“How would you feel if your neighbor told you your nation was an artificial construct?” Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov asked in a speech to the European Parliament in August. He had recently signed an agreement with his Greek counterpart that promised to end a decades-long political stalemate between the two over the use of the name “Macedonia,” putting eventual European Union and full NATO membership back on the table after years of Greek vetoes left Macedonia on the outside looking in. Macedonia would change its name, holding a referendum to bolster legitimacy for the eventual constitutional changes that would make it official.
When the first exit polls last Sunday indicated low turnout at the referendum, people started panicking. Many had believed that the prospect of EU membership, including trade and development benefits, was enough of a carrot to get Macedonians to vote in support of the name change. The country had shown tangible progress and reform on EU economic and political targets in the past couple of years—the naming issue was the last barrier before launching into EU accession negotiations. The turnout at day’s end was a disappointing 37 percent, far below the percentage that would enable Prime Minister Zoran Zaev easily to conjure a two-thirds majority from parliament, pointing to popular support.
This week looks likely to be the most difficult for the administration of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) since their landslide victory in the 2016 elections. They promised a final solution for the issue that had evaded all previous administrations, hanging like a heavy cloud over the growth prospects of the country. All the citizens needed to do was go out and vote. Sunday’s underwhelming response has undercut all that.
At the heart of this issue lies the question of nationhood, specifically, the difficulties faced by nations formed at the latter end of modern European history. Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, when modern Greece had existed in its current form for more than a century.* As such, Greece’s claim that Macedonia had usurped the name of its northern region, also named Macedonia, carried more weight internationally than it might otherwise have—historical disputes aside.
The current borders of Macedonia were first formalized while it was still part of the Yugoslav federation formed after the end of World War II. Greece and Yugoslavia enjoyed relatively stable relations, even though Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito spearheaded increased ethnic and language rights for the Macedonian entity within the federation. The post-World War II order saw many nations settle into their ethnic and national identities, and while Greece kept an eye on its northern neighbor, its worries were subdued as long as the “Slavic Macedonians” were part of a bigger nation, especially one whose socialist ideology encouraged the heterogenous nature of its population and tried to put a damper on any ethnic or religious outbursts.
The breakup of the socialist union in the early 90s was accompanied by a surge in nationalist sentiments. Macedonia’s first constitution claimed that it was “a nation for all Macedonians”—something Greece interpreted as a claim to both their territory and their Greek Macedonian population. In order to solve the issue, Macedonia has since had to refer to itself internationally as “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” or FYROM, a clunky name that did not entirely appease Greek concerns since it still included the word “Macedonia.” Since Greece was part of NATO and the EU, it could successfully veto Macedonia’s membership to these organizations over the years, granting only limited participation in NATO as part of the 90s-era Partnership for Peace between NATO and various European countries.
The FYROM name didn’t draw many fans within the country either, who felt they were being bullied by their southern neighbors and continued to refer to themselves as “Macedonians” and their country as the “Republic of Macedonia.” The dispute proved beneficial for corrupt politicians, who used the unresolved issue as a smokescreen for their illicit dealings and as an excuse for sluggish development. The former ruling party even launched an infrastructure project for the capital, titled “Skopje 2014,” whereby they built statues of “ancient Macedonian figures” such as Alexander the Great and Phillip of Macedon, claiming that this represented the nation’s unbroken historical continuity since antiquity.
Amid accusations that they had laundered money through these projects, the party was voted out of office in 2016. The victory of SDSM promised to usher in a period of rational and conciliatory political dealings, renaming various statues to reflect a spirit of Greek-Macedonian friendship. Yet the country’s name proved a sensitive point. How do you convince your electorate that what they call themselves isn’t important, in the wider perspective of economic and societal development? How do you tell them that their country arrived late to the nation-building party, when everyone else had already drawn the lines and chosen the titles?
Greece isn’t the only neighbor constricting the country’s nation-building process. There is also a challenge in the north: The majority of Macedonia’s population are Eastern Orthodox believers, the dominant Christian denomination in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. As a bishop heads the Orthodox Church of each certain country or nation, Macedonia split from the Serbian Orthodox Church in the 1960s while Macedonians were gaining significant rights within Yugoslavia. The new Macedonian church—a marker in this part of the world of nationhood—has not received support from the Serbian church, and its status continues to remain contested, very much like the dispute between the respective Ukrainian and the Russian Orthodox churches.
In Bulgaria, to the east, discussions continue to take place that dispute the existence of a separate Macedonian language. Nationalists in both countries continue to bring it up when looking to score points among their supporters, and the persistent reports that Macedonians continue to apply for Bulgarian passports in order to enjoy EU member benefits have not helped put the issue to bed.
Lastly, the issue of Macedonia’s 25 percent Albanian minority has been the source of both internal and external pressure on the nation. The Albanians, who speak a different language, and most of whom are Muslim, have continuously provided a foil for the nationalists in the country. Nationalist Albanian groups have also questioned the legitimacy of the Macedonian nation, claiming the western territories of the country belong to Albania. The clashes between the two ethnic groups culminated in 2001, when Albanians led an armed uprising against the security forces of the country as a result of what they saw as limited political and constitutional rights. Progressive Albanian forces have emerged over the years, and the Albanians showed strong support for SDSM in 2016.
While these issues will likely continue fuel academic debates for decades to come, the Macedonian government needs to solve the issue at hand so that the citizens who want to live normal lives are not held hostage to debates about history. This is what SDSM believed it was doing when it signed the June agreement with Greek representatives, which stipulated that Greece would stop blocking its accession to supranational organizations and Macedonia would call itself “North Macedonia,” both internationally and locally.
This is also why the government believed Macedonians would be eager to support agreement, and hedged their bets by announcing a referendum. Referendums are tricky, but they hoped a referendum question rather explicitly worded as “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” would help keep the people’s eyes on the prize. With the benefit of hindsight, both the decision to have a referendum at all and including the issue of EU and NATO membership look like a tactical misstep.
But Prime Minister Zaev and his party weren’t about to call this one a loss. For them, the 91 percent “yes” votes versus the 6 percent of those who voted against provide grounds for the government to push forward with the agreement in parliament. Zaev even toyed with the possibility of snap elections to replace sitting members of parliament should ratification in the Sobranie, Macedonia’s parliament, fail. The name-change is unlikely to gain a two-thirds majority in parliament, given the entrenched positions of the two main parties. President Ivanov, who comes from the opposing Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization—Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), said on Monday that the government should not go ahead with the change, the low turnout being a sign from “the silent majority” whose views were “underestimated”.
While SDSM prepare to take this issue to parliament and interpretations as to the low turnout appear on all sides, Macedonia’s name dispute continues to be one of the Balkan region’s many remarkable and thorny studies in modern nationhood. As nationalist and populist sentiments rise in the West, what government in what country would have an easy time convincing their voters to change the country’s name, consciously reducing their role in history or adding a geographical qualifier, no matter the benefits? A better agreement with Greece is unlikely to surface soon. If the ruling party manages to thread this needle, the compromise will be one of the most unlikely of the current era. But the Skopje government has their work cut out for them.
* This article originally misstated the year of Macedonian independence from Yugoslavia as 1993. We regret the error.