What’s in a Name? Macedonia’s Referendum
I traveled to Macedonia this past September as a part of a three week trip that took me to several countries. The trip occurred just ahead of Macedonia’s September 30th referendum to change the country’s name from Republic of Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) to North Macedonia (among other things). It was an interesting time to visit the country, since there were activists campaigning for a boycott of the referendum. Some of them handed out fliers and others appeared to maintain an encampment near Park Warrior Woman. On the surface, the referendum seems simple enough, as it asked whether or not Macedonians were in favor of NATO and EU membership by accepting an agreement with Greece. The Prespa Agreement with Greece entails a name change, but also means that the constitution would have to acknowledge that Macedonians are not related to ancient Macedonians and there would have to be Greek review of maps and textbooks to make certain that that Macedonia did not claim Hellenistic heritage or Greek territory. While I didn’t have the opportunity to speak to many Macedonians on the issue, I did speak to three of them, each of whom had different opinions on the vote. I also read several books on Macedonian history before the trip, which at least provided some context to the debate. My opinion is informed by these experiences.
Macedonia was one of the six republics of Yugoslavia and among them it was the poorest, with an economy centered upon agriculture. Within Yugoslavia, Macedonian national identity was promoted through the development of film, theater, music, art, language, etc. Nationalism was cultivated in such a way as not to promote independence from Yugoslavia or overt territorial ambitions against Greece or Bulgaria in the interest of uniting Macedonians. The collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 presented an economic and identity crisis. In forging a new identity, Macedonia certainly has unique history and language to draw from, as the country is full of ancient Christian churches and monasteries and Macedonian language influenced St. Cyril’s Glagolitic script, the first Slavic alphabet. Language and orthodoxy are two components of Macedonian national identity, and the Macedonian Orthodox church declared itself autocephalus in 1967. However, its autonomy is not recognized by the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy. While these are important parts of Macedonian nationalism, it seems that a great deal of Macedonian nationalism today draws from the ancient history of Alexander the Great, which Greece takes issue with. And…Macedonia draws from this history to the extreme. A visit to Skopje feels like a tour of an Alexander the Great theme park, with enormous statues of Alexander the Great, Phillip II, Alex’s mother Olympia, and Greek style buildings.
Most scholars find little continuity between the Macedonia of Alexander the Great and modern Republic of Macedonia. Alexander the Great was believed to have been born in Pella, in modern Greek Macedonia in 356 BC. Of course, the division between Greek Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia is a construct of the Ottoman empire, nationalist struggles that aided the empire’s collapse, and borders drawn from the Balkan wars of the early 1900s. In any event, the Macedonia of Alexander the Great or Phillip II appears to mostly cover Greek Macedonia, with parts of modern day Republic of Macedonia, Albania, and Bulgaria. I have seen maps that extend this border further north as far as half way up Republic of Macedonia, but this doesn’t really matter as “Macedonia” as a place has encompassed different areas in different times. The Macedonians today are Slavic people, who settled in the region in the 6th century, nearly 600 years after the death of Alexander the Great. Therefore, Greeks argue that Republic of Macedonia has appropriated their history. On the other hand, Alex, a Macedonian I spoke to, believed that Slavic people mixed with the Macedonian population, preserving some of their customs and history. Macedonia would have experienced invasion from Huns, Visgoths, Vandals, as well as Roman rule prior to Slavs entering the scene. History is contentious and while Republic of Macedonia is unlikely to be the geographic and cultural inheritor of Alexander the Great’s legacy, all nations are build upon myths and borrowings.
All nations are human constructions. After all, the Earth, as seen from space, does not have neat little lines delineating borders or handy name tags for rivers, countries, mountains, etc. These are things that we have named and given meaning to. In the case of nation states, this is a fairly recent phenomenon of unifying peoples, cultures, languages, and geographical spaces into recognized political units. This didn’t happen neatly, accidentally, or uniformly. Africa consists of nations carved out and patched together by European colonizers. The United States, as a nation, was built by genocide, warfare, slavery, colonization, civil war, imperialism, and also by accompanying and supporting mythologies of manifest destiny, exceptionalism, moral justification, pluralism, and democracy. And, like much of the West, part of our national mythology draws from Ancient Greece. We appropriate Greek architecture, as many of our government buildings and statues have Greek themes and columns. Lighthouses, juries, theater, democracy, our alphabet, the Olympics, math, science, philosophy, art, libraries, etc. are parts of ancient Greek culture that have been widely appropriated by the West. We created movies and television shows based upon Greek mythology which are often inaccurate or re-imagined for mass audiences. Yet, Greece does not take issue with all of these borrowings from their history, even when many are likewise not accurate reconstructions of myths, ideas about democracy, architectural styles, etc. Why Macedonia? Why Alexander the Great?
