What will a name change mean for (North) Macedonia’s identity?

On 17 June 2018, Macedonian and Greek ministers signed an agreement aimed at resolving a long-lasting and intractable dispute over the name ‘Macedonia’. The former Yugoslav country is to be renamed ‘North Macedonia’, and in return Greece has agreed to drop its veto on Macedonia’s European Union and NATO membership.

This historic agreement should put an end to a 27-year dispute, which started back in 1991 when Macedonia gained independence from the disintegrating Yugoslavia. For its southern neighbour Greece, the name of the newly-founded country implied a claim on the northern Greek region of Macedonia. Greece also interpreted the name of the new nation as an attempt to the appropriate symbols and historical figures of Ancient Greece.

Ever since, the Republic of Macedonia has been referred to (internationally) as FYROM, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The name crisis has also prolonged Macedonia’s path to EU accession; the south-east European country has had EU candidate status since 2005, but membership progress has been halted until a resolution to the name issue was reached.

To many outsiders, to keep a name dispute running for so long at such a cost seems counter-productive. But for Macedonia, it was never just about the name – it’s a fundamental question about the country’s identity.

“The question of identity and shared culture were critical questions in this dispute,” says Ljubomir Frčkoski, a law professor at Saints Cyril and Methodius University of Skopje and a former Interior and Foreign Minister. The country’s borders fluctuated over the centuries, so the territory of today’s Macedonia successively belonged to the Roman and Byzantine empires, the medieval Serbian and Bulgarian empires followed by the Ottoman Empire, for nearly 500 years, up until the First Balkan War in 1912. Many historians and ethnographers classified the inhabitants of Macedonia as ethnic Bulgarians before that time, although there is evidence of 19th century immigrants to the United States stating their identity as ‘Macedonian’ on official immigration documents.

Frčkoski points out that Macedonia is a small nation that shares many elements of Bulgarian and Albanian cultures. The country itself is relatively young, since it was Tito’s Yugoslavia following the Second World War that created Macedonia within the borders as we know them today, promoting a Macedonian language and a Macedonian identity.

“We can live with the prefix ‘North’ in the name of the country. It was never just about that name only,” explains Frčkoski. “The name is also linked to the concept of our identity, of who we are. […]it is something of a matter of ‘survival’ when you are a small Slavic nation of only two million people that can easily be ‘assimilated’ by your bigger neighbours,” he explains.

Skopje 2014 and the ‘antiquisation’ process

In a bid to affirm its national identity, in recent years Macedonia turned to antiquity and the idea that the country’s forebearers descended from Alexander the Great, the conqueror-king of Macedonia who reigned from 336 to 323 BC. The country’s main highway and airport were both named after the lionised warrior that Macedonian nationalists see as their own – the issue is, so do the Greeks.

Macedonia’s attempt at what became known as ‘antiquisation’ was best embodied in the Skopje 2014 urban renewal project. The ambitious building spree, which began in 2010, changed the face of the Macedonian capital, and within a year Skopje’s city centre became an open-air museum dotted with statues, bridges and facades remodelled in a classical and baroque style.

Although, on the paper, the project aimed to give a boost to the city’s tourism industry, it was mainly perceived as an attempt to change the city’s, and indeed, the country’s cultural legacy.

The crown jewel of the city’s new monument park is a statue known officially as ‘The Warrior on a Horse’, a 22 metre-horseman surrounded by lions that is presumed to be Alexander the Great. “This is our way of saying [up yours] to them [the Greeks],” said Antonio Milososki, Macedonia’s former foreign minister, to the Guardian back in 2011.

The identity-building narrative as reflected in the Skopje 2014 project disregarded important building blocks of Macedonian history, such as the Ilinden Uprising, a revolt against the Ottoman Empire that took place in the small town of Kruševo and resulted in the creation of the short-lived Kruševo Republic (which eventually became a symbol of the Republic of Macedonia’s national liberation).

