A man casts his ballot for the referendum in Macedonia on changing the country's name in Skopje, Macedonia September 2018. 
Marko Djurica/REUTERS

What’s in a name? Enough to hold a referendum on it. Thus, some 1.8 million voters in the Republic of Macedonia were asked on Sunday, September 30, to cast a vote on their country’s name. The question on the ballot: “Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?” The accord in question is known as the Prespa Agreement, provisionally signed by the Greek and Macedonian prime ministers earlier this year. In it, Macedonia agrees to change its name to “the Republic of North Macedonia.” The change holds the potential to end a decades-long deadlock between the two countries over Macedonia’s name, language, and national identity—and also over competing interpretations of history. For Macedonia in particular, the stakes are high: resolving the dispute would allow it to join NATO and, further down the line, smooth the way for its accession to the European Union.

But with more than 97 percent of the votes counted, it looks as if the referendum did little to settle the matter. Roughly 94 percent of the votes were cast in favor of the Prespa Agreement (and thus in support of the name-change), but turnout stood at a dismal 37 percent. As such, the referendum is only consultative, not binding, and the wrangling over the country’s future continues.

Since Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia in late 1991, a majority of UN members have recognized it under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, a name largely unchanged since 1944. However, Greece objected to the name, arguing that it implied a territorial claim on its own northern province of Macedonia. The two countries reached an agreement to allow Macedonia to join international organizations using its official UN designation, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” Yet when Macedonia sought to join NATO under that name in 2008, Greece blocked its accession anyway. The International Court of Justice in the Hague ruled that Greece’s position breached international law, but Athens did not budge.

The name-change holds the potential to end a decades-long deadlock between the two countries over Macedonia’s name, language, national identity—and also over competing interpretations of history.

In Macedonia, the NATO accession debacle set off a sharp turn to the right, fueling the rise of VMRO-DPMNE, a right-wing nationalist party. VMRO-DPMNE misruled the country until 2015, when opposition politicians revealed the government’s wiretapping of 20,000 people, including its own officials. Over the course of several months, Zoran Zaev, then head of the opposition party SDSM, published excerpts from the tapes in a total of 38 press conferences, entitled “The Truth about Macedonia” but popularly known as the Bombi (Bombs). The recordings are on the Web, and they make the Watergate tapes look like polite conversation: they document a breathtaking level of corruption including election fraud, bribery, violations of property law and city planning, misuse of public funds, vengeful destruction of property, judicial corruption, the cover-up of an extra-judicial killing, and conspiracy to commit rape. The Bombi revelations led to dozens of individual court cases, but the trials have dragged on or stalled.

The Bombi also plunged the country into a political crisis. Popular outrage pushed the VMRO-DPMNE out of government and brought in the SDSM, whose willingness to engage in talks with Greece led to the Prespa Agreement. The VMRO-DPMNE, now the main opposition party, is intent on hobbling its rival and even called for a boycott of the name-change referendum. The poor turnout may reflect the fact that many Macedonians continue to depend on the VMRO-DPMNE’s patronage networks for their jobs, allowing the party to intimidate them into staying away from the polls. Because the referendum was nonbinding, the real decisions will be made in parliament, where the SDSM’s ruling coalition commands only a slender majority and cannot push the change through on its own. In order to get the required two-thirds majority to enshrine the name change in the constitution, the government will need ten votes from opposition MPs. Some observers speculate that the SDSM will trade a pardon for one of the chief suspects embroiled in the Bombi scandal for the necessary opposition votes. Others have suggested early parliamentary elections in November as a way to break the stalemate.

Protesters boycotting the referendum in Skopje, Macedonia September, 2018. 
Marko Djurica/REUTERS

To understand why the stakes are so high, a bit of linguistic history is in order here. The relationship between Ancient Macedonian and Ancient Greek is uncertain, owing to the paucity of textual evidence. What we refer to today as Modern Macedonian, however, is not a contemporary version of Ancient Macedonian, but an altogether separate South Slavic language whose ancestral speakers arrived in the Balkans from northeastern Europe approximately 1,500 years ago—about ten centuries after Ancient Macedonian had last been spoken in the region. (In a similar fashion, the French speak a Romance language with roots in Latin but call their language français, which is derived from Frank, a Germanic tribal name.)

