Naming Macedonia: It'll be harder than it looks

What's in a name? Or … how can a small country on economic life support contribute to so much upset in the neighbourhood?

Greece has veto and says the country that calls itself Macedonia is usurping its name

Protesters light flares and wave flags marching through a street during an anti-government protest in Skopje, Macedonia, on May 16, 2016. That was while Nicola Gruevski was still in power. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

What's in a name? Or … how can a small country on economic life support contribute to so much upset in the neighbourhood?

The upset is in the Balkans and it revolves around Macedonia — or rather the country that would like to call itself Macedonia but can't, because the country next door has a veto.

Along with the next-door veto, the country also faces rampant corruption, nasty nationalism and even Russian meddling.

The country next door is Greece, the butt of a continued economic kicking from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. For almost a decade, the big boys have demanded austerity from Greece, causing economy misery for its citizens.

But Greece still has the power to cause pain to its smaller next-door neighbour. Greece is both a member of the European Union and of NATO.

For years the country that calls itself Macedonia has wanted to join both organizations but can't.

Alexander the Great

Greece says the country that calls itself Macedonia is usurping a name and a history that belongs to Greece. The history is that of Alexander the Great who, more than 300 years before the birth of Christ, marched out and conquered a great swath of the world. And did it before his death at 33.

Alexander was king of Macedon in what is now northern Greece. The Greeks say no upstart neighbour can muscle in on that name and their history.

The country that calls itself Macedonia has just two million people and was once a republic, akin to a province, of Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia broke up amid war and ethnic cleansing in the early 1990s, the republic of Macedonia was spared the worst of it.

But when it wanted to join the United Nations, Greece demanded it do so under a name acceptable to Athens.

And so it sits in the General Assembly as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The name was supposed to be provisional, but a quarter of century later, it's still being used at the UN.

Former Macedonia prime minister Nikola Gruevski and his wife Borkica leave after voting in Skopje during a general election on Dec. 11, 2016. The result was a hung parliament. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

FYROM sounds a bit like a cleaning fluid or a vacuum cleaner. It has little in it to inspire a patriotic flutter of the heart. And whatever the Greeks say, the local citizens call their country Macedonia.

In the late 1990s, Macedonia played the obedient new boy in the neighbourhood, taking in 250,000 refugees from neighbouring Kosovo when Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic undertook a last ethnic cleansing campaign.

The country also willingly became a staging ground for NATO troops as the alliance prepared to bomb and invade Serbia to end the cleansing. The campaign was short and successful. Within months, almost all the Kosovar refugees had surged back into their land.

All seemed in readiness for Macedonia to join the EU and NATO. Then in 2006, the country elected a right-wing nationalist government.

Furious veto

It laid loud and boisterous claim to the legacy of the King of Macedon. Under then-prime minister Nicola Gruevski, the government put up statues of Alexander and renamed highways, buildings and squares after the Macedonian conqueror.

The Greek government in Athens furiously vetoed Macedonia's applications to the EU and NATO. Under the organizations' rules, any existing member can blackball a new applicant.

It didn't help that Gruevski's government was becoming known inside the country and across Europe for large-scale corruption. Leaked tapes in 2015 contained damning conversations. In one, Gruevski appeared to be negotiating a $25 million kickback for a highway contract.

He dismissed the tapes as "manipulations."

Macedonia Social Democrat Leader Zoran Zaev appears at a press conference with members of his party in Skopje on April 28 after he was injured when protesters stormed the parliament building. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Commission was far more damning, calling Macedonia a "captive state" in the hands of Gruevski and his lieutenants.

Gruevski's government was also accused of enflaming ethnic tensions with the country's Albanian minority, who are almost a quarter of the population. A bloody confrontation in 2014 between police and ethnic Albanians left 22 people dead.

Adding to the state of uncertainty and confusion was a decade-long propaganda campaign directed by Russian intelligence services and recently revealed in more leaked documents. The goal was to isolate the countries of the Balkans — Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Montenegro — from the rest of Europe, and to keep them out of NATO.

It hasn't been very successful. Montenegro became NATO'S 29th member at the beginning of June.

In Macedonia, Gruevski was forced to call early elections last December. The result was a hung parliament. After weeks of negotiations, opposition leader Zoran Zaev cobbled together a working majority with the support of two ethnic Albanian parties with a handful of MPs.

Macedonia's new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev signs in at the Macedonian parliament building in Skopje on May 31. (Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images)

Gruevski simply refused to hand over power.

The murky tug of war dragged on for months. It burst into violence in April when a crowd of Gruevski supporters beat up Zaev and his candidate for parliamentary speaker, an ethnic Albanian. Zaev stumbled from the parliament with blood streaming from his head.

The outcry and the pressure from Europe was so great that the country's president finally agreed to call on Zaev to form a government in early June.

Almost immediately Zaev flew to Brussels, the scar on his forehead very prominent, to affirm his government's commitment to join the EU and to undertake a new push for membership in NATO.

Under indictment

It will take a lot of work. His country is burdened with corruption, a broken legal system and multi-billion-dollar debts — a gift of Gruevski's stewardship.

Gruevski himself is already under indictment by a special prosecutor for corruption, money laundering and abuse of power. He says he's innocent.

On June 13, the country's new foreign minister flew to Athens. The goal was to calm the Greeks and to search for an acceptable compromise name for the country calling itself Macedonia.

And perhaps to find somewhere to store all those statues of Alexander.

FYROM? Upper Macedonia? Lower…? Watch this space.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.