of national identity. It is thus important to be familiar with the history of the Macedonian national identity, and to be aware of the cultural sensitivities that underlie this question on both ends.
Between the 6th-century C.E. and the early 20th-century, what is now North Macedonia was under the occupation of the Roman, Byzantine, medieval Bulgarian, Serbian and the Ottoman Empire. With the expulsion of the Ottomans from the Balkan peninsula in 1912, arose a stream of conflicting irredentist claims by Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, over who would gain control over the people and territory of Macedonia. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, the territory was partitioned between the three.
During the early 20th-century, the majority of the Slavic-speaking inhabitants of Macedonia were illiterate peasants with little to no developed sense of national identity. At the time, a small group of intellectuals like Krste Misirkov called for “the recognition of the Slavs in Macedonia as a separate nationality – Macedonians.” A Macedonian Republic was then proclaimed in 1944 during the first session of Anti-fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia. In the same year, Josip Broz Tito, the former president of Yugoslavia, recognized the People’s Republic of Macedonia with its capital of Skopje as one of the states of the new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
It is true that Macedonia had undergone a more recent construction of its national identity in comparison to other Balkan states. However, that is no grounds to deny the existence of its separate national identity. This explains why references such as “Skopians” or “people from FYROM” are seen as denial of the existence of a separate, Macedonian national identity. In fact, in the Prespa Agreement Article 7 recognizes that “when reference is made to [Macedonians], the terms [“Macedonia” and “Macedonian”] denote their territory, language and people, [... as well as] their own history, culture and heritage.”
So perhaps next time, in the classroom, I could introduce myself as “Tami from North Macedonia” and one of my Greek peers could introduce themselves as “from the Hellenic Republic.” This way, we would all respect the official names of our respective countries. Or perhaps that is not the point, and we instead decide to take an alternative route — look beyond nomenclature, engage in a constructive and respectful political discourse, and ultimately set a positive example for both our nations on how to reconcile with the new reality of the Prespa Agreement.
Tami Gjorgjieva is a contributing writer. Email her at
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