In southeastern Europe, the name change game continues. A provisional agreement between Greece and Macedonia, under which Macedonia would change its official name to the Republic of North Macedonia, has tempers running high in both countries. In Skopje, parliamentary gridlock is threatening to sink the deal. In Athens, the controversy’s first causality is the Greek foreign minister, who resigned this week following a public cabinet spat over the name issue. In a recent article, “The Name’s Macedonia. North Macedonia,” I argued that despite these difficulties, the agreement between the two countries offered an unprecedented chance to put to rest a long-standing dispute over history, national identity, and language.

In “The Problem With North Macedonia,” Ioannis Kotoulas pushes back against my case for the agreement. Questioning my description of the dispute’s background, he writes that “our reading of history […] should not be based on factual inaccuracies.” This is sound advice, but Kotoulas fails to heed it himself.


Kotoulas begins by pointing out that Macedonia is “known internationally by its UN designation, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.” This is indeed Macedonia’s designation in many international contexts, but Kotoulas ignores the fact that 137 states recognize the country under its current constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

In his account of the links between the Ancient Greek and Ancient Macedonian languages, Kotoulas is simply mistaken. The exact relationship between the two languages is a matter of serious linguistic debate. Not a single sentence in Ancient Macedonian has survived the passage of time, so all that researchers have to go on are single words. Some of these words indicate that Ancient Macedonian did not undergo the sound changes common to all the Ancient Hellenic dialects. But ultimately, this fragmentary evidence is not enough to determine if Ancient Macedonian and Hellenic split from a common, pre-Hellenic source or derived from distinct Indo-European proto-languages. That is where the matter rests for serious linguists. Likewise, the claim that “Ancient Macedonian was a Greek dialect that bore a close resemblance to the dialects of Thessaly and of northwestern Greece” is false. It is true that by the end of the fourth century BCE, people living in the territory of Ancient Macedonia had stopped speaking Ancient Macedonian and shifted to Greek, just as the Gauls eventually shifted from their original Celtic dialect to Latin. Thus, a Greek dialect was spoken in Macedonia in late antiquity, but this dialect was not Ancient Macedonian any more than the Latin dialect that became French was a dialect of the Celtic language it had replaced.

The exact relationship between the Ancient Macedonian and Ancient Greek is a matter of serious linguistic debate.

When it comes to the history of cartography in the region, Kotoulas is wrong again. In his 1951 book Maps and Politics: A Review of the Ethnographic Cartography of Macedonia, the British geographer H. R. Wilkinson writes: “The opening of the nineteenth century still found western European scholars thinking in terms of Ptolemy and Strabo. Macedonia to them meant the Roman province framed by a natural boundary of mountains marching with geometrical precision on all sides—the Pindhus, the Scardus, the Rhodope.” From Wilkinson’s description, it is clear that cartographers up until the early nineteenth century drew Macedonia’s northern boundary along the Shar mountains northwest of Skopje—and not, as Kotoulas claims, south of the city. As I argued in my original article, it was only with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire that the modern-day dimensions of Macedonia began to take shape. At the time, Greek leaders successfully advanced their own view of what constituted “Macedonia,” allowing them, in 1913, to annex a significant territory where Greek was either a minority language or not spoken at all.

The 1913 census figures that Kotoulas cites to dispute this account refer to religious affiliation, not language, as was standard practice in the Ottoman empire. In this context, a Greek person meant an “Orthodox Christian under the authority of the Greek Patriarchate,” Bulgarian meant “Orthodox Christian under the authority of the Bulgarian Exarchate,” and Muslim, it should be obvious to anyone, is not a language. Adherents of all these confessions spoke various languages, so the census data offer us no real clues about the territory’s linguistic makeup. A more useful source would have been Bulgarian geographer Vasil Kanchov’s 1900 work “Macedonia: Ethnography and Statistics,” which distinguishes between various religious and linguistic identities in the region. In fact, the gradual shift from religion to language as the most important marker of identity posed a serious problem for Greek nationalists, who feared that it would bolster Serbian and Bulgarian claims over the annexed territory. In the years after 1913, they therefore set about erasing all languages from the territory except Greek.

