Although the headline of one version of the link to this excellent BBC article seems to be premature, the Prime Ministers of Greece and the country currently known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (except for the 140 countries that currently just call it Macedonia) have reached a compromise on the name of Greece’s northern neighbor. If all things go as planned—and the reason I say that some links saying there is now an “end” to the 27-year fight over this country’s name is premature is that the controversy will only subside if the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s parliament agrees to the deal and changes its Constitution, followed by ratification by the Greek parliament—the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will soon be the former Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and will instead be called the Republic of Northern Macedonia (Severna Makedonija in Macedonian).
As I have discussed on this blog here before, the dispute between Greece and its neighbor reveals the intense stakes of naming. Besides a large contingent of Greek nationalists who actively seek to claim the literal lands understood to be part of ancient Macedonia, and besides those Greeks who insist on recalling a bloody history of occupation by Bulgarian forces during the World War II era, many Greeks have resisted Macedonia’s use of “Macedonia” as an unwanted claim of what they see as their own ethno-cultural inheritance regarding Philip II of Macedon and his even more famous son, Alexander the Great. Not just ethnonationalist pride is at stake for many of these—but a valuable monopoly on tourist dollars.
It is equally understandable why many soon-to-be “Northern” Macedonians recoil at a Greek claim on all Macedonian lands as Greek. While all ethnonationalist disputes about territory can be potentially explosive and destructive (we need think only of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Russian-Ukrainian dispute over Crimea, or perennial Indian-Pakistani disputes over Kashmir), it would seem to be quite unsettling to have a southern neighbor advancing territorial claims on your country based literally upon ancient history. As this (probably soon-to-be-updated) Wikipedia entry on “the Republic of Macedonia” shows, the Paeonian kingdom, which was roughly coterminous with contemporary Macedonia, was clearly conquered and subsumed into the Kingdom of Macedonia by Philip.
The compromise of the name “Northern Macedonia” thus seems to be both historically accurate—and respectful of both sides’ claims. No matter how much the ethnic makeup of an area might have shifted (and, as a great fan of immigration and voluntary movement, I would never want to close down shifting populations), the land itself bears a history that is well worth keeping alive. It seems to me that Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras (Greece) and Zoran Zaev (Macedonia) have done some excellent work here—and the potentially stiff resistance each may face from nationalists at home only makes their work more worthy of praise.
In a world so often boiling over with territorial disputes, it seems to me heartening to see a compromise like this take shape. While the BBC article makes clear that ethnonationalists on either side may still kill this deal—whether over fears of hidden territorial ambitions, or over anger at an overbearing neighbor using threats to international status to demand concessions—its very status speaks to a kind of hopefulness that parties can work through and beyond territorialist irrationality and find ways to co-exist, and indeed thrive.
Moreover, the fact that the naming allows an ancient regional identity to remain alive strikes me, as an avid student of history and culture who (as this blog shows by its very existence) is fascinated by both the variety and singularity of geographical identities, as a wonderful event. Hopefully we can all raise a glass to toast this deal when it is approved officially by both sides.