The issue of Macedonian identity is a political minefield which stretches beyond the naming dispute of the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) with Greece. The stakes are high in getting it right because its outcome will not only reshape the future of the population 2-million country and the Western Balkans at large, but also the leverage of the EU in the region and its ambition to be the peace project uniting the whole of Europe.
Over the last few months, officials from both Greece and Macedonia (FYROM) have expressed their optimism about resolving the almost 30-year long naming dispute with the help of the European Union. "I believe that we have never had better circumstances to find a complete solution that will last for centuries and will remain forever," noted Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev after the Vienna talks at the end of April. EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hans even went so far as to predict that the issue will be resolved "in two weeks."
Despite movement in the political realm, public opinion in both Skopje and Athens remains rather resistant to any compromise. Hundreds of thousands of people keep protesting in the streets in both countries following each meeting of the negotiations. “People won’t just sit back and watch as the politicians sign a deal with Skopje that includes the name Macedonia,” Frangoulis Frangos, retired former chief of staff of the Greek Army proclaimed during the mass protests in Thessaloniki in February. "We are Macedonia" and "Macedonia name not for sale" were part of the slogans during protests in Skopje in March. Furthermore, a poll by United Macedonian Diaspora with 1429 participants shows that over 90% of Macedonians are against any name change, despite “outside pressure”.
Reaching a historic agreement in such a heated political environment will not necessarily provide the positive impact many EU officials expect to see. The name change is touching upon the foundations of national identity in both countries, and even small concessions are seen as a betrayal of national interests. In fact, whatever new name is chosen for the former Yugoslav republic, the result will most likely create a lose-lose situation on both sides, from which neither government has the political capital to recover. "It’s our name, our language and our identity", say the people of Macedonia (FYROM), while Greeks proclaim that "there is only one Macedonia, it is, was and always will be Greek."
Complicating the overall situation is that the naming issue is merely scratching the surface of a larger regional tinderbox filled with ethnic and political dynamite. As the history of the Balkans tells us, conflicts about national identity and historical pride can turn rapidly violent in this part of Europe.
For most of the world, history remains history. In the Balkans however, the interpretation and re-interpretation of history for political gains has over time created parallel realities in Athens, Skopje, Belgrade, Sofia, and Tirana, when it comes to the historic land of Macedonia.
The first half of the 20th century was a turbulent time for the Balkan countries, which had only recently gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire and fought numerous wars afterwards to restore their historical borders. Unsurprisingly, the territory of the geographical region "Macedonia" turned out to be the apple of discord. The end of the Second World War temporarily ceased the struggle for that land with the creation of the second Yugoslavia under Tito, part of which was the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, and the division of the Balkan region between the two spheres of influence. Since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1992, the artificial construct of the now former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is facing an existential struggle to define and defend its own national identity, while seeking international recognition and maintaining internal and regional stability.
That is not an easy task for a new country, carrying a heavy past charged with various unsolved disputes over language, history and ethnicity with neighbouring countries, leftovers of strong Serbian nationalism from Yugoslav times, an ethnically mixed population with a very influential Albanian minority and artificially drawn borders. The long path that Macedonia (FYROM) had to take from 1992 to date, to build the foundations of the country and even seek EU accession and NATO membership was full of stumbling blocks, the biggest of which turned to be the naming dispute with Greece. But will reaching an agreement on the name be enough to settle all the issues beneath the surface and guarantee the peace and stability of the region?
From neighbours' points of view, Greeks feel severely robbed of their history and national glory, persistently defending the lack of connection between the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia of Alexander the Great with the current state of Macedonia (FYROM). Despite the historic Agreement for friendship, good neighbourly relations and cooperation that was signed between Bulgaria and Macedonia (FYROM) early this year, Bulgarians are unhappy with the Macedonian interpretation of parts of history and claims for a distinct ethnicity and language. While Bulgaria was the first country to recognize the independence of Macedonia after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the recognition of a separate Macedonian nation and language are still an issue. Albanians still have the idea of Greater Albania, which includes unification of all Albanians in one state, while nostalgia for Yugoslav times is nurturing Serbian nationalism.
The name "Macedonia" creates parallel realities in the mind of peoples in the Balkans. It has been played for so long with their collective imagination for the pursuit of various political and geopolitical goals of domestic and foreign leaders that now it is difficult to bring the clashing narratives back to a common one. Whether the European perspective for the Western Balkans will manage to bypass the varied interpretations of history in the region is yet to be seen. In the meantime, the EU should be more sensitive to national identity issues in the Balkans, while drafting strategies for their accession to the EU and rushing for the naming dispute to be solved.
Whatever agreement the Greek and the Macedonian (FYROM) governments will sign, it can hardly gain any political traction without broad public support in both countries. Whether such an agreement will also open the door for Macedonia (FYROM) EU accession and NATO membership or will open the Pandora’s box of the region, remains to be seen. But as always, the devil will be in the details.