What’s The Deal With the Greek/Macedonian Naming Dispute?

Hello all,

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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.

The Greek region of Macedonia in shaded Green, the Republic of Macedonia in shaded Red

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.

A Political Message? Or just another pigeon defecation receptacle?

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


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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5 Responses to What’s The Deal With the Greek/Macedonian Naming Dispute?

  1. Athanasios Alexandropoulos says:

    I like the idea to see the issue from a neutral point of view.

    The only point I disagree striktly with you is the point, where you connect the Slavic people with the ancient Greek history of Macedonia. Yes, the meaning “Greek” in the times has changed a lot, but it is still the most common and closest relation to the ancient Macedonia.

    It is correct: Alexander the Great was MACEDONIAN, yes but this equals with GREEK in nowadays and for sure not SLAVIC.

    Ancient Macedonians did not speak Slavic (aka Slavic Macedonian), they did not write Cyrillic, they did not had slavoformed names. If they want to be called Macedonian, not probs, just put on international basis a “new” or “Slavic” or whatever prefix a front.

    In English you translate all kind of version into “Macedonia” and “Macedonian”.
    So when I speak about Macedonia, of course I solely mean Macedonia in Greece.
    If I speak about Macedonian, than I just mean Greek.

    Makedonika in Greek = Macedonian in English
    Makedonski in Slavic = Macedonian in English

    Makedonia in Greek = Macedonia in English
    Makedonija in Slavic = Macedonia in English

    Here should be a difference. And at the end of all days, all other mentioned countries who want to claim Macedonian for themselves based on a temporarily including of this region is also nonsense, as before and after that that short period it was and became Greek again. So Macedonia is not occupied by Greece as some stupid idiots say, Macedonia has been, is and will be Greek of course. But in nowadays not only.

    My conclusion:
    There will be no solution until one of those idiots will start a war… not tomorrow, not in one year, but for sure…

  2. Nick the Greek says:

    So the peoples of FYRoM learn to see themselves like Macedonians. They learn to see their land like Macedonia and their language like Macedonian-language. In reality though, FYRoM is Paeonia geographically, Dardania north from Skopje. The peoples there are Yugoslavians, same like Slovenians, Serbians, Croatians and Bulgarians. The language spoken there is Serbo-Bulgarian, a Satem-Slavic concoction renamed Macedonian-language August 1944, on the will of Marshall Tito, Croatian dictator of Wartime Yugoslavia.

    It is important to say here that not all of the peoples of FYRoM see themselves that way. A large percentage of them see themselves differently – so there is a problem of perception, inwardly and outwardly.

    Inwardly: Minorities in FYRoM see the majority there like South-Slavs from Serbian and Bulgarian stock, and call them the same.

    Outwardly: Those who see FYRoM like Macedonia, Yugoslavians like Macedonians, their Satem-Slavic language like Macedonian-language…display an ignorance deficient of knowledge in the fields of geography, demography, history and linguistics.

    FYRoM is not Macedonia and the peoples there are Slavic. Yugoslavians and Bulgarians form Slavdoms southern-branch…confusing South-Slavs for Macedonians displays disgraceful ignorance of classicist Graeco-Roman history, a mischievous deviancy from mainstream preset academic reference-point.

    If the peoples of FYRoM in their majority wish to see themselves like Macedonians, their country like Macedonia and their language like Macedonian-language – that, is for them to decide, it is their perogative to see themselves that way…self-perception is private and individual. The problems begin when that image, that self-perception is screened on world-stage setting.

    When a peoples are that indoctrinated to see themselves in way that clashes and conflicts with the way the outside world see them, like the UN, EU, USA, NATO and the International Academic Community – It becomes duty for these worldy-wise bodies and institutions to set the record straight…Macedonia is northern-Greece, Macedonians are Centum Greek-speakers and Macedonian-language is Centum-Hellenic language. The way Greeks see themselves is the way others see them, no clashes no conflicts. Contemporary Greeks look back at themselves standing at forefront of long chain of Centum Greek-speakers.

    Todays Greeks see themselves like cultural-linguistic continuators of a Hellenic inheritance that has been passed-on to them from previous generations of Greeks…stretching all the way back to and from, Mycaenean Proto-Greeks. The Greek language and Hellenism define an ancient and archaic people-group that boasts autochthony to Haemus peninsula. Greek cultural-linguistic space can Hellenize peoples in it’s sphere of influence. From Crete in the south to Macedonia in the north, and from Cyprus in the east to Sicily in the west…that space in between is Greek cultural-linguistic sphere – from since millenia. Greeks look back at themselves and awe at their inheritance.

    Greeks promise to defend, protect and pass-on their inheritance to next generation of Greeks – Come Hell or High Water!

  3. gamatos says:

    The fact that you refer to FYROM as Macedonia when you write an article like this is just provocative, this name issue is just the US foreign policy taking action to destabilize Russia and the Mediterranean.

  4. Nick the Greek says:

    The idea that Macedonians spoke Slavic and lived in FYRoM is an idea born from the little red book of Slavist Theories Ideas and Conjectures, produced intentionally to indoctrinate some wayward, simple-minded, simple-hearted South-Slavs to view themselves differently. Macedonians always spoke the Greek-Hellenic language and always lived in Macedon Northern Greece, from since the days of King Karanus 808-778 BC. Propaganda must not be rewarded, it must be challenged, confronted, questioned and then corrected…this is what Greeks do from since 1991 when FYRoM stepped on to the world stage and proclaimed itself Republic of Macedonia. New emerging countries have right to name themselves by any name they like so FYRoM chose ‘Republic of Macedonia,’ kick-starting off, a name dispute that is now in the early years of it’s third decade. Western rights and freedoms under current legal-frameworks did not cater for this scenario, that a minor Slavic country would one day, covet the name of ancient-Greek Kingdom for country-name – sovereign state-name, nationality, language and ethnicity.

