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The Politics of Nomenclature: Macedonia Faces Referendum Over Historic Name Change

Following talks earlier this June between Greece and Macedonia over a decided Macedonian name change, the historic agreement will be brought to referendum in the coming week on September 30th. The culmination of these deliberations highlights the potential end to a decades-long dispute between the two nations, and signals a positive direction for Macedonia’s inclusion into larger European affairs. However, the slated name change has unraveled deep cultural divides and magnified political rifts both within, and between, the two countries.

The issue of Macedonia’s identity stems back to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. From the outset, Greece discounted Macedonia’s declaration of independence under the name of the Republic of Macedonia, and disavowed its initial flag. At the time, these tribulations escalated into Greek imposition of economic embargoes and extended resistance to Macedonia’s ascension into NATO. The issue centers on the identification of Macedonia with the historic northern Greek region of Macedonia, the home and birthplace of the famed leader, Alexander the Great. Macedonia’s alignment with the region, even if solely by name, causes cultural unrest and territorial uncertainty in the neighboring Greeks who fear usurpation of their historical ties.

  Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Credit: EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Credit: EPA-EFE/VASSIL DONEV

Recently, however, these tensions have been alleviated under the new leadership of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his newfound partnership with Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. In June of this year, the two leaders were able to come to a mutual agreement over a proposed name change for the Macedonian state. The new name is stipulated to be, The Republic of Northern Macedonia, in the hopes that, with the regional conditioner, the country will be aptly distinguished from Greece’s historic territorial claims. While promising, the agreement has sparked widespread dissent across both nations and faces a dubious public referendum to be held in the coming days in Macedonia.

  Macedonians rally in the capital of Skopje. Credit: EPA/NAKE BATEV

Macedonians rally in the capital of Skopje. Credit: EPA/NAKE BATEV

Internal opposition protests have arisen in response to the proposed name change, as political challengers see the re-naming as a relinquishment of cultural identity rights on both ends. Moreover, in the months passed since the initial agreement, survey polls have found that roughly only 57% of Macedonians are presently in favor of the proposed change.  Additionally, it is purported that neighboring Russians have been meddling in regional public opinion to favor the retention of Macedonia’s current name. While not explicit how Macedonia’s name change might affect the Kremlin, NATO has pledged that an invitation for Macedonia to join the alliance is forthcoming if the nation successfully resolves its ongoing disagreements with Greece. Macedonia’s formal ascension to NATO would pose as another source of regional opposition and influence against Russia’s larger ambitions.

The outcome of these negotiations thus rests upon the outcome of the September 30th referendum results. While dissent remains against the proposed name change, Macedonia has come a long way in regards to progressive reform and inclusive democratic practices in its government. In efforts to sustain its moves for stability both at home and regionally, this referendum poses the chance to settle a decades-long dispute that stands in the way of Macedonia’s European integration and its larger opportunities for international cooperation.