The Country That Shall Not Be Named!

It’s Olympics time once again! I absolutely love the Olympics, in case I hadn’t mentioned it on this blog before. My favorite winter events are the bobsled and luge, though I’m also a fan of snowboarding, curling, and speed skating. This year, however, as you watch the alpine skiing and cross country skiing events, you will see some athletes competing under a very unusual “country” name.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Yes, that is a real country, but no, that is not its name. It’s just what everyone is forced to call it thanks to some good old-fashioned Strange Politics.

Our story begins more than two millennia ago. Just north of ancient Greece, there was a kingdom called Macedon that was famous for its horses. The kingdom was heavily influenced by its Greek neighbors, and under its king Philip II it came to dominate Greece in the 4th century BC. However, the most famous Macedonian ruler by far was Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, who conquered the Persian Empire, subdued Egypt, and marched as far east as India. Alexander was one of the greatest military commanders of history, but he died before he could consolidate power. After he passed away, his generals split his empire among themselves. A century and a half later, the Romans conquered the area and created the province of Macedonia.

Roman Macedonia lasted a very, very long time – it continued to exist until the 7th century AD. What brought it to an end, though, is also the root of all the controversy. Slavic peoples from eastern Europe migrated south, invading and conquering most of the Balkans. These invaders became the ancestors of many of the ethnic groups that live in southeastern Europe today such as the Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians.

Centuries later, the entire region was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, and centuries after that, several countries broke away from Ottoman rule: Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro. In 1912, these four countries ganged up on the Ottomans to drive them out of Europe. They had made an agreement beforehand on how they would divide the land up between them, but over the course of the war, Greece and Serbia seized portions of Macedonia, a region that had been promised to Bulgaria. This prompted Bulgaria to declare war on its former allies, but that plan backfired, as Bulgaria ended up losing far more land and was forced to give up virtually all of Macedonia to the Serbs and Greeks.

The Greek-controlled region of Macedonia was particularly important to the Greeks, since it included many important historic sites tied to Alexander the Great. The area was originally inhabited by a mixture of Greeks, Slavic peoples, Turks, and others. However, after the Greek takeover, the population was thoroughly Hellenized, with non-Greeks either being expelled or forced to adopt Greek names, convert to the Greek Orthodox Church, and speak Greek. Today, the population of Greek Macedonia overwhelmingly identifies as Greek.

Meanwhile, Serbia merged with some of its neighbors in the aftermath of World War I, becoming Yugoslavia, a country that existed for most of the 20th century. The Yugoslav-controlled part of Macedonia was originally called Varnar Banovina, but under the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito, the region adopted the name Socialist Republic of Macedonia. The inhabitants of this region mostly belonged to a Slavic people that are closely related to ethnic Bulgarians, but have identified themselves as “Macedonian” since at least the late 19th century. The new name reflected the desire of Macedonian nationalists to be recognized as a legitimate ethnic group, and not just a subgroup of the Bulgarians, and to gain some political autonomy. However, Greece objected to the name, on the grounds that it was a ploy to try to invade and annex Greek Macedonia. The fact that Yugoslavia was supporting Communist rebels in Greece didn’t help that impression.

Then, in the 1990s, Yugoslavia broke up, and “Macedonia” gained its independence, and like all newly independent nations, it began to forge its own national identity. The Macedonian leadership decided to adopt symbols of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, such as the Vergina Sun that Alexander the Great used as his emblem. The airport serving the country’s capital of Skopje was named Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, and the city’s main sports stadium was named Philip II Arena. To Macedonians, this was just a way to honor their ancient history while instilling a sense of national pride.

To the Greeks, this was some rogue Bulgarians stealing their stuff.

Who’d have though someone who lived more than 2,000 years ago would cause so much controversy?

To the Greeks, ancient Macedon was a Greek kingdom, Alexander the Great was Greek, and the only legitimate “Macedonia” is the Greek region. They claim that for this ethnic group inhabiting the country to their north to call themselves “Macedonian” is cultural appropriation. Greece rejects the use of the name Macedonia for this country, and demands that the country change its name. And yes, Greece still claims that the name “obviously” represents a scheme to try to take over Greek Macedonia.

So what? Greece doesn’t like the name Macedonia chose for itself. Who cares?

Well, Greece is a member of the European Union, and Macedonia wants to join the European Union. For a country to join the EU, it must have the approval of all existing EU members. Thus, Greece has used this rule to repeatedly block Macedonia’s membership application. Also, Greece is a member of NATO, making it an ally of the United States. Nobody messes with an ally of the United States.

Thus, while Greece may be small potatoes on the global political scene, it has enough connections to convince not only the Olympics, but also the United Nations and many other international organizations to only let the country participate under the description “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. For decades now, the two countries have negotiated and argued over the name, with the Greeks refusing to let the northerners call themselves “Macedonians” and the Macedonians refusing to adopt any other name. There have been several proposed compromises over the years, including:

  • New Macedonia
  • Upper Macedonia
  • Slavo-Macedonia
  • Vardar Republic
  • Independent Republic of Macedonia
  • Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)
  • Republic of North Macedonia

Still, the two sides seem to be no closer to an agreement, so for now, the poor country is stuck with a name that no other country will dare say and a horribly unsatisfying “description” instead. Once again, politics is just… strange.