Macedonia: a decades-long quarrel over a name


Paris (AFP)

The name chosen by the small European country of Macedonia at its independence 27 years ago has ever since been rejected by Greece, provoking an impassioned dispute.

For Greece the name is part of its own cultural heritage, a source of pride as that of an ancient province that was the core of Alexander the Great's empire more than 2,000 years ago.

The bitter row has stalled the efforts of the new nation to take its place in the European Union and other international institutions.

As the Greek and Macedonian foreign ministers meet in Vienna on Friday amid a new push for a solution, here is some background.

- Rejected from the start -

Macedonia proclaims its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 but its international recognition is immediately blocked by Greece because of the name.

Besides claiming it as part of its heritage, Greece also has a province bordering the new country that has the same name and fears Skopje may be harbouring territorial ambitions.

In 1992 more than a million Greeks join a rally in the northern city of Thessaloniki, once the most important city in ancient Macedonia, to proclaim "Macedonia is Greek".

- A country called FYROM -

It is only with the adoption of a provisional name -- the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) -- that the country is finally admitted into the United Nations in 1993.

Most other nations, including Russia and the United States, later recognise its constitutional title, the Republic of Macedonia.

- Greece clamps down -

In 1994 Greece pushes its point by imposing an economic embargo on Macedonia, including preventing it from using the port at Thessaloniki, its main trading post.

Greece also demands Macedonia drops from its flag the rayed sun of Vergina, which it claims is an ancient Greek symbol, as well as certain articles from its constitution.

- A thaw -

In September 1995 the neighbours sign in New York an accord opening the way for a normalisation of their trade and political ties, but leave hanging the name dispute.

The following month they open liaison offices in their respective capitals and a new Macedonian flag -- with the controversial sun replaced -- is raised for the first time at the United Nations.

- Greek vetoes -

Macedonia becomes a candidate for membership of the European Union in 2005 but Greece blocks the start of negotiations, which must be agreed unanimously.

In 2008 Macedonia presents itself as a candidate for membership of the NATO military alliance, under the provisional name, but is again met with a Greek veto.

Relations sink with the erection in Skopje in 2011 of a huge statue of Alexander the Great. Athens sees this as an attempt to appropriate one of its greatest military heroes.

- 'A solution is feasible' -

Soon after his election in June 2017, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev promises a new push to settle the dispute and relaunch the drive for EU and NATO membership.

There is optimism after mediation talks at the UN headquarters in January.

But tens of thousands of people demonstrate in Thessaloniki later that month to insist "Macedonia is Greek and this is not negotiable".

Zaev announces his country will drop Alexander the Great's name from that of its main international airport and a key highway.

Early February he says Macedonia will also include a geographic designation in a future name.

Suggestions that circulate include Upper Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia and Macedonia-Skopje.