Consequent to the Allied victory in the World War II, the former Yugoslavia set up a federation of six republics with borders drawn along the ethnic and historical lines. The Republic of Macedonia was one of the six constituents, formed post the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in 1991.
Officially called the Republic of Macedonia, the country lies in the Balkan peninsula in southeast Europe. It is a landlocked country, bordering Kosovo to the northwest, Serbia to the north, Bulgaria to the east, Greece to the south and Albania to the west. The geography of the country features largely mountains, valleys and rivers. The capital city of Skopje, is the largest city accommodating a quarter of the nation’s 2.06 million inhabitants.
The Republic of Macedonia occupies two-thirds of the ancient geographical region of Macedonia, while the remaining region belongs to Greece and Bulgaria. These regions are called Vardar Macedonia, Aegean Macedonia and Pirin Macedonia respectively. At the dawn of independence, the Republic of Macedonia had two major challenges: Firstly, the right to attain citizenship by the large Albanian minority, marked as a crisis for the country. And secondly, the recognition by the international organizations and membership, this was the prime matter of concern for the country. These issues laid the backdrop of the prevalent national issues in the country.
The opposition by Greece over the name of the Republic of Macedonia, stating it asserts claims on its northern territory featuring the same name, led to a decade long dispute between the two nations. Immediately post the referendum on independence held by the republic in 1991, Greece protested the state’s choice of name. Athens, claimed that by calling itself Macedonia, it directly implied a ground for land acquisition and usurped the Greek history and its exclusive link to ancient Hellenistic period. These protests were exacerbated by the differences over the use of the Vergina Sun, the symbol and the flag of the Kingdom of Philip II of Macedon. In addition, the citizens of the Republic wanted to be called “citizens of the Republic of Macedonia.” This idea faced massive opposition from Athens, that insisted on “citizens of the Republic of Northern Macedonia.”
The name dispute was accompanied with agitation on both sides of the border, with people in Greece, taking it to the streets and demonstrating against the existing name. The citizens of the Republic also rallied, adding the qualifier ‘Northern’ to its country’s name. The European Union’s 1992 Lisbon Declaration banned Macedonia from entering the bloc, until the name had Macedonia in it. Greece also block the Republic from becoming a member state to the United Nations, which was turned down, as Macedonia became the 181st member, in 1993.
This was followed by a period of a Greek embargo on Macedonia, closing its ports to Macedonian ships and stopping them from exporting goods across Greek territory. An exception was made for food, medicine and fuel for hospitals, but the decision faced large international criticism. The economic loss to Macedonia pushed the country in a state of compromise. Thus in 1995, an interim accord was signed between the two nations, wherein Macedonia promised to change its flag within 30 days and carry out the required procedural changes. In return Greece promised to lift the embargo and give access to the ports, to retrieve normalcy between the two nations.
The unresolved dispute of name-changing still lurked in the background. Greece, further vetoed Macedonian entry into NATO, in 2008. The Republic responded to this by filing a suit in the International Court of Justice, in The Hague. Athens was also accused of violating the 1995 agreement, which had it pledge to not interfere with the FYROM’s membership and interaction with the international organizations.
Repeated attempts by United Nations and other countries, to establish peace in the region, have been in vain. Until recently, Macedonia experienced a change in the ruling party and the transition of power to the Social Democratic Union in coalition with Albanian parties in Skopje. The incumbent Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, campaigned and pledged to join NATO and European Union. Hence, the talks that were formerly on hold since 2014, gained momentum in June 2018. With both the nations signing to the Prespas Agreement, resulting in Macedonia accepting to change its name and adding the qualifier ‘Northern’ to it, while Greece withdrew its veto to NATO and EU membership.
Subsequently, the Republic of Macedonia held a referendum on September 30, 2018, over the changing of its name and expecting the voters to give their opinion in support of the motion. The question put before the voters was “Are you in favor of NATO and EU membership, and accepting the name agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece?”
While the poll turned out to be in favor of the motion, the voter turnout was exceptionally low. The referendum reflected the choice of the people but it was only consultative in nature. The government is not bound by the poll results. In order for the country to amend its constitution to accommodate the change in its name, the parliament is required to ratify by a majority of two-thirds of MPs.
The poll faced large criticism from both the countries, with opposition calling the referendum a compromise with the country’s identity and national interests. The Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov, also stated the event to be a ‘historical suicide.’