Pedestrians pass signs outside the Skopje City Mall shopping center in central Skopje, Macedonia. (Photographer: Oliver Bunic/Bloomberg)

A Guide to the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

(Bloomberg) -- A dispute that has divided Balkan neighbors for more than seven decades -- what constitutes “Macedonia” -- still resists a clean resolution. The Republic of Macedonia agreed to change its name to assuage complaints from Greece, which in turn pledged to permit the former Yugoslav state to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. A Sept. 30 referendum meant to drum up support for the deal resulted in a resounding show of approval. But low turnout has energized those who want to scupper the accord, imperiling a rare chance for amicable relations in a region that remains a battleground for influence between Russia and the West.

1. Why is the name such a big deal?

Greece argues that the name Macedonia should refer only to its northern region, which was Alexander the Great’s stronghold in ancient times. In June, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart in Skopje, Zoran Zaev, agreed that the Republic of Macedonia -- an independent state of 2 million people born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia -- would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Greece, like all members of the NATO and the EU, has a veto over new admissions. It blocked the Republic of Macedonia’s accession to the military alliance in 2008 and later halted the start of negotiations to join the EU.

A Guide to the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

2. What happened in the referendum?

Republic of Macedonia voters overwhelmingly supported the name-change agreement, with 91 percent registering their approval. But turnout -- which Zaev blamed on an opposition boycott -- was just under 37 percent. The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which says the agreement violates the country’s sovereignty, denounced the referendum as a failure and called for the government’s resignation. President Gjorge Ivanov said the results constituted a rejection of the deal with Greece.

3. What comes next?

Zaev, backed by EU and NATO officials pointing to the strong “yes” result, declared that the ballot gives him a clear mandate. His government is racing to build support in parliament to approve the constitutional amendments required for Skopje to fulfill its part of the deal with Greece. But the ruling coalition lacks the two-thirds majority it needs for that to happen, and Zaev has threatened to trigger early general elections at the end of November if he can’t muster the required votes. That might put pressure on the opposition, which has seen its popularity slide in opinion polls, to cooperate. Even if Zaev gets the amendments passed, there remains a question of whether his renamed nation’s entry into the EU could be blocked by France or the Netherlands, which have expressed reservations about its readiness to join the bloc.

4. How did we get here?

The roots of the conflict go back to World War II. The southernmost of six Yugoslav republics, the “People’s Republic of Macedonia” was cultivated under federal leader Josip Broz Tito. The U.S. State Department, in a telegraph from December 1944, called the designation “unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality” and said it might be a front for aggression toward Greece. The dispute then simmered for decades until Yugoslavia disintegrated. In 1991, the southern region declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece lodged a protest at the United Nations Security Council, alleging theft of historic and cultural identity. In 1993, the new country joined the UN under its provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

5. Why is this coming up again now?

The two sides resumed UN-mediated talks in December 2017 after Zaev’s new government took office, replacing VMRO-DPMNE, which had escalated the conflict during the decade it was in power.

6. What would Greece get from this?

Tsipras wants a foreign-policy victory to foster security in a tense part of Europe and boost his standing at home before elections next year. Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbor, with its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and the second-biggest bank.

7. What’s the outlook in Greece?

Demonstrators have taken to the streets chanting “Macedonia is Greek” in Athens and Thessaloniki, the capital of the Central Macedonia region. Trailing in the polls, Tsipras can ill-afford to be depicted as a sellout. Plus, he governs in a coalition with a nationalist party that opposes any use of the M word by Greece’s northern neighbor. On the other hand, should the Republic of Macedonia continue to be barred from NATO and the EU, it would be a plus for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the western Balkans. The region is a traditional sphere of influence for Russia, which remains opposed to NATO’s expansion in Europe.

The Reference Shelf

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.