Macedonian Question: Why is the name so important?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Balkans & East Med, Greek Foreign Policy

By Konstantina Mintzoli, EU Migration Expert

The ‘Macedonia’ naming dispute is a political controversy between one of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (abbreviated as FYROM) and Greece. This name issue regards the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ over the constitutional name of the former and goes back in 1991, after the dissolved of former Yugoslavia, when it declared its independence under the name “Republic of Macedonia”.


Since the Macedonian dispute is a heavily discussed issue among academics, politicians, historians, ethnographers and scientists with the aim to find a solution on that issue or to give ‘justice’ to any state based on the history and aspects of international law, the difference with this paper is deals with neither of the above-mentioned. On the contrary, it raises the question: why is the name so important? In my point of view, – without considering myself a macedologist- a term that has been used by some scholars referring to those, who associate with Macedonian affairs – the name issue is a unique phenomenon of international relations that covers many aspects of policy and history. ‘Macedonia’ is not the first dispute of an appellation; “Ireland” was a case as well as the unified name ‘German – Austria’ (“Deutschösterreich”). However, in the case of ‘Macedonia dispute’, I argue with the sociologist Victor Roudometof that it is “one of the best research sites for studying the relationship between collective memory and national identity”, which can produce “mutually exclusive political identities”. It is more than a name dispute; this paper argues that is a research issue for cultural identity and territorial security for both the FYROM and Greece.

1a. ‘Macedonia’ as a geographic reference

The term “Macedonia” has been used in various meanings to describe geographical, political and historical areas, languages and nations to a region of the Balkan Peninsula in South-Eastern Europe; the borders in each of those occasions were different throughout history. The historical context of the Macedonia suggests a point of view, which is lacking in the present study. Geographically, its territory’s borders are not officially recognized by any international organization or state. Today, Macedonia is also used in order to describe the following: the ancient kingdom (also known as the kingdom of Alexander the Great); a geographic department, the biggest of the Greek territory, which adjoins on the north with FYROM; and FYROM itself as the Republic of Macedonia. The ‘Macedonians’ did not regard themselves as Greeks; however, the etymology of ‘Macedonia’ is Greek.

Since antiquity, the term “Macedonia” used again in 1913 by the Greek state to name the northern part of the territories in order to describe that administrative structure: ‘General Administration of Macedonia’, an area covered the major part of what is believed to be the original territory of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. In a chronological succession, the term ‘Macedonia’ was established in one of the six republics comprising the socialist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (FPRY) taking the status of a federal unit with the name “the People’s Republic of Macedonia” initially in the constitution of 1946. This can be told that was the birthday act of the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ administratively and institutionally. Until that time, this area has been known as “Vardarska Banovina (Vardar Region)”, which itself renamed to “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” in accordance with the constitution of 1963; the third reference to the term ‘Macedonia’. “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” held until June 7, 1991 when the last constitution established its present name using the appellation ‘Republic of Macedonia’.

1b. The right to self-determination and the symbols of its depiction

It has been observed that “authoritarian states do not have history wars, but democracies frequently do.” The re-determination of the national identity occurred both in many old and new nation-states after the end of the Cold War.
The opposing national movements, the conflicting aspirations of the Balkan states and the multilingualism residents, were factors that raised the necessary conditions for the birth and the plot of the Macedonian issue. The main factor however was the ethnic composition of the area, which will be discussed later.

Residents of FYROM entered the path of the national ideology and set their aim: their national integration. The principle of “self-determination of peoples” became consciousness of the Balkan people, who broke up the multinational empires, which they were lived in and set up – separately -national states.
Taking advantage of that right they plainly complete their political status and resolve their social, economic and social advancement. However, in the present case, the right of a nation to self-determination goes beyond the scope of the above-mentioned cardinal principle, to include the means that a state chooses to be represented. United Nations (UN) immediately recognized all the Former Yugoslavian countries when they declared their independence but not the “Republic of Macedonia” regarding the use “Macedonia” in its name and the objections of an already-member state, Greece. The country was accepted into the UN under the temporary name of ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ involving countries that do not recognize the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ and it will remain as such until the “settlement of the difference between Macedonia and Greece is reached.”

