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Why Macedonia’s Government Agreed to Change the Country’s Name

The country will now be known as the Republic of North Macedonia, bringing an end to a decades-long conflict with Greece

Macedonia's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, left, speaks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras prior to meeting on the sidelines of EU and Western Balkan heads of state at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, Bulgaria, Thursday, May 17, 2018. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Upon the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia, one of the six constituent republics in the defunct federation, declared itself a new nation. Since that time, the Republic of Macedonia has been locked in an argument with its southern neighbor over its name. But this 27-year dispute between Macedonia and Greece may be coming to an end. As the BBC reports, the countries have reached a historic agreement that saw the prime ministers of both countries accept a new name for the Republic of Macedonia: the Republic of North Macedonia, or Severna Makedonija in Macedonian.

The discord between the two countries has its roots in the vast empire of Alexander the Great. As NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reported in February, the ancient conqueror is important to the nation-building mythologies of both the Republic of Macedonia and Greece.

Macedonia lies on territory that had been incorporated into Alexander’s empire in the 4th century B.C.E. Macedonia’s flag features the Sun of Vergina, a symbol associated with the royal house of ancient Macedonia.

But this claiming of Alexander the Great rankled Greece, which is home to a province called Macedonia, once the heart of the ancient Macedonian empire and Alexander the Great's birthplace.

Greece consequently accused the Republic of Macedonia—“tiny, impoverished and with virtually no military might,” Kakissis writes—of having territorial designs on the Greek province to the south. Tensions were certainly not alleviated when the Republic of Macedonia named the main airport in its capital city of Skopje after Alexander the Great. A key expressway was also named in honor of the ancient ruler.

The dispute between the two countries has had significant ramifications for Macedonia; according to Laurel Wamsley of NPR, the country has not been able to join NATO or the EU because Greece contested its name.

Under the new agreement, which was struck by Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev, Macedonia will now be known both domestically and internationally as the Republic of North Macedonia. Macedonia plans to amend its constitution to reflect the change.

The new agreement also stipulates that the people of North Macedonia “have no relation to ancient Greek civilization and their language is part of the Slavic family, unrelated to ancient Greek heritage,” the BBC explains.

“This achieves a clear distinction between Greek Macedonia and our northern neighbors,” Tsipras said in a televised address, according to the Telegraph.

Foreign ministers of both countries are expected to sign the deal this weekend. Once the agreement is ratified by Macedonia’s government, Greece will back Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and the EU. The issue will also be put to a voter referendum in Macedonia in the fall.

But Tsipras and Zaev could face obstacles in their efforts to implement the agreement. Opponents of a name-change deal have staged rallies in Greece and Macedonia over the past few months. And as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, politicians in both countries have spoken out against the new agreement. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, for example, has said that he will not sign the deal because it affords too many concessions to Greece. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece's main opposition leader, said the agreement “is in conflict with the majority of the Greek people,” who do not want their neighbors using the name Macedonia in any form.

Officials abroad, however, are praising Tsipras and Zaev for taking steps to end a decades-long conflict. European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted his “sincere congratulations” to the prime ministers on Tuesday.

“I am keeping my fingers crossed,” he added. “Thanks to you the impossible is becoming possible.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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