Is This The End of Name Issue? Notes on the Dispute between Macedonia and Greece
How should we understand one of the most bizarre political and diplomatic problems in Europe and probably in the world, i.e. the name issue between Macedonia and Greece? It is bizarre because it is neither a territorial conflict nor a conflict for sources of drinking water or mineral raw materials. It is rather something abstract, differently understood and exploited in the everyday life of the each of the societies, something that cannot be seen, touched or felt by both countries’ population, except through the diverse symbolism and, consequentially, in the economic and political relations.
Many articles, scientific papers and analyses have tended to clarify the reasons for the conflict, its history, as well as to answer the most frequently asked question: What lies behind the name issue? Others have been trying to explain the problem by answering the question about the historical heritage i.e. to whom Alexander the Great belongs. Nowadays, the ones who closely follow this problem and the process of negotiations between the two countries are aware of the main points of misunderstanding, such as the name Macedonia and everything related to it: the identity of the ethnic Macedonians i.e. the ethnonym Macedonians and Macedonian language, the irredentism through monopolizing the use of the term Macedonia, as well as its usage in the economy, trade and commercials. More importantly, this is a conflict that seriously affects the internal democratic development of Macedonia. It is sufficient to have a look at the socio-political development of Macedonia after the Greek veto at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. From a leader of the West Balkans, the Republic of Macedonia has come to a point to be a threat for the regional stability. Moreover, the aggressive usage of history in politics points to the profound consequences in solving the name issue. The Macedonian Government has begun proving to its population and the world that it also has the right to the historical heritage of ancient Macedonia, therefore the right to use the name Macedonia. This points to the considerable frustrations of the Macedonian socio-political élite that arise from the dispute.
This article does not have the tendency to offer a legal or political solution to the problem. The Macedonians have an indisputable right to choose the name of their country - the Republic of Macedonia. Therefore, I think that it is absurd to request for a name change of a country. However, no matter how absurd it may be, especially for ethnic Macedonians, it represents a real diplomatic and political conflict between two countries whose populations consider each other enemies. At the same time, from a diplomatic point of view, no matter the extent to which we consider that the request from the Greek governments from the times of Mitsotakis, Simitis, Samaras all the way to Tsipras are absurd and nationalistic, the solution to this problem is impossible without taking into consideration the Greek views and arguments. However, both nations are obliged to show mutual respect, where the name itself, the history of the name and the past should be getting them closer instead of separating them.
It is more than clear that besides the legal and political aspect of the dispute, it simultaneously provokes the question about how we understand the shared past. More precisely, it is all about the way in which history is instrumentalized, which on the other hand has deeply influenced the dispute and the dynamics of its development up until now. It is obvious if one follows the rhetoric of the socio-political élites in both countries and the used symbolism: ethno-national insignia (the Vergina sun), building monuments of ancient heroes (Alexander the Great in Thessaloniki and Skopje) and national heroes (Macedonian and Greek warriors at the end of the Ottoman period, who fought more against each other than against the Ottoman authorities at a certain period of time), naming airports (Airport Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Airport Alexander the Great in Skopje), roads (motorway Alexander the Great in Macedonia), etc. In such context, it is not only about the right of who uses the name and the historical heritage of the Macedonian region, but also the way of interpreting a range of conflicts that formed the relations between the two populations and the narrative for enemy populations from the middle of the 19th century until the end of the Greek Civil War (1946-1949). However, the past events are strictly interpreted through a nationalistic prism, while the neighbor is perceived as a historical enemy.
