This summer, Greece and Macedonia—known internationally by its UN designation, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM—made headlines with an unusual announcement: under a provisional deal known as the Prespa Agreement, FYROM would change its name to “the Republic of North Macedonia.” Proponents of the deal argued that adding the qualifier “North” would dispel Greek fears that the word “Macedonia” implied a territorial claim on Greece’s own homonymous region, thus settling a long-standing dispute. But the identity dispute between the two countries is far from over: after a recent referendum on the matter in FYROM failed owing to low voter turnout, the country’s leaders are struggling to scrape together enough votes to push the name change through parliament. Things do not look brighter in Greece, where parliament has yet to ratify the deal and 72 percent of the public disapproves of the agreement. It is unlikely that both governments will survive and see the agreement through.

In his recent Foreign Affairs article (“The Name’s Macedonia. North Macedonia”), Victor Friedman argues that the Greek and Macedonian governments should press ahead with the deal, popular opposition notwithstanding: the agreement is the region’s best bet for stability, providing FYROM with recognition and legitimacy without infringing on Greece’s sense of territorial unity, and could pave the way for FYROM’s accession to the European Union and NATO. Most important, Friedman writes, the agreement “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.” Our reading of history, however, should not be based on factual inaccuracies, and this is where Friedman’s argument falls short at several turns.

Let’s start with the issue of language. Friedman rightly points out that Modern Macedonian is wholly unrelated to Ancient Macedonian and that any suggestion to the contrary is a “linguistic folly.” Yet Friedman’s account could have done greater justice to the well-established links between Ancient Macedonian and Ancient Greek. After all, Ancient Macedonian was a Greek dialect that bore a close resemblance to the dialects of Thessaly and of northwestern Greece. The Greek identity of ancient Macedonians is undeniable in historiography. Friedman skirts this fact, merely writing that “the relationship between Ancient Macedonian and Ancient Greek is uncertain.”

There is more than one interpretation of history, but our reading of history should not be based on factual inaccuracies.

Friedman also claims that Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia all had their eyes set on “the geographic area called Macedonia” during the gradual dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Yet the notion of a “geographic Macedonia” beyond the borders of modern-day Greece was a novelty at the time, introduced by cartographers in the late nineteenth century. Under Ottoman rule from the fifteenth century to 1912, there never existed an administrative entity named Macedonia, and nearly all European maps published between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries place the northern boundaries of Macedonia south of Skopje, the modern capital of FYROM. Prior to the nineteenth century, in short, the geographic region of Macedonia largely overlapped with what is today the province of Macedonia within Greece.

According to Friedman, when Greece’s borders shifted northward after the Balkan Wars of 1912–13, “most of the people in the annexed territory spoke Macedonian, not Greek.” This is simply not the case. A 1926 report by the League of Nations’ Refugee Settlement Commission listed the region’s population in 1913 as 42.6 percent Greek, 39.4 percent Muslim, 9.9 percent Bulgarian, and 8.1 percent “other.” According to a Greek statistical survey carried out in August 1915, the total number of Slavic speakers in the region barely exceeded 200,000 people. In other words, the region appears to have had a plurality of Greek speakers before and in the years immediately after its annexation to Greece.

The territory north of the Greek border was initially incorporated by Serbia and Bulgaria. At the end of World War I in 1918, much of it became part of the newly created state of Yugoslavia. Although explicitly conceived as a multinational state, Yugoslavia initially made no official reference to either “Macedonians” as a separate ethnic group or “Macedonia” as a distinct geographic division. Instead, the region around Skopje was named Vardar Province, after a local river. Across the border in Bulgaria, the term “Macedonians” did not designate a distinct ethnic group either; it instead denoted Bulgarians living in the southwestern Bulgarian province of Pirin Macedonia.

It was only after World War II, when Yugoslavia was reconstituted as a communist state under Josip Broz Tito, that the Yugoslav authorities began promoting the view that the Slavic-speaking population around Skopje formed a distinct ethnic group, calling them Macedonians. The state’s goal was to weaken the region’s historically close ties to Bulgaria. The idea of a distinct Macedonian ethnicity outside Greece’s modern-day borders is thus largely the brainchild of Yugoslavia’s communist regime, conceived for entirely strategic reasons.              

This new Macedonian identity outlasted its creators. In 1991, as Yugoslavia was buckling under the weight of increasing ethnic tensions, the Vardar region declared its independence as “the Republic of Macedonia.” The new state retreated to an imaginary precommunist past, in which a united Macedonian nation was broken up by neighboring states, including Greece. In the decade that followed, Macedonian leaders often resorted to hostile anti-Greek propaganda. For instance, they issued maps suggesting that a “unified” Macedonia would require the secession of northern Greek provinces. To this day, the country’s constitution contains references to “persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighboring countries.”

It is not implausible that FYROM will evolve into a confederate entity split along Slavic/Albanian lines in the coming decades.

The notion of a single Macedonian identity also excludes the significant minority of non-Slavic Albanian speakers within FYROM, which grew from 13 percent in 1961 to 25.2 percent in 2002. Some estimates now put it at above 30 percent, but state authorities have not conducted another population census since 2002, possibly so as not to acknowledge the reality of a growing Albanian-speaking population. It is not implausible that FYROM will evolve into a confederate entity split along Slavic/Albanian lines in the coming decades.

NATO membership will not magically erase FYROM’s problems with its neighbors.

Against this background of division, the country would do well to reinvent itself as a multiethnic state with a neutral name, such as “South European Republic” or “Vardar Republic,” that could accommodate all of its ethnic groups, including Slavic and Albanian speakers, Roma, Vlachs, and Turks. The label “Macedonian,” which is claimed by the country’s Slavic-speaking element, cannot act as this unifying glue. Sadly, the Prespa Agreement in some ways reinforces the notion of a dominant Macedonian identity within FYROM: according to the deal, the nationality of the citizens of North Macedonia will be “Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia”—a paradox in itself, as the nationality does not correspond to the proposed name of the state.

Victor Friedman’s case for the Prespa Agreement is partly a pragmatic one: the deal will allow FYROM’s accession to NATO, which Friedman claims will increase regional stability. Yet the idea that NATO membership will magically erase FYROM’s problems with neighbors such as Albania and Bulgaria seems far-fetched. Greece and Turkey joined NATO back in 1952, but this has done little to eradicate tensions between the two. If anything, FYROM’s entry into NATO would simply saddle the alliance with more interstate tensions.

Nor would FYROM offer any tangible benefits for the alliance. NATO has already secured its eastern flank against Russia with the inclusion of Romania and Bulgaria. Greece and Turkey form its southern flank. Adding FYROM—a landlocked state roughly the size of New Jersey—would not exactly shift the balance of power.

What, then, is a more sensible path forward? A realistic strategy for FYROM, a state dependent on the Greek port of Thessaloniki for energy and goods imports, would be to improve its strained relations with Greece, which despite its recent woes continues to be the richest and most powerful state of the greater European Balkan region, a member of both NATO and the EU. The future of FYROM lies in a special relationship with Greece and the European Union, perhaps modeled on the EU’s close economic ties with Turkey. Any long-term progress, however, depends on the ability of FYROM’s ruling elites to free their country and its multiethnic population from the state-imposed identities of the Cold War period.

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  • Dr. IOANNIS KOTOULAS is a Senior Researcher in Geopolitics at the University of Athens, Greece. His latest book is Historical Geopolitics of Contemporary Greece (Athens: Leimon, forthcoming in 2018). 
  • More By Ioannis Kotoulas