A very Greek looking Museum of Archaeology in Skopje…
From a practical standpoint, borrowing from Ancient Greece is so commonplace that much of it probably happens without thought or notice. On the other hand, Greece does not have the means to threaten the United States or most of Europe even if they were to misappropriate ancient Greek history. For example, there is a replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee, which, of course, is even more outrageously ahistorical than any Macedonian claim to Alexander the Great. Suppose Greece took issue with this. The United States has the largest GDP in the world, whereas Greece is around 50th. While Greece spends over 2.3% of its GDP on military (for which it was praised by Trump), this spending (about 9.3 billion dollars) is dwarfed by the $590 billion spent by the United States on defense each year. Greece has little economic, political, or military power to challenge most other members of NATO or the EU for any misuse of Greek culture or history. At the same time, Greece is in a much more powerful position than Macedonia. Although Macedonia’s government has vowed to increase military spending as it seeks NATO membership, as of 2017 military spending was less than 1% of the GDP at just under 110 million dollars. In terms of 2015 GDP, Macedonia was the sixth poorest country in Europe, after Moldova, Ukraine, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia Herzegovina and a 27% unemployment rate. Greece’s unemployment rate was also around 25% in 2015 and the population has suffered austerity measures and shaky EU membership in the face of a debt crisis that was spurred by the larger global financial crisis of 2008. Nevertheless, Greece has more political and economic power than Macedonia for a number of reasons including its long established NATO membership (since 1951), EU membership (a part of predecessor organization the European Community since 1981), longer history as an independent country (Macedonia became an independent country in 1991 compared to Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829), larger population and area (population of 10 million versus 2 million in Macedonia), larger and better equipped military, etc. In short, Greece is much more powerful than Macedonia and therefore far more able to enforce its claims to culture, history, and national identity.
Phillip II statue in Skopje…with scenes of Alexander the Great’s life
Since Macedonia’s 1991 independence, Greece has exerted its relative power to thwart Macedonia’s existence as….Macedonia. In the 1990s, Greece imposed an economic embargo against Macedonia and blocked its UN membership. In 2008, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s NATO membership and in 2009, its bid for EU membership. In 1993, Macedonia agreed to the official name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in exchange for UN membership and in 1995, agreed to change the flag by removing the Vergina Sun used as the royal symbol of ancient Macedonia (https://www.thenationalherald.com/204203/the-full-text-of-greece-fyrom-agreement-pdf/, 2018). This past summer, Greek and Macedonian governments sought to come to an agreement which would pave the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership. This agreement entailed a name change to North Macedonia, renouncing any claim to ancient Macedonia history and Greek territory, removal of all public uses of the Vergina sun, recognition of Greece’s territorial integrity (i.e. no territorial claims to Greek Macedonia), committee oversight of textbooks and historical materials, and various articles more generally related to trade, defense, crime, treaty enforcement, etc. The Prespa agreement can be read here:
I have a soft spot for Macedonia, as it very much seems like the underdog in this situation. It is impossible to imagine an outside country setting the terms of how the United States can interpret its history or what symbols we can use on our flag or in our public spaces. It seems absurd that Macedonia cannot be Macedonia….as if national identity is some sacred truth! Certainly cultural appropriation is not a small matter, but generally the injustice stems from the powerful appropriating the history and culture of the oppressed. In this case, Macedonia is the smaller power with less leverage to define itself or maintain an autonomous existence. While Macedonians certainly appropriate Hellenistic culture to nationalist ends, Greece historically has extinguished and denied Slavic culture in Greek Macedonia. After Macedonia was divided by Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria in 1913, Greece replaced Slavic geographical and family names in Greek Macedonia with Greek ones and designated the Macedonian population “Bulgarians.” In 1936, Macedonian language was outlawed in Greece and many Macedonians, who often were also leftists, either fled the country or faced political repression. In 1951, 40,000 people in Northern Greece still considered themselves Slavophiles despite the decades of repression. No census of Slavic speakers has been conducted since (Karadis, 1994). As recent as 1994, Human Rights Watch called upon Greece to stop harassment of Slavic speakers and in 1998, the European Court of Human Rights called upon Greece to allow its people free association by granting permission for the formation of Slavic cultural associations (Karatsareas, n.d.). Greece many not formally recognize what remains of its aging Slavic speaking population, but the assertion of territorial integrity in the Prespa agreement at some level admits that the 1913 borders (which included Greek Macedonia) is contentious. Why? Macedonia lacks the military, political, or economic means to challenge Greece’s borders and the Slavic population of Greece Macedonia has been Hellenized to the degree that there is little threat of an independence/unification movement. It seems that rather than a real Macedonian threat to Greece’s national integrity, this aspect of the agreement is meant to establish that Greece has “won” at history or any debate to the nature of Greece Macedonia’s geographic or cultural makeup is over.