    The idea that newly emerging countries can name themselves by any name they like is not strictly true, there are encumbrances, constraints and limitations…cultural-concerns for example, historical-considerations for another example, intellectual-property ownership for final example. FYRoM tested the Western worlds legal systems on all of those important identity-factors, bringing to the fore some noticeable operational weaknesses, flaws that are looked upon as undesirable features which question the integrity of Western legal frameworks ability to cope with challenges. Slavic claimants to Greek heritage is one example. Rewriting Western-worlds cultural-historical narrative is another example. Illegitimate use of another’s intellectual-property, for final example.

    The idea that a newly emergent country could use the name of an ancient-Greek Kingdom for country-name…sovereign state-name, nationality, language and ethnicity poses very real and important questions for the West, demanding answers to (i) philosophical questions, (ii) moral ethical questions, (iii) cultural-historical questions, (iv) intellectual-property questions, and (v) cultural-inheritance questions. The name dispute between FYRoM and Greece has used up so much diplomatic time, so many political resources, covered so many academic disciplines, tested so many legalities, that it threatens to stay unresolved for indefinite period of time.

    FYRoM tested the West and found out the hard way, that the system cannot cope with minor Slavic country request to use the name of ancient-Greek Kingdom for country-name…sovereign state-name, nationality, language, and ethnicity – a request that if legitimized would put the Western worlds cultural-historical narrative into disrepute.

  5. Nick the Greek says:

    Macedon: Greek Kingdom from since the first King Karanus, 808-778 BC. The rise of Macedon saw a small Greek Kingdom expand to big Greek empire, an empire that dominated Hellenism in it’s entirety. From since it’s beginnings at 808 BC, to it’s demise in 167 BC…Macedonians never stopped being Greek. From since that time, Macedonians walk like Greeks and talk like Greeks – identity-characteristics which are still in play even today.

    FYRoM messes with this! FYRoM cannot base it’s national identity on the ancestral, cultural, and historical achievements of ancient-Greeks. The Macedonian name belongs in Greek domain. Macedonian identity belongs to Greek heritage. Two simple statements which negate FYRoM claims to the same. The name and identity should be confined to history – Greek history.

    Resurrecting ancient and archaic regional-tribal names, and then placing them outside of their original ethnic-racial cultural and linguistic settings, is a recipe for disaster, on the basis, it invites conflict in areas where geography overlaps more than one population-group.

    Macedon: The original Kingdom sits inside Hellenic national borders…Macedonia though, the bigger geographic region, straddles over more than one country. Macedonia the region, today, overlaps the national borders of Bulgaria, Albania and FYRoM. The difference between the Kingdom and the region is geographic. Macedon is where Northern-Greeks dwelt. Macedonia the extended region is where latin-Roman jurisdiction combined the lands of Paeonia and Dardania into one military district they renamed Macedonia Secunda Salutaris. Macedon, under latin-Roman jurisdiction was kept Greek, seperate and distinct, reflecting latin-Roman fondness for all things Greek. Macedonia-Prima is Macedon, the ancient-Greek Kingdom. Macedonia Secunda Salutaris is Paeonia and Dardania…where FYRoM is situated today.

    FYRoM is not Macedon. FYRoM is Paeonia and Dardania. The difference between Macedon and FYRoM is demographic and geographic. In FYRoM live Yugoslavs…South-Slavs for want of better description. In Macedon live Greeks – from since the days of King Karanus 808-778 BC.

    FYRoM is where the Slavic tribes settled at top-end of 6th Century AD. The descendants of Slavs cannot be Macedonians in the ‘Macedon’ sense of the word. Descendants of Slavs can be Macedonians in the regional-geographic sense, on the basis of a resurrected latin-Roman name, Macedonia Secunda Salutaris – it means, Second-Macedonia, or Beneficial-Macedonia in transliteration.

    FYRoM stakes claim and makes claims, to (i) Macedonian Name, (ii) Macedonian Identity, (iii) Macedonian History, (iv) Macedonian Heritage, (v) Macedonian Legacy…on the basis, FYRoM sits on lands the latin-Romans renamed Macedonia Secunda Salutaris.

    If you were Greek, you would be ready to burst a blood vessel…right!

    If you were a Historian, you would do what ever it took to see FYRoM chastised, shamed!

    If you were a Politician, you would do your very best to keep FYRoM at arms length, at a distance!

    If you were a Diplomat, you would use the very best diplomatic language to explain to FYRoM the virtues of compromise.

    The Onus is on FYRoM to compromise in order to end the long-running name-dispute with Greece. The UN, EU, NATO and the International Academic Community advise FYRoM to do that from since 2008. Macedon is Greek Kingdom. Greeks live there >3 Millenniums. Macedonians are Hellenic on this basis. FYRoM is not Macedon! FYRoM is Macedonia Secunda Salutaris – a resurrected latin-Roman name for Paeonian-Dardanian military district. FYRoM based it’s name on latin-Roman geographical political division of lands which are located outside the original boundaries of Macedon, the ancient-Greek Kingdom. Evidently, Academia in FYRoM is no good. Historians are no good. Politicians there know this!

    January 14, 2015 at 9:35 AM

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