This state-driven Macedonia identity also downplayed the country’s socialist heritage. In an academic paper on the Skopje 2014 project, Maja Muhić, an associate professor at the South East European University in Tetovo, Macedonia, quotes a survey conducted in 2013. When asked about the historical period that best defines Macedonian national identity, 31 per cent of respondents said the revolutionary period while 30 per cent said the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. “According to the results of the poll only 5.8 per cent of the general population viewed antiquity as an historically and culturally defining period for Macedonia,” says Muhić.

That said, Muhić, who co-authored Redefining National Identity in Macedonia. Analyzing Competing Origins Myths and Interpretations through Hegemonic Representations, tells Equal Times that: “I don’t think the project is to be seen as an act of spite towards our southern neighbour. The project served more as a tool for then ruling party, VMRO-DPMNE [The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity], to affirm their historical role in [forging] the country’s identity,” she suggests.

The politicalisation of Macedonian identity

The right-wing VMRO-DPMNE was the mastermind and major investor behind Skopje 2014. In 2015, the opposition aired wiretapped conversations stating that the party’s leader and former prime minister Nikola Gruevski was the “hidden hand” behind the capital’s makeover, as reported by Balkan Insight.

It is important to note that Skopje 2014 also neglected the country’s Ottoman heritage as well as the influence of Albanian culture. Ethnic Albanians, who make up about one-quarter of the country’s population, were presented under VMRO-DPMNE rule as a threat to Macedonia, with aspirations to create a Greater Albania.

“In small nations, nationalist groups find their niche in this particular ideology of ‘defending the nation’ from the inside and the outside. In Macedonia, that happened via rhetoric about how Bulgarians don’t like us, the international community doesn’t particularly like us either, and how Macedonia’s Albanian minority is conspiring from the inside against us[...]. The right-wing party finds its place as a party that is defending us – the only party defending us,” says Frčkoski.

Gruevski’s party stayed in power for 11 years, and his quasi-authoritarian rule started to crumble only after a 2015 scandal revealed that the ruling party ordered the wiretapping of some 20,000 citizens, including journalists, civilians and political opponents. It was also revealed that Gruevski, along with many highly-ranked officials from his party, might have been involved in abuses of power, embezzlement and fraud. The scandal led to month-long protests and, eventually, to a peaceful transfer of power to the new centre-left Social Democrat government.

As for Skopje 2014’s legacy, the project is most likely to be remembered as a cautionary tale of corruption and embezzlement, rather than a successful identity-building project, according to Muhić.

“When it comes to the national identity dimension, it might change in a couple of generations; it depends on what young people will be taught in schools and how they are going to refer to the monuments. But considering the deal with Greece, according to which all the monuments referring to ancient history need to state their connection to Hellenic culture, it is hard to project what the future identity development potential [of Skopje 2014] will be,” she says.

The EU “bait”

The fall of the Gruevski government has had a significant impact on the perception of the deadlock surrounding the name issue in Macedonia, according to Marko Trosanovski, president of Skopje-based NGO Institute for Democracy (Societas Civilis). According to a February 2018 poll conducted by the institute, the majority of Macedonian citizens support a compromise solution to the name dispute.

“This is the fourth time our NGO has conducted such a survey, and it was the first time that we could see a major shift in people’s perception of the deal,” explains Trosanovski. While in a previous survey, conducted in 2015, some 40 per cent of Macedonians polled were willing to accept a compromise agreement, in the most recent poll that percentage increased to over 60 per cent.

“The past government had a Euro-sceptic narrative: they were calling the EU ‘a union of hypocrites’, saying we wouldn’t get anything from EU membership.” With the new government, “that has changed,” says Trosanovski.

Even though public approval for the EU and NATO membership has decreased over the years, it still hovers “at around 70 per cent,” he says. The prospect of joining the EU – and enjoying the social stability and better standard of life that membership promises – could therefore be very persuasive in convincing Macedonians to approve the name deal.

Current Prime Minister Zoran Zaev certainly hopes so. The agreement with Greece still needs to be approved at a referendum scheduled for 30 September, and Zaev announced that he would step down if the name change is vetoed by the people. He claims, however, to be confident about its success. “I expect huge support and a serious percentage…in line with the percentage of people who said they want to join the European Union and NATO,” Zaev recently said in an interview.