The massive protests going on in Greece over a possible compromise about the disputed name of the country currently officially known by the United Nations as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” point to the incredibly powerful emotions surrounding national names. As you can read about in this BBC and WGRZ reporting, the dispute has inflamed the passions of many Greek protesters who feel that any compromise whatsoever concerning the name of Macedonia—it appears that variations like “North Macedonia,” “New Macedonia,” and “Upper Macedonia” are being considered, would be to capitulate to Former-Yugoslav-Republic-of-Macedonian encroachment on allegedly modern Greek terrain.
The dispute involves the ancient region of Macedonia, most famous for the ancient kingdom of Macedonia (which you can read about in this excellent Wikipedia article ), which existed clearly from the 9th C. BCE and is most famous for King Philip II and his world-famous, world-conquering son, Alexander the Great. When a land includes a figure who regularly lists top-generals-of-history lists, and is perhaps the most famous of all military conquerors, it clearly has enormous cultural prestige—and so it is not surprising that Greeks see the “Former Macedonian Republic of Yugoslavia as seeking both to appropriate much of what they think exclusively belongs to their own ethnonational heritage, thereby diminishing its worth.
What is fascinating is that neither side disputes that a portion of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia is in the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” nor that it has called itself for quite a bit of time. Whatever it will officially be called by the United Nations, this Macedonian Republic has been a nation-state since 1991, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Heated ethnonationalist disputes about identity and claims to cultural inheritance are not shocking to find in the Balkans, of course: this is perhaps the region with the most heated arena of competing cultural claims since the nineteenth-century rise of nationalism as we know it today.
Reading about this dispute from the safe distance of someone with absolutely no ethnic or political stake, I began to think about how interesting it can be to see modern nation-states sharing formerly ancient cultural inheritances. One example that came immediately to my mind was the distribution of ancient Maya lands among some four modern nation-states—Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Perhaps what makes this situation less contested is the fact that Maya ethnic identity also clearly is distributed within all four of these states, and in each case it is just one ethnicity within a larger state. The Maya language still thrives, as do Maya customs, making it likely that the ancient inheritance helps unite rather than divide these disparate groups—very unlike in the two nation-state populations currently debating the concept of who can call certain lands or people “Macedonian.”
It’s interesting also to think that such a massively distributed empire as the Roman, whose holdings and colonization extend throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, Eastern and Northern Europe, seems to eschew any absolute claim by, say, modern Italy, due to its sheer size and scale. No one would seem to be able to with any good reason to try to link such an empire, built as it was on integration with so many other colonies, to a single locale. Ancient Greeks, who also spread colonies in multiple zones and whose ethnic identity would not seem to be so easily traced in an absolutely linear fashion, might well be seen to fall under this category, though in the case of Macedonia, the geographical parameters are small and clear enough to make the debates about its cultural path fairly clear.
Who knows where this dispute will lead? For the time being, these massive protests are enough to remind us how crucial the stakes of a national or ethic name can be, since in many ways it can lay claim to so much. Think about how intensely many observers recoil at citizens of the United States being called “Americans,” since it implies a control over all of the Americas (a claim that, for example, the Monroe Doctrine in many way asserts). Debates about using “Myanmar” or “Burma”—and the many complicated questions about how to refer to citizens and refugees from there—can show how explosive an issue this can be. Examples, of course, could be multiplied, both for states and would-be states (e.g., “Palestine” and “Israel”; “Tibet” and “China”; “Kurdistan”) and for ethnic groups.
Rarely does such a dispute as going on about “Macedonia” turn so specifically on the various cultural, historical, and ethnonational stakes of the use of a specific name. The United Nations is, in the end, the organization where decisions that we hold to be in some way “official” are made about nation-states (they are “official,” of course, only insofar as we accord authority and power to the United Nations). I know that I will be paying close attention to how this dispute is worked out—especially since naming is so key to the many ethnonational topics discussed on this blog.