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Macedonia: What’s in a name?

Dr. Mohamed A. Ramady

Published: Updated:

Countries often fight over borders and territorial ambitions, but few have threatened each other over a country’s chosen name.

This is the unusual situation between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia who are at loggerheads on who can use the name Macedonia, or were, until a seemingly sensible compromise had been reached between the two countries premiers but could still be unravelled by nationalists in both countries crying out betrayal.

It has taken more than 25 years of fruitless discussions, divided the two nations, delayed Macedonia’s entry to the EU and NATO and has been a cause for protests. In a bold move, Greece and Macedonia, or at least their prime ministers Tsipras of Greece and Zaev of the Republic of Macedonia, have declared peace.

The United Nations had to mediate showing that the world body is not a toothless entity after all despite its detractors, and finally the two Balkan neighbours announced that they had agreed to end the row over what to call the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The tiny state will henceforth be known neither by its acronym, FYROM, nor simply as Macedonia, but as the Republic of North Macedonia – a geographical qualifier that ends any fear in Athens of territorial ambition against the neighbouring Greek province of the same name.

To placate his hardliner nationalist citizens, the Greek Premier also noted that this simple name change will also apply to Macedonia’s international and bilateral relations and domestically – in short , that the newly named country will not harbour future territorial ambitions on the Greek Macedonia.

The new name thus made a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and the country’s northern neighbour, so why are some still objecting? The reasons run deep and involve not just territorial aspirations but intangible rights.

For Tsipras and Zaev it has taken political courage to get this far but both have faced intense nationalist backlash and calls of high treason

Dr. Mohamed Ramady

At loggerheads

The two neighbours have been at loggerheads ever since the former republic seceded from Yugoslavia and declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia.

Fuelling fury in Athens, the new Slavic nation had laid claim to ancient Greek figures, not least the warrior king Alexander the Great. For the Greeks, this added insult to injury, in a country that is proud of its long cultural and Hellenic civilisation and the Greek Premier Tsipras had to convince his compatriots that the deal preserved the Greek Macedonian ethnic and cultural identity.

Both its language and people would continue to be known as Macedonian. To ensure public buy in and close the festering chapter, the agreement would be put to a popular vote in a Greek referendum later this year.

The apparent agreement has been greeted with relief by those that wished to ensure that the European countries presented a united front against perceived Russian aggression.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, was among the first to welcome what he described as a historic agreement and urged both sides to finalise it, and hopefully setting the newly named country on its path to full NATO membership.

Both Greece and the new Macedonia had been eager to conclude a deal to also gain the blessing of important countries like Germany and presented the solution in an EU summit in late June.

For both Tsipras and Zaev it has taken political courage to get this far but both premiers have faced intense nationalist backlash and calls of high treason, with Greece’s main opposition leader denouncing the deal, arguing that it amounted to Athens accepting the existence of a Macedonian language and nation.

Whatever obstructions it faces from both sides, the common sense solution is a shining example of how a peaceful resolution can take place to resolve long running disputes and to put behind one of the most bizarre diplomatic standoffs between countries.

If only such boldness and level headedness amongst political leaders can be brought to bear to resolve other territorial disputes amongst nations, whether in Kashmir, Palestine, or Ukraine. Alexander the Great must be smiling in his grave.
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Dr. Mohamed Ramady is an energy economist and geo political expert on the GCC and former Professor at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran , Saudi Arabia and co-author of ‘OPEC in a Post Shale world – where to next?’. His latest book is on ‘Saudi Aramco 2030: Post IPO challenges.’

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.