Thursday, Oct 18, 2018
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To Greece and Macedonia, what's in a name?


With wars, instability, and poverty in so much of the world, it would be easy to dismiss the Greek-Macedonian name dispute as pettiness.

But cultural slights have been the source of much conflict over the years, and in few places has this been as clear as the Balkans, where opportunist politicians whipped ethnic tensions into a series of wars that decimated the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Greece has a province called Macedonia. It was the birthplace of Alexander the Great, whose ancient empire, Macedon, stretched as far as India. Greece considers the use of Macedonia’s name cultural appropriation by its northern Slavic neighbor and a possible signal of territorial ambition.

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That may have been true in the days of Josip Broz Tito, the Yugoslav strongman who bestowed the name Macedonia on part of his country after World War II, but it certainly isn’t the case today. Macedonia, which declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, has a population of 2 million and poses no threat to much-bigger Greece. And Greece, its economy still fragile after exiting a five year financial bailout, has bigger worries than a bordering country’s name.

The issue simmered during the Cold War but erupted after Macedonia’s independence. Greece has blocked Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union pending resolution of the conflict, which has aroused nationalist sentiment on both sides.

Greek and Macedonian leaders had brokered a compromise — agreeing to changing the republic’s name to North Macedonia — but a Sept. 30 referendum on the issue in Macedonia failed when only about 37 percent of voters turned out. Now there’s the question of whether the Macedonian government will push through the change anyway.

If there can be North Korea and South Korea, Sudan and South Sudan, Ireland and Northern Ireland, why can’t a Greek province and an independent republic both have the name Macedonia? Instability in the region only benefits Russia, whose intelligence operatives, according to news reports, have been busy fomenting discord in both countries.

Macedonia should be able to keep its name, while publicly disavowing any designs on Greek culture or land. As Chris C. Parkas wrote in World Affairs more than 22 years ago, “There exist not one but two Macedonian identifies — Greek and Slav — with different histories.”

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