By the late nineteenth century, Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria were attempting to expand north, south, and west, respectively, at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. All three claimed the geographic area called Macedonia, and in 1913, Greece succeeded in annexing the southern half of that region. Yet most of the people in the annexed territory spoke Macedonian, not Greek. To solidify its claim over what was now its province, Greece engaged in a systematic campaign to impose its own language at the expense of Macedonian and all other languages spoken there, including Aromanian and Albanian.

This history of aggression is part of what has driven Greek antagonism to assertions of Macedonian national and cultural identity in recent decades: Greek leaders have tended to view any claim to a distinct Macedonian nation with a distinct language as a threat to the territory they gained in 1913—a challenge to the national and territorial integrity of their country. They have therefore argued that the term “Macedonian” can refer only to the southern, Greek—controlled part of the region. Hardliners in the Republic of Macedonia have responded by mirroring this populist and exclusive narrative.

The Prespa Agreement offers a way out of this cycle of recriminations through genuine compromise. First, the Republic of Macedonia indeed only encompasses the northern part of the wider geographic region of Macedonia, as it has been defined for the past two centuries or so. Thus, the name change to “the Republic of North Macedonia” is geographically appropriate without in any way calling into question Greece’s modern-day borders.

Second, both sides agree that Macedonia’s official language is “the ‘Macedonian language,' as recognized by the Third UN Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, held in Athens in 1977.” The text produced by the conference in question mentions Macedonian a total of seven times, always as a language with its own Cyrillic alphabet. The Prespa Agreement thus reaffirms that Greece acknowledges Macedonian as a language in its own right.

I would not endorse anything that denied Macedonia legitimacy and recognition.

Third, Article 7, Paragraph 4 of the Prespa Agreement reads: “[Macedonia] notes that its official language, the Macedonian language, is within the group of South Slavic languages. The Parties note that the official language and otherattributes of [Macedonia] are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilization, history,culture and heritage of the northern region of [Greece].” This formulation attempts to mollify Greece in its claim that the use of the name “Macedonian” for a modern-day people and language implies descent from the Hellenic culture and language associated with the Ancient Macedonians. In the past, some Macedonian nationalists have dealt with this by claiming that Modern Macedonian really was descended from Ancient Macedonian and was therefore not a Slavic language. This is like saying that French is descended from Frankish, not from Latin. The Prespa Agreement puts an end to this linguistic folly and sets the record straight about the historical roots of Modern Macedonian. At the same time, it acknowledges that the same term—Macedonian—can have different meanings depending on time and place. It suggests, in essence, that there is more than one interpretation of history.

Nationalist voices in Macedonia continue to denounce the name change as an unacceptable concession to Greece and an assault on Macedonian national identity. Yet I have written about the distinctiveness of the Macedonian language and identity for more than 40 years and have at times come under physical attack for my views. I would, in short, not endorse anything that denied Macedonia recognition.

Aside from granting the Macedonian state the legitimacy that most of its neighbors have long enjoyed, there is a strong pragmatic case for laying the dispute to rest: it paves the way for Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU. As Jess Baily, the U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, puts it, this step will transform Albania, Bulgaria and Greece from "neighbors" into "allies" bound by treaty. NATO membership in particular could also shield Macedonia from future threats to its territorial integrity in a region still rife with ethnic tensions along many borders. The fact that both the right-wing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE and Russia opposed the referendum suggests that it was in Macedonia’s best interest to approve it.

A few weeks ago, I was at the market in Struga, a lakeside town in southwestern Macedonia. A couple selling ceramics expressed doubts about whether EU membership would benefit them. After all, they pointed out, joining the EU had often caused prices to rise while salaries stagnated. I answered that being in the EU might not benefit them now but would open up immense opportunities for future generations, including their children. They saw the point—as do many Macedonians.

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  • VICTOR A. FRIEDMAN is Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, University of Chicago and Research Professor at La Trobe University. He has written extensively on the linguistics and history of Macedonian.
  • More By Victor A. Friedman