The ‘Macedonian Question’ has officially been answered, but is it resolved?

Ben Wray

Jenny Tsilivakou (@JTsilivakou) reports on the naming dispute between Greece and the neighbouring Republic of North Macedonia, officially resolved last year, but where the dynamics which made it such a hot political issue in both countries are still very much alive

FOLLOWING months of large opposition protests in both Greece and the neighbouring Republic of North Macedonia that mirrored populist and exclusive narratives, the long-standing name dispute between the two countries was officially resolved through the ratification of The Prespa Accord.

The landmark agreement was initially reached by the Greek and Macedonian administration on 12 June 2018. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia agreed to be named the Republic of North Macedonia, a salient step in resolving a decades-long collision between the Republic and its southern neighbour Greece that concerned Macedonia’s name, language and national identity. 

It was ratified on June 20 last year by the Parliament of the Republic of Macedonia, with 69 MPs voting in favour for it. Athens followed on 25 January 2019, with 153 votes in support in the 300-seat parliament. 


The conflict, which bears the name the ‘’Macedonian Question’’, has been prevalent in structuring the political scene in the southern Balkans from the late 19th century through the early 21st century. Fundamentally, the Macedonian Question involves Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia in a dispute over which state would be able to impose its own national identity on the religiously, ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous population of Macedonia.  After the Balkan Wars (1912–13), what was considered to be ‘’Macedonia’’ geographically as part of the Ottoman Empire was distributed among these three Balkan States. The northern segment became part of Serbia (later of the kingdom of Yugoslavia), the southern region was attached to Greece, and a small segment in the northeast became part of Bulgaria. 

“The “Macedonian Question” has been prevalent in structuring the political scene in the southern Balkans from the late 19th century through the early 21st century.”

After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and in accordance with public opinion as expressed in the referendum of 8 September 1991, one of its regions, Macedonia, declared its independence. A political and cultural war began between the two nation-states which lasted almost three decades, mainly associated with Greece’s opposition towards the use of the name “Macedonia” for the new Republic. 

Political and cultural conflict

The Greek government has pointed out that the use of the name “Macedonia” implies a territorial claim on its own northern province of Macedonia, since both countries share pieces of the geographical region under the same name. The Republic of North Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations as ‘’The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’’ (known as FYROM). However, the conflict between the two countries over territory and culture resulted in Greece erecting a barrier against the country’s junction to the European Union or NATO in 2008. According to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Greece’s stance breached international law.

Apart from the name dispute, Greece was also opposing the neighbouring country’s flag because it bears the image of the star of Vergina, which is widely recognised as the emblem of the empire of Alexander the Great (who lived between 356-323 B.C). Since this emblem is supposed to represent the national identity of the “Macedonians”, it challenges, according to Greece, its national tradition and cultural heritage. Essentially, both countries lay claim to the historical legacy of Alexander the Great’s empire.

The conflict’s association with this sort of irredentist claims over the control of symbols, traditions and glorious ancestors is the reason we could regard this war as a ‘’cultural’’ one. Alexander the Great has been a major trigger of controversy in numerous ways. The statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital is the Republic of North Macedonia’s most substantial claim yet to his heritage, though in recent years Skopje has also named its airport and biggest highway after him. These claims, according to professor Anna Triandafyllidou, are “supposed to represent the continuity and unity of the national community through history”.

“These political disagreements have eaten at the stability of the two countries’ governments.”

Now, with the official end of this dispute, the Republic of North Macedonia will be able to access NATO. Furthermore, the Prespa Accord also paves the way for its accession to the European Union.

The Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart Zoran Zaev welcomed the deal’s ratification as “historic”, claiming that it secures the region’s stability and mutual development and promises a peaceful and progressive future in Europe and the Balkans.

The agreement and the issue of NATO accession has been faced with great opposition. In Greece, the far-right Golden Dawn and its supporters have found a way to re-establish themselves as legitimate political actors, while Macedonia saw the rise of VMRO-DPMNE, a nationalist right-wing party. These political disagreements have eaten at the stability of the two countries’ governments. A referendum in the Republic of North Macedonia over the proposed constitutional changes under the Prespa Accord saw lower than expected turnout, prompting many to consider the result illegitimate. Meanwhile in Greece, the ruling party of SYRIZA has survived two no confidence votes and has experienced the resignation of its Defence Minister Panos Kammenos. Kammenos proceeded to pull his party, the far-right Independent Greeks, out of the government coalition, further damaging the foundations upon which SYRIZA’s rule depends. reported that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras holds the opposition party New Democracy accountable, claiming that they condoned death threats and personal attacks issued by ND cadres to MPs who planned to support the agreement. The Prime Minister said ‘’photos of women with their heads crushed were sent to deputy public order minister Katerina Papakosta”. He proceeded to demand that the leader of the opposition, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, condemn these actions.  

In Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE misruled the country until 2015, when opposition politicians leaked information about the government’s wiretapping of 20,000 people, including its own officials. The tapes proved that the Government controlled both the media and the judiciary over the course of nine years. A few months later Zoran Zaev, then head of the opposition party SDSM, publicised excerpts from the tapes during the course of 38 press conferences entitled “The Truth about Macedonia” but popularly known as the Bombi (Bombs). 

Is the dispute resolved?

While the deal’s approval elicited warm responses from European, US and NATO officials, it did not manage to quell all opposition. In an interview with Serbian paper Vecernje Novosti, Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised the agreement and said that it had been enforced from external factors against the will of the people. He also said that the agreement was an expression of the United Nations’ geopolitical interests that aimed to formally include the country into NATO. The region is a hotbed of international geopolitical competition, with the US, Russia and China all vying for influence. 

A comparable approach is adopted by the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and by the radical left in general. Even though they recognise that a country’s self-determination is a right that should be fully respected and prioritised, in accordance with the Prespa Accord, they cite the involvement of US and EU interests in the region as being in opposition to the radical, socialist and anti-imperialistic objectives of the left.

On the other side of the spectrum, as both states are experiencing an ongoing crisis, the far-right has seen this as an opportunity to invoke the national consciousness of the people, claiming to defend their stolen ‘national identity’. This is a tactic where the reformation of ones’ national identity conceals the implicit process of blaming the ‘others’ instead of oneself. From a political perspective, it acts as a scapegoat, attracting attention in another direction instead of the state institutions and the Government.

“Even though the ratification of the agreement seems to resolve a long-lasting dispute between the two states, the NATO accession debacle sets the foundations for a climate of national and international socio-political division and polarisation.”

Finally, Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbour, with its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and the second-biggest bank. These economic relations, regularly obscured in most analyses and proclamations by the two governments, highlight the unequal power dynamics that lie behind the deal. Moreover, according to the MHRMI 2008 Annual Report, the Greek government refuses to recognise the Macedonian minorities on its territory and is constantly abusing their rights. On July 5 2007, the Greek government passed a legislation entitled the “Concentration and Licensing of Media Enterprises and other Provisions” which sorely restrains minority access to the media. 

Even though the ratification of the agreement seems to resolve a long-lasting dispute between the two states, the NATO accession debacle sets the foundations for a climate of national and international socio-political division and polarisation. This is a dynamic issue, and it remains to be seen how the conflict will play out in the future.

Picture courtesy of blogdroed