From 1913 onward, Modern Macedonian was, for all intents and purposes, a forbidden language in Greece. The exception was a primer on the Macedonian language entitled “Abecedar,” first published in Athens in 1925, at a time when both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria considered Macedonian a variation of regional dialects. Ironically, then, the Greek government was the first to implicitly recognize Macedonian as a language in its own right.  

An enduring fiction among Greek and Bulgarian nationalists—and one taken up by Kotoulas—is that modern sentiments of Macedonian national identity are the creation of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito, who is said to have “invented” this identity in order to justify retaining control the territory after World War II. Tito’s Yugoslav regime certainly had its reasons to encourage a sense of Macedonian identity, but as historians such as Andrew Rossos have shown, Tito simply harnessed already existing Macedonian nationalist aspirations.

These aspirations, and the sense of a distinct Macedonian language, reach back as far as Gjorgji Pulevski’s “Dictionary of Three Languages,” published in Belgrade in 1875, which conceived of Macedonians as a people with its own language and territory. At that time even Greek modern national identity was still in flux: less than a century earlier, Greek speakers, under the influence of English and German classicists, had stopped calling themselves Romaioi, or Romans, and instead begun referring to themselves as Hellenes.


By 1991, most Macedonian speakers had given up on any hope of reuniting the territory partitioned at the beginning of the century and instead focused on creating a viable independent state. This was a considerable challenge, as the exit from Yugoslavia left Macedonia without any military forces or materiel of its own. And yet Greece claimed that the existence of this rather unimposing nation-state posed a serious threat to its territorial integrity.

Modern Macedonia is not without ethnic tensions; this is especially true with regard to the country’s Albanian population, as Kotoulas points out. Yet the Greek track record of dealing with ethnic diversity is far from spotless. Look no further than Panos Kammenos, Greece’s minister of defense, who earlier this year warned Albania’s government to stop bringing up the Çams, Albanian-speaking Muslims who were expelled from Greece in 1949. As for Macedonian speakers in Greece: they exist, even though the government in Athens likes to deny this.

Given Macedonia’s many ethnic minorities, Kotoulas writes, the country should adopt an ethnically neutral name such as South European Republic. But all the ethnicities and languages that he lists are also present in Greece. Roma can be found all over the country. There are still Albanian speakers in Greek Macedonia, in Central Greece, and in the Peloponnese. There are Vlachs in Epirus, Greek Macedonia, and Thessaly. Greek Thrace is home to large numbers of Pomaks—Muslims speaking a Slavic dialect—and Turks. By Kotoulas’ logic, Greece should cease to call itself the Hellenic Republic and instead become the Southern Southeast European Republic.


Kotoulas is right in pointing out that the success of the name change agreement is far from assured. But the blame for this situation lies in large part with populist far-right politicians on both sides who are stoking the flames of exclusivist nationalism. Take Panos Kammenos, the Greek defense minister of anti-Albanian fame. Kammenos heads the nationalist Independent Greeks party, a junior member of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government. But while Tsipras, his left-wing Syriza party, and their counterparts in Macedonia have expended considerable political capital trying to save the deal, Kammenos and his allies are doing their best to torpedo it.

It is no coincidence that the Greek right opposes a deal that would pave the way for Macedonia’s entry into the EU and NATO: these transnational organizations are a thorn in the side of nationalists all over the West. To be sure, Macedonia is a tiny country, and, on a global scale, Greece is not much bigger. But even microscopic viruses can wreak enough damage to destroy civilizations. Right-wing nationalism and populism are the viruses of our time. The Prespa Agreement would be a small but valiant attempt at vaccination.  

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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.
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