ATHENS — As NATO meets today in Strasbourg, France to celebrate its 60th birthday — and to hash out divisions over U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan — one aspiring member, Macedonia, is left unhappily on the outside looking in.
Albania and Croatia officially joined the club Wednesday, extending the security organization’s reach into the formerly communist Balkans. But the accession of Macedonia was blocked last year by Greece due to a nearly two-decade-long dispute over the young country’s name.
It’s no mere linguistic quarrel — unresolved, the International Crisis Group recently warned, it “risks derailing the main strategy of both NATO and the EU (European Union) for stabilizing Macedonia.”
At issue is the name “Macedonia” and who has the right to claim the historic legacy of Alexander the Great, the 4th century B.C. military leader. The southernmost region of what was once Yugoslavia now calls itself the Republic of Macedonia, although under a compromise with Greece it is officially known in international institutions like the United Nations as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.
But Greece, which has its own region of Macedonia that is the site of Alexander’s birthplace, claims its Slavic neighbor is trying to steal its heritage — and even perhaps even part of its territory.
“Both sides claim a monopoly on the Macedonian identity,” said Evangelos Kofos, a Balkans expert at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and a native of the Greek region of Macedonia. “And issues of people’s identities certainly are explosive if they are not handled properly.”
At the Alexander the Great restaurant in the Athens neighborhood of Metaxourgeio, Alexander Vlachos dishes up bits of history to tourists along with Greek specialties like mousaka and dolmades. Like most of his compatriots, he sees Alexander as one of the great heroes of ancient Greek culture and said the Greek government was right to veto Macedonia’s entry into NATO.
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis would have had to face the wrath of voters if he hadn’t.
“He did the right thing. If Karamanlis had not used the veto, he would have had to go to the jungle of Brazil and hide,” Vlachos said.
“They’re going ahead trying to find a national identity,” Vlachos said of the country Greeks refer to as FYROM or by the name of its capital, Skopje. “I sympathize with them, but they can’t just go and steal another country’s identity.”
Alexander’s ancient Macedonia included parts of what are today Greece, Bulgaria and the country of Macedonia — although during his lifetime the military leader conquered territories as far away as India. Over the millennia, Macedonia has also been used to refer to areas in the region with vastly different boundaries.
The majority population of the modern country of Macedonia is Orthodox Christian and speaks a Slavic language, although the country also has a substantial Muslim, Albanian-speaking minority. The majority says that without the term “Macedonian,” they have no word to distinguish themselves from their neighbors — many of whom dispute their identity as a distinct people.
As Denko Maleski, the country’s first foreign minister explained, the name “Macedonia” is something that “holds people together.”
But the country isn’t just claiming the right to use the name Macedonia: Its politicians are actively working to build a national identity on the notion that the present-day residents of their nation are the direct descendents of ancient Macedonians.
“We come from Alexander the Great, that’s what’s different about us,” insisted Despina Pavleska, a 36-year-old woman who runs a stall in central Skopje selling postcards, books and tiny Macedonian national flags. “We can’t let another country tell us who we are.”
In recent years, the country’s leaders have begun stamping Alexander’s name on everything from the airport to the country’s main highway. Classical sculptures have been installed outside a government building in Skopje. And plans are now afoot for the construction of a giant statue of the ancient military leader in the capital’s main square.
Greeks see such moves as intentional provocations. And even some citizens of Macedonia, like Maleski, now think their government is going to far — erasing the country’s Slavic heritage in favor of a mythical classical past.
A United Nations-appointed negotiator, Matthew Nimitz, is trying to convince both sides to accept a composite name, such as North Macedonia or Independent Macedonia. But so far, no acceptable compromise has been found.
Until one is, Greece will likely continue to use its veto power to keep Macedonia out of the clubs it desperately wants to join.
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