The right to form an independent state is connected with the choice of the symbols of its depiction. Nonetheless, what should be happened when the self-determination and self-representation of some people usurps the “self” legitimate interests of others?
With the choice of the particular term, when it called to represent a state, it connects that state with the collective identity of the symbolic meanings of the term, such as its geography, language, nation and others. The characteristics of those symbols should not be separated from the state that adopts them or not to have geographical imprecise description. One could assume the difficulties that could bring a single Iberian state being named “Iberia”.
Claim an affiliation to state symbols, as means of promoting political unity and sovereignty, is intertwined with the creation of political communities. The one act cannot exist without the other. In that case, however, both parties believe that one or more symbols constitute part of its historic or cultural heritage, which are used by the other party. Pierre Bourdieu argues that a state domination needs a name, which in the sequel needs the structuring of the social world’s perception about that. In other words, this perception is the key for the name’s establishment to be recognized.

2. The two standpoints

To understand each nation’s claims, we have to admit that “each nation,” Kaplan writes, “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.” He also argues that Macedonia is followed by the most important “disease” of the Balkans: “conflicting dreams of lost imperial glory.”

The main points for which Greece has objections are: the use of “Macedonia” in the official name of the country (due to lack of clarification between it and the neighboring Greek geographical region of Macedonia), the use of the term to determine the main ethnic group and the official language. Also, disagrees with the use of symbols that are part of Greece’s historical, cultural heritage and certain articles in the constitution of the new state. On the contrary, for the FYROM the entanglement constituted a matter of its external policy but also a matter of its existence as a nation in the current status quo as well as providing a safety net against future challenges in Europe and Balkans.

Particularly, Greece claims that allowing its neighbor to call itself the “Republic of Macedonia” would leave Greece open to territorial disputes between Skopje and a region of the area also called Macedonia. According to this statement, the label ‘Macedonia’ can only refer to the region in northern Greece. Otherwise, the use of that name by other state fails to distinguish that state’s parts of geographic Macedonia from the Greek parts. Therefore, Greece repeatedly has suggested FYROM to use a composite name with a geographic qualifier such as “New”, “Upper” or “Northern”, which should serve the domestic and international purposes of the state’s representation that it will be used in relation to everyone (erga omnes). In my opinion, ‘new’ for Greece could be a false choice as this word declares connection; the first-component indicates the nationality and second the place.
‘FYROM’ affirms that it does not claim a monopoly on the name nor is it concerned with the Greek Macedonia province. Moreover, its objective is to exercise its right of self-determination in the choice of its name. Taking into account the theory of the “social borders”, John Armstrong argues “groups tend to define themselves not on the basis of their own characteristics, but with the ‘exclusion’; on the basis of comparing themselves with the ‘foreigners’”. As a result, the civic identity exists only when you know who you are, and do you know how you are, only when there is somebody else.

Greece was concerned about the symbol that the new state chose to be represented on its flag, the ‘Vergina Sun’ or the ‘Vergina Star’, the ancient emblem of Alexander’s Macedonian dynasty, which is claimed by Greece that it is an exclusive Greek symbol. Therefore, FYROM used a symbol that has already a meaning and value for other state. This could have affect in its meaning or de facto dominating it, altering the representation of Greece and its history. The “FYROM”’s government abandoned the “Vergina Sun’ after signing the Interim Accord with Greece. It adopted a new flag of a stylized golden sun with eight gold rays reaching toward the edges of the flag from a circle in the center, replacing the sixteen gold rays that had previously. The sixteen gold rays flag was banned from use in a variety of places, including the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, UN Headquarters and some offices of the Republic of Macedonia in other countries. Not only Greece had objections on that issue, but also the Albanian minority, which complained that it had an ethnic symbol that did not represent the Albanian population and so it was not suitable for the multi-ethnic face of the state.
The archaeologist Bajana Mojsov argued, “The symbolic weight attached to the Vergina Star was archaeologically absurd – but politically inevitable,” he continued, “it’s modern politics, and we’re witnessing the use of an archaeological symbol for history that it’s really not related to”.
Flag is the strongest among the symbols; It elicits emotional and political ramifications. The state use of a symbol that has already a meaning and value for an “other” group could evolve its meaning or de facto monopolize it – and thus affect the representation of this “other” group. The choice by the first president of the ‘Republic of Macedonia’, Kiro Gligorov, to use the specific symbol on its flag could be understand as adding a new element in the diplomatic scale that could enhance his arguments when the time comes for negotiations and to preserve unchanged the name ‘Macedonia’.

