The Problem With “North Macedonia”

New Name, Same Old Delusions

A boy in front of a map showing parts of southeastern Europe in Idomeni, Greece, May 2016. Kostas Tsironis/REUTERS

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

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