Thank you for tuning into the 2nd ever edition of “What’s The Deal” the blog that makes sense of today’s headlines through a historical perspective (you know, if you just don’t feel like reading the news/twitter headlines, because frankly, who has time?)
This week’s blog discusses the most recent incident of the ongoing (for years/centuries) dispute over the name of the Republic of Macedonia between said Republic, and Greece. Yes, yes, I know the Greek economic crisis is probably more pressing at the moment, but that story is covered well by The Economist, and frankly, I prefer this one.
Since Macedonia became an independent country in 1991, Greece has demanded that Macedonia change its name, and the debate between the two countries has persisted since then with little progress. If you delve deeper into the subject however, its not just a simple argument over a name, it’s another example of the difficulty of creating national boundaries encompassing many peoples, cultures, and significant historical events. This is not just a dispute between Macedonia and Greece, but a conflict between several peoples and cultures that goes back to the time of the Ancients.
In the Balkans especially, “Each nation demands that its borders revert to where they were at the exact time when its own empire had reached the zenith of ancient medieval expansion.” (quoted from Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts) In the case of Macedonia, the current boundaries contain the lore of Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great (of whom this most current spat is about) and the country is in dispute with three different nations, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. To understand each of the three nation’s claims, we’ll delve into the significant ancient and modern events that occurred in the disputed region (get excited folks, this has it all: war, politics, and bronze statues!).
At the end of the Tenth Century and again in the Thirteenth Century the Bulgarian Kings Samuel and Ivan Assen II extended the borders of the Bulgarian empire all the way West to the Adriatic Sea and included the region of Macedonia, therefore making Bulgarians claim that Macedonia should be a part of Bulgaria. To some Bulgarians, there is no Macedonia, only Western Bulgaria because according to Bulgarian sources, 80% of people in the Republic of Macedonia speak “Bulgarian”, and important historical figures such as the revolutionary Gotse Delchev were ethnic Bulgarians. Macedonia was considered a “Western Bulgarian homeland” and in the early 20th Century, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria had to abdicate the throne after two failed wars to win control of the region and in both world wars, the Bulgarians allied with the Germans to attempt to pry Macedonia (Then called Vardar Banovina) from what was then its place within Yugoslavia.
The Bulgarian claim should be taken with a grain of salt as many who claim to be Macedonian or Greek or Serb assert that Bulgaria falsified documents to prove that Delchev was an ethnic Bulgarian. This is still an area of contention, but most likely Delchev did speak some dialect of Bulgarian. The Bulgarian claim is certainly severe and contentious and it’s important to keep in mind that many currently living in Macedonia are ethnic Bulgarians, and that many in Bulgaria do not recognized Macedonia as a separate country, but as a Bulgarian homeland. Bulgarians are less concerned with the naming dispute as they are with the regional/boundary dispute.
For Serbians, Macedonia should be included within their borders because Serbian King Stefan Dushan conquered the region in the 14th Century and created Skpoje, the current capital city of the Republic of Macedonia. Their claims are similar in nature to Bulgaria’s, again with many ethnic Serbs living within the boundaries of Macedonia. I won’t get into the history of Serbia’s claim of Macedonia (because we need to get Greece involved here), although it is extremely interesting and complicated.
We have to step pretty far back into our time machine to Ancient Greece to see the Greek perspective on the name Macedonia and why they believe it belongs exclusively to Greece. Currently, as you can see on the map to the right, there is the Republic of Macedonia and a region within Greece called Macedonia. In ancient times (specifically 1000 – 200 BC), these were known as Upper and Lower Macedonia, with the whole region referred to as Macedonia. The northern section conducted their government differently then the Hellenic southern provinces, and were widely regarded as inferior for many reasons for which we shall not delve into. The upper part also held a larger contingent of different peoples, paving the way for its multicultural identity. In the 4th century BC, the kingdom of Macedonia came to its foremost fruition under Phillip II and Alexander the Great, stretching the empire (briefly) Eastward to India, and Westward across Northern Africa. There’s no need for great detail on why this was considered the high point of the Macedonian Kingdom, as it is well known why Alexander was called “The Great”.