Moreover, language is an instrument of a ‘nation-building’ and unification of a population, a symbol that attributes identity. The language is the second more important feature after the history, as far as I am concerned, which stamps the specificity and the national consciousness of people. Subsequently, the existence of a distinct ‘Macedonian language’ is an essential element to establish the alleged ‘Macedonian nation’. The opinions of when the first grammar of the ‘Macedonian Language’ – after limitations of the Bulgarian element – was released are divided and ranging from 1880 to 1952. It is known that a language is born over time depending the history and the experiences of a nation. The remarkable point with the ‘Macedonian’ language is that it created with the creation of the ‘Macedonian state’. The Italian linguist Vittore Pisani states that “the Macedonian language is actually an artifact produced for primarily political reasons”.

Greek point of view stands that Macedonian language never existed, as it was a dialect of Bulgarian, which belongs to the Slavic family and because of the mixing of peoples in this region received many foreign adds. Bulgaria argues the same. On the other hand, “Macedonians” try to prove continuity with the ancient Macedonians and a distinct existence of their language going back the Old Church Slavonic language codified by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century.”

‘Macedonian language’ is itself a symbol. If its existence approved, this state is called to represent the meaning of this. This is the so-called ‘pars pro toto’ relationship between the signification of a term and the meaning beyond this. Reading between the lines, in this context for example the ‘Republic of Macedonia’, bears the name of the whole of the ‘Macedonia’ although it is a part of it; an attempt from a ‘part’ to usurp the ‘whole’.

“FYROM” affirms that ‘Macedonia’ was never an integral part of Greece. In 1913, modern Greece and its Balkan allies divided Macedonia. Therefore, that a part of Macedonia belongs to Greece, it is by virtue of an unlawful partition of the total and occupation of a part of Macedonia. As a result, all the above-mentioned claims of Greece are allegations against the people of Macedonia. As a result, the naming dispute ‘hides’ the fact that if a Macedonian nation exists, this is separated; the other two [one in Greece and the other in Bulgaria] are ‘enslaved’, questioning the state’s sovereignty. On the other hand, Kiro Gligorov, the first president of the Republic of Macedonia has said that “We are Slavs who came to this area in the sixth century … we are not descendants of the ancient Macedonians. We are Macedonians but we are Slav Macedonians. That’s who we are! We have no connection to Alexander the Greek and his Macedonia … Our ancestors came here in the 5th and 6th century AD.”

Moreover, Athens also objected to sections of the new Macedonian constitution, which, according to Greece, promotes a nationalist rhetoric calling the reunification of all Macedonian territories:
Article 49 as it follows:
“ (1) The Republic cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighboring countries, as well as Macedonian expatriates, assists their cultural development and promotes links with them.
(2) The Republic cares for the cultural, economic and social rights of the citizens of the Republic abroad.”

This article involved territorial claims on Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and Serbia. After the signing of the Interim Accord and the amendment on this article to include a clarification, which reads:
“[i]n the exercise of this concern the Republic will not interfere in the sovereign rights of other states or in their internal affairs…”.

The arbitrariness of Skopje is that it transfers a geographical concept of ‘Macedonia’ into a national issue. When a Greek is called Macedonian, he or she means the geographic definition and area of Greece. The using of this term does not include any kind of claim or expansion. The difference with the ‘Macedonians’ of FYROM lies in the fact that they use this adjective to show the national point, as the Macedonian foreign minister, Antonio Milošoski stated “any reasonable solution that did not impose on the identity of ethnic Macedonians would be explored.”

Constantinos Mitsotakis, has commented that:
“What concerned me from the very first moment was not the name of the state. The problem for me was that [we should not allow] the creation of a second minority problem in the area of western [Greek] Macedonia. My main aim was to convince the Republic to declare that there is no Slavomacedonian minority in Greece. This was the real key of our difference with Skopje.”

