In the ancient world, Macedonia was a small Greek speaking kingdom around modern day Thessaloniki. Then Alexander the Great converted it into a mighty empire. This piece of ancient history underlines one of the most bizarre disputes in European politics.
In 1991, the Yugoslav province of Macedonia declared its independence. This created tension with its neighbour to the south: Greece. This was underlain by complicated issues of ethnic identity – of which more later – but it was to be boiled down to one essential question: what was the new state to be called.
The new state referred to itself as the ‘republic of Macedonia’ but this met with furious opposition from Greece. In protest they vetoed Macedonia’s accession to the UN and other international organisations. As a compromise to overcome this veto Macedonia joined these organisations on the condition that they refered to it as ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’
This set the stage for the absurd spectacle of bickering about where Macedonia would sit in the UN chamber:
Greece rejected seating the Republic’s representative under M [as in “Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic of)”], and the Republic rejected sitting under F (as in “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, which turned the reference into a proper noun rather than a description). Instead, it was seated under T as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and placed next to Thailand.
So what’s all this about? Well Greece and Macedonia are fighting over the ownership of the idea of Macedonia. Greeks took the new republic’s name as a challenge to the legitimacy of a region in northern Greece also called “Macedonia.” Greece suggested that the name implied a territorial claim on its own Macedonian region and an attempt by the Slavic population of Macedonia to co-opt the heritage of the Ancient Greek Macedonians.
This can all seem rather trivial – and on one level it is – but it’s having real consequences. It is a barrier to Macedonia’s accession to the EU and NATO. It has also had an unhelpfully inflammatory effect on Macedonia’s unstable internal politics. The country’s government has responded to the stand off by emphasing its ancient history – much to the irritation of its Albanian minority who feel excluded from that heritage.