The Bitter Battle Over the Name ‘Macedonia,’ Explained

(Bloomberg) -- A dispute that divided Balkan neighbors for more than seven decades, over what constitutes “Macedonia,” has finally reached a resolution. The Republic of Macedonia agreed to rename itself the Republic of North Macedonia to assuage complaints from Greece. In turn, Greece dropped its opposition to plans by the former Yugoslav state to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. That has paved the way for the two alliances to expand in a region that was traditionally in Russia’s sphere of influence.

1. Why was the name such a big deal?

Greece had long argued that the name Macedonia should refer only to its northern region, which was Alexander the Great’s stronghold in ancient times. Like all NATO and EU members, it can veto new admissions. To defend its claim to the name, Greece blocked the Republic of Macedonia’s accession to the military alliance in 2008 and later halted the start of its negotiations to join the EU. In June 2018, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart in Skopje, Zoran Zaev, agreed on the name change, but it took until January 2019 for final approvals on both sides. The change took effect after Greece signed off on North Macedonia’s accession to NATO in February.

The Bitter Battle Over the Name ‘Macedonia,’ Explained

2. What was behind the dispute?

The roots of the conflict go back to World War II. The southernmost of six states that made up Yugoslavia, 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. In 1991, amid the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the 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 a provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

3. What had to happen to reach a resolution?

After Tsipras and Zaev agreed on the new name, voters in North Macedonia approved it in a nonbinding referendum clouded by low turnout, and the country’s lawmakers amended the constitution to effect the change. Greece’s Parliament then ratified the agreement. In both countries, opposition to the deal was so strong that it threatened to topple the two leaders, though they managed to hold onto power. Even as the Greek Parliament was approving the measure, demonstrators took to the streets, protesting and chanting, "Macedonia is Greek."

4. What’s next?

All 29 NATO members must approve North Macedonia’s membership, before it becomes official, though the country is already allowed to take part in the group meetings as an invitee. Zaev hopes to start EU accession talks in June.

5. What does this mean for Greece?

Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbor, with its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and its second-biggest bank. Tsipras was eager for a foreign-policy victory to foster security in a tense part of Europe and boost his standing at home before elections later in 2019. However, the leader of Greece’s main opposition party, who could potentially succeed Tsipras, has hinted that he might not honor the agreement if he takes power.

6. What does this mean globally?

North Macedonia’s participation in NATO would be a blow to Russia, which has struggled to cling to its power in the Balkans, the site of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts since the end of World War II. The land-locked country of 2 million is following its regional peers Montenegro, Albania and Croatia, which have already proclaimed their pro-Western allegiance by joining the military club. Slovenia and Croatia are already in the EU, while Serbia, Albania and Montenegro have applied to join.

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