In 1913, on the demarcation of the boundary in the Balkans, parts of all nations remained in the territories of others. It is known that the ‘nation-building’ is based on homogenization, the Balkans required heterogeneity. Heterogeneity maintained after the exchanges of populations happened between the Balkan lands. Subsequently, minority groups ruled the domestic policies in order to transfer them into national groups. The problem with the Yugoslavia is that never signed an agreement for the exchange of people. Those people could be moved either voluntarily or by transnational agreements. The same happened with ‘FYROM; This lies on the fact that the FYROM as a state did not exist before 1992 and the ‘Macedonian’ nation had not recognized. Therefore, the Greece denies the existence of a Macedonian minority in northern Greece, claiming that there exists only a small group of ‘Slavophone Hellenes’. On the other hand, the ‘FYROM’ repeatedly has raised the matter of demanding Greece to respect the fundamental human rights of the ‘Macedonian’ minority and recognize its status. The existence and the numbers of the Slav minority in Greece became one of the major issues.

‘FYROM’ has been shaped mainly by ‘Macedonians’ (64.2%), Albanians (25.2 %) and the rest are Turks, Romani, Serbs, Vlachs and others. As a result, the threat of the integrity of ‘FYROM’ should not be overlooked as this country is surrounded by claims of ‘Greater Albania’, ‘Greater Bulgaria’ and ‘Greater Serbia’. In a detrimental hypothesis in which dissolving trends prevailed in the ‘FYROM’, then the external borders of Greece will be without the ‘FYROM’, as its land will be shared among the others. In the ‘FYROM’ Albanian minority has the right -among other- of veto in domestic issues that concern them and Albanian language is one of the officials. The outcome of all the above mentioned is the need of the ‘FYROM’ to feel safe from the national identities of its neighbors by presenting its national identity. According to FYR Macedonia’s official viewpoint however, geographical Macedonia is the national homeland of the Macedonian nation.

The name issue has also an economic aspect, as regards the trademark and the commercial concerns of many Greek products that include the term Macedonian. Greece decided the economic blockade to ‘fYROM’ as a mean of pressure for the acceptance of Greek terms. I will avoid further reference to the commercial concerns and the legality of the ‘embargo’, since they are beyond the scope of this article.


For Greeks and ‘Macedonians’, Macedonia is unquestionably theirs. Both sides have resorted to narration of history and other symbolic elements to construct or maintain their nation’s feeling of belonging to a solid cultural and identity background. Both sides have also accused the other side for falsifying the above. Moreover, the ‘war of affiliation to a name’ occurs, since naming can have a significant effect on the identity of the characteristics that they include the essence of the content. This essay proved through this dispute the significance of the use of symbols to reinforce political claims in territorial interests and national security issues.
The right to self-determination does not mean a name without limits for the new state, the nation or the language. ‘FYROM’ is a multinational country not a country of one only nation. The question of naming a state should not be addressed as a solely domestic matter, but from an international perspective. It has escalated to the highest level of international mediation to achieve a resolution, which all of them had been rejected by one or the other state over the last years.
The dispute between the two states has entered the third decade without a solution and with no significant progress on the matter. In my point of view, even that a preferred name to both parties cannot be found, ‘the name game’ had already been won by ‘FYROM’. Skopje had consistently rejected any solution that eliminates the term “Macedonia” from the country’s name, subsequently with the unofficial use of the term “Macedonia” it has succeed de facto establishment of the term ‘Macedonia’ and de jure recognition from an interesting part of the international community gradually shifted away from the “FYROM” to the timeless and clearer ‘Republic of Macedonia’, or ‘Macedonia’, or ‘FYR Macedonia’ instead of using the five-letter acronym, bracket or hyphen with the result that the Greek position is slowly faded away.


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Official sources

Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, adopted 17 November 1991
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Electronic sources

BBC News, “When archaeology bent”. BBC World Service. 2004: <>

Macedonian Ancestry: < >

Macedonia for the Macedonias: <>

Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia: <>

Declaration Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Bucharest on 3 April 2008: < : Bucharest Summit>

Republic of Macedonia, Ministry of Foreign Affairs: <>

Hellenic Republic, Ministry of Foreign Affairs <>