Unfortunately, Macedonia’s right to be Macedonia (i.e. its right to self-determination), is not supported in the West. While I was visiting Macedonia, Angela Merkel came to Skopje in support of voting yes in the referendum. NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also visited Skopje that week. The U.S state department, former president George W. Bush, U.S. secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and President Trump each encouraged Macedonians to vote yes. In fact, $8 million was approved by congress to fund a yes vote (Tisdale, 2018). I imagine that to most people, Macedonia’s path to EU and NATO membership is viewed positively, as becoming closer to the West is blithely viewed as a way to become more prosperous, progressive, globally integrated, or any number of positive things. But, at what cost? In this case, the immediate cost is self-determination on even the most basic issue of maintaining the autonomy to choose by what name the country calls itself! Increased military spending is another expected cost. Of course, this is also part of a larger issue, since the referendum in Macedonia has been framed by Western media as primarily a naming issue! No big deal, right? What is the difference between Macedonia and North Macedonia? But, this ignores the other aspects of the Prespa Agreement, including the auditing of text books and maps. This framing also ignores the assumption that joining the EU and NATO are positive things. It is really positive and progressive to join the West by increasing military spending or fighting in NATO’s conflicts? In any event, while the Yes vote won, voter turnout was too low to validate the results (only 36% voter turnout). For now, the matter remains at an impasse as the referendum failed.
Macedonia is still a fairly new nation with tremendous challenges ahead. Navigating these challenges are nearly impossible. Integration with the West almost certainly means compromising aspects of national identity in favor of an identity which is less threatening to Greece. As a matter of self-determination, I believe that Macedonians should have the right to interpret their history as they please, even if it does not align with other histories. The world is full of cities founded and named after Alexander the Great, which Greece does not take particular interest in. There are statues of Alexander the Great in Scotland, Argentina, Germany, France, and Egypt to name a few places. The Albanian military commander “Skanderbeg” was nicknamed after Alexander the Great. I think that it is entirely possible for both countries to coexist while allowing for Macedonia to draw inspiration from this history. At the same time, a Macedonian driver that I met made the excellent point that maybe Alexander the Great is not the best symbol for the nation, considering that his image and history celebrate warfare and conquest. I would add that Macedonia is made up of many people, including Albanians, Roma, Turks, Vlachs, Serbians, Torbesh, and others. Alexander the Great may not represent all of these people. I think that is a matter for the people of Macedonia to decide and question. No one in Macedonia benefits from costly statues and buildings when the population suffers from poverty and unemployment. For instance, the “Warrior on Horse” statue (which is meant to depict Alexander the Great) cost over $13 million. The structures built in Skopje between 2010-2014 cost over $700 million. As a tourist, it is certainly bizarre and fascinating to stroll around the endless monuments, but these have a human cost in terms of money that could have been spent on social programs and labor power that went into their construction. Therefore, the right to Alexander the Great should not be idealized, but should be allowed as a matter of national autonomy. Likewise, nationalism can be ugly and is often misused to cow a populace into submission and can foster social division. But, the experience of realizing national autonomy can be unify and mobilize a people towards progressive interests. In the end, that is why I support allowing Macedonia to be Macedonia.
Bender, J. (2015, June 29). Greece’s military budget is getting bigger even as the country’s economy lurches towards mayhem. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/why-greeces-military-budget-is-so-high-2015-6
Gjukovikj, D. (2018, August 02). Analysis | After 27 years, Greece and Macedonia have resolved their contentious ‘naming dispute.’ Here’s how. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/08/02/after-27-years-greece-and-macedonia-have-resolved-the-contentious-naming-dispute-heres-how/?utm_term=.de83f58ce516
Kakissis, J. (2018, July 09). Greece Is One Of Few NATO Members To Have Met Defense Spending Goal. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/07/09/627417425/greece-is-one-of-few-nato-members-to-have-met-defense-spending-goal
Karadjis, M. (1994, April 27). Macedonia: What the Greek government tries to hide. Retrieved from https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/macedonia-what-greek-government-tries-hide
Karatsareas, P. (2018, September 14). Greece’s Macedonian Slavic heritage was wiped out by linguistic oppression – here’s how. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/greeces-macedonian-slavic-heritage-was-wiped-out-by-linguistic-oppression-heres-how-94675
Pamuk, H. (2018, July 11). NATO formally invites Macedonia to join alliance. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-summit-declaration/nato-formally-invites-macedonia-to-join-alliance-idUSKBN1K12AR
State Department official backs Macedonian referendum. (2018, September 13). Retrieved from https://www.foxnews.com/world/state-department-official-backs-macedonian-referendum
Tisdall, S. (2018, October 01). Result of Macedonia’s referendum is another victory for Russia | Simon Tisdall. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/01/result-of-macedonia-referendum-is-another-victory-for-russia
Western Leaders Line up to Visit Macedonia Before Referendum. (2018, September 09.). Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2018-09-12/macedonia-opposition-says-name-change-an-issue-of-conscience