Therefore, both nations experience a feeling that they are surrounded by enemies who want to destroy them - a siege mentality. If we do a general review of the historical literature and the History textbooks in both countries, one can notice a selective interpretation of a range of historical events. As a result, there is a formation of many myths, among which the most powerful is the Myth of Victimhood. Although the Cold War ended, the narratives shaped during that period still exist, this time in a “European”, but nationalistic context. This is mostly due to the complete lack of initiatives and readiness to address the traumatic topics from the past of both countries. All these just add to the difficulties in solving the problems between two countries. The Greek society must understand and learn to live with its neighbors and minorities, with the differences and the facts that the history, especially the pre-national one, is entangled, that there are no barbarians - Slavs on the North, and that the Cold War is over. On the other hand, the Macedonian society should understand and learn to live with its neighbors, the differences inside the country and the fact that the Macedonian, Greek and other nations share many events, historical personalities and values. Both societies must learn that the history of the geographical region of Macedonia is not exclusively Greek or Macedonian, but both Greek and Macedonian, just as it is Bulgarian and Ottoman.
From here, a part of the politicians and supporters who strive towards finding solutions to the problems of the Balkan countries often emphasize that the history should be left to the historians. I do not believe that many of them do understand what letting historians deal with history means, especially if we take into consideration that the history and the level of the development of the historical thought has a considerable influence on societies. The historians are political and national sermonizers, priests of the nation, who are always here to explain to the nation the important events from the past, offering daily doses of romantic stories from that past. In such conditions, the history that has been left to the historians, just worsens the relations in between the nations. Because of that, should we leave the history only to the historians? Or, as Ivaylo Ditchev says, “Put Macedonia away from the historians”?
Those who closely observe the process of negotiations between the Republic of Macedonia and the Hellenic Republic highlight that, more than ever, there is a momentum and optimism for this longstanding dispute to be solved in the near future. At the same time, many former stakeholders have recently given their statements related to the dispute in the process of negotiations. The majority talked about the missed opportunities for an agreement in the 90’s, 2000’s etc., but they also gave statements about the reasons for the failures, from the opportunities, the unreadiness of the public, the strong emotions in the problem-solving approach, etc. This tells us that in between most of the momentums which have existed since the beginning of the dispute until today, the political and intellectual élites have not succeeded in preparing the populations from both countries for the need of solving this dispute. Moreover, they relied on history and historical interpretations in arguing the right of use of the brand Macedonia. It seems that history represents a significant parameter in creating policies and relations between the neighbors. Even today, in Greece, a significant part of the public thinks that the new name of Republic of Macedonia must not contain the name Macedonia, as it is a Greek name and belongs only to the Greek nation. On the other hand, most of the ethnic Macedonians, who are under the influence of the recent historical revisionism, have started believing that Alexander the Great was an ethnic Macedonian and that the modern Macedonians are direct descendants of the ancient Macedonians. Even the immigration of the Slavs on the Balkans was questioned.
Without an intention to emphasize the positive statements and to expect the day when the agreement with Greece will be announced, whatever agreement is reached in the following months or at any new momen, the problems will not be solved by just signing an international treaty. It is obvious that both sides will have to do a lot in order to improve the mutual perception and create two societies and nations that will show mutual respect. It was proved useful in the 90s, when Macedonian and Greek artists worked on successful projects that led to overcoming the many twisted perceptions about the neighbor. At times when the economic relations function great, one should work a lot on the academic and cultural exchange, building trust, mutual respect and overcoming the prejudices developed by both nations. No matter whether these problems will be overcome by forming committees for historical questions, mutual academic projects, cultural projects, student exchanges or else, if there is no improvement of the conditions in this field, the agreement will be observed up to the moment when the regional and/or global political situation stimulates the nationalistic forces to fight back their historical enemies.
I would like to mention the recent statement given by Nikola Dimitrov, the Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs, in an interview for a Macedonian television, where besides talking about the aspects of the perspective solution for the name issue, he also talked about the different interpretation and meaning of the term Macedonia and the adjective Macedonian in both countries. According to him, “those interpretations and the meaning do not confront us, but they are complementary, and the difference is not something we should fear”. Therefore, in order to come to a solution, both countries have to learn and know how to share their past and how to face the painful topics of that past. I would say that the problem on the Balkans is not that it produces history more than what it can consume, but the way it consumes the history it creates.