The dispute dates back to the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and the creation of the Republic of Macedonia (formally known within international organizations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM). Athens immediately objected to the name choice, arguing it suggested the former Yugoslav republic had territorial claims to the Greek province of the same name, which it borders to the south. Athens also argues that FYROM’s chosen name, which derives from the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon, has no historical merit. “The core of what was ancient Macedonia lies within contemporary Greek borders, comprises the northern portion of the Greek state, and is called Macedonia,” the Greek foreign ministry says of the dispute, which it characterizes as a “theft of ... historical and cultural heritage.”
The fight over history, and who gets to claim it, plays a big part in this dispute. Greeks and Macedonians have sparred over who gets to lay claim to national heroes like Alexander the Great—a debate that intensified when the Macedonian government erected in a 72-foot statue of a “Warrior on a Horse” at the center of Macedonian square in Skopje, the country’s capital. The statue is widely understood to depict Alexander the Great, though it is not named for him. “This is our way of saying [up yours] to them,” Antonio Milososki, Macedonia’s former minister of foreign affairs, told the Guardian in 2010, adding: “We all live in a geographic area where we share a common past but our attitude towards history is inclusive. The Greeks’ is exclusive.”
It’s not just about statues. Macedonia’s main airport and a major highway are also named for Alexander the Great. And while the question of word choice may seem minor to outsiders, its consequences are not: It’s been enough for Greece to continually block Macedonia from joining the European Union and NATO.
While more hardline Greek nationalists—like the estimated 140,000 people who protested on the streets of Athens Sunday chanting phrases such as “Macedonia is Greek” and “hands off Macedonia”—oppose the word “Macedonia” appearing anywhere in FYROM’s official name, Athens’ stance is more measured, calling instead for the small republic to attach to its name an adjective that differentiates itself from the neighboring Greek province, such as the Republic of “New Macedonia,” “Upper Macedonia,” “Northern Macedonia,” or “Vardar Macedonia,” in reference to the major river that runs through the country. The “Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)” has also been floated as an option.
But there’s only so much modifiers can do. “It’s not just about the name of the country—it’s about the adjective and it’s about the conditions when the name of the country is used,” James Ker-Lindsay, a professor of politics and policy at St Mary's University, Twickenham, told me, noting that while both sides may be able to settle on a new title for the country, there could still be contention on how it’s applied. Athens, for example, could argue that “Macedonian” should not be applied to things pertaining to FYROM, but that a form of its new name, such as “New Macedonian,” should serve as its official descriptor instead. Similarly, Skopje could insist that the more than 100 countries that already recognize the country as the Republic of Macedonia (of which the U.S., the U.K., and Russia are included), should be allowed to continue doing so.