The whole of the Greek argument is that the great Macedonian Kingdom was actually a part of Greece during its height, and that the name Macedonia should be exclusively Greek, like the region in Greece with that name. At the present, Greece is one of several countries and organizations including the U.N., who officially refer to the Republic of Macedonia as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, referring to its former status as a member of the Balkan conglomerate. The conflict is a matter of national pride for Greeks, and they were greatly offended by the forming/naming of the Republic of Macedonia in 1991 after the dissolution of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia.
The argument from the Macedonians is that their namesake is separate from Greece, and that the Macedonian Kingdom and Alexander the Great were distinct from Greece. The northern Macedonia, as described earlier, was a unique region that was highly influenced from Slavic peoples since the 6th century. This “Upper Macedonia” has become an individual country with a unique language (Macedonian), mix of religion, and people. The Macedonian position is based on a self-determination and nationalism movement started during the first Balkan wars and continued through Tito and the Socialist Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia until its official independence in 1991. This movement identified the people of this region as Macedonians who speak a unique language (Macedonian) and who identify as having a mixture of both Greek and Slavic (Serbian and Bulgarian) heritage.
The latest news of this dispute with the Republic of Macedonia (The U.S. officially uses the Republic of Macedonia to refer to the country, so I will too) and the building of a bronze statue of Alexander the Great in Skpoje, is another act of national pride or a political jab depending on your point of view. Of course Greece is again upset because they consider Alexander to be a uniquely Greek legend.
This complicated issue that seemingly is benign really could be a hornet’s nest in the making like so many territorial disputes that over the last 25 years have defined the Balkan region. With so many countries that have multiple ethnic groups claiming their stake based on historical events, its no act of fate that high levels of friction have developed over the years, or that new borders have been drawn so frequently. Territorial issues will continue to stir as long as self-determination and nationalism persist within the Balkans and this includes Macedonia. Some in Macedonia have believed for a long time that all of Macedonia, including the regions in Greece and Bulgaria that have “ethnic Macedonians” should be part of the Republic of Macedonia. It brings the point that if one ethnic group should be under one flag, then other countries like Bulgaria and Serbia might claim current Macedonian territory because they have a majority of “ethnic Bulgarians” or “ethnic Serbs”. To get a good idea of the border changes in the Balkans, take a look at this youtube video on the changing political landscape of Europe (just, you know, watch the southeastern part of the continent).
The naming issue is a bit silly if you ask me personally, but it is a source of national pride for the peoples of the Southern Balkan region and is therefore very important to keep in mind going forward as current events unfold. Here are the key points to take away from this story, and the reasons why we should care about this:
1. The Balkan region is an ancient region that once held some of the greatest empires on Earth, and many current countries claim their fame to those Ancient great kingdoms.
2. The Macedonian region has been heavily disputed and fought over for centuries, which has led to many redrawn borders, newly named countries, land disputes, and many different cultural and ethnic inhabitants.
3. Both Greece and Macedonia have a legitimate claim to Alexander and the name “Macedonia”, and it seems as if this issue will not die quietly, however small and unimportant it may seem. The naming dispute is really just another case of conflict in trying to create one nation surrounding a long history of many peoples, cultures, and events.
Sources: There is so much written about the history of Macedonia, Greece, and Bulgaria, but one book that I mentioned earlier really is fantastic, if a bit out of date. Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan is a travel history book that includes many fantastic descriptions of the post communist Yugoslavia and Balkan area and is extremely relevant in understanding the conflicts of today. I also used some online sources such as the country websites for both Greece and Macedonia as well as the UN’s official site. Wikipedia had a nice list of sources on the Macedonian country page as well.
Authors Note: I could have told a much longer story here because there is so much history in this region that is fascinating and exciting, but I tried to write about the most relevant points in conjunction with the naming dispute. Please don’t be upset that I didn’t include a great deal on Macedonia as a stage for World Power struggle (which it was, as was the whole Balkan region) I just didn’t have time to write about that entire subject. Please do add any additional info you feel should be written here, or make any constructive comments that would help my writing (im always looking for suggestions/bad jokes to use)
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson