What’s in a name?

There’s a longstanding controversy over what to call the Balkan nation just north of Greece. It calls itself Macedonia. However, Greece, which also includes a chunk of what historically was called Macedonia, has objected to assigning that name to another country, and a Slavic one at that.

The dispute came to the fore following the breakup of Yugoslavia, of which “Macedonia” had been a part. An interim agreement in the mid-1990s came up with the official name “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” until a final resolution could be reached. But, as you can imagine, this was a formal name only.

Finally, in June of last year, the two nations reached a proposed final agreement on the naming issue. The nation in question would be called “the Republic of North Macedonia.” In exchange for its neighbor not calling itself just “Macedonia,” Greece agreed to drop its opposition to that country’s admission to NATO and the EU.

European and U.S. officials were pleased with the deal. For one thing, it was an instance of the peaceful and orderly resolution of nationalistic disputes.

More importantly, it would mean the integration of another Balkan state into “Europe” and the NATO defense umbrella.

Russia opposed the name-change deal for the same reason. Former Secretary of Defense Mattis accused the Russians of funding an influence campaign against it, and Greece expelled Russian diplomats for alleged bribery efforts designed to fuel Greek opposition.

In “Macedonia,” the agreement was the subject of a referendum, which occurred while I happened to be in Greece. The vast majority of those who voted favored the agreement, but turnout was less than 50 percent, meaning that the referendum did not carry. The government forged ahead, and this month parliament approved the deal, the required two-thirds parliamentary majority having narrowly been obtained.

In Greece, quite apart from any Russian influence, opposition to the agreement has been intense. Several ministers resigned from the government over the dispute, and the Greek prime minister barely survived a no-confidence vote this month.

There has been no referendum in Greece. The upcoming vote in the Greek parliament is expected to be close.

Many Greeks strenuously oppose attaching any label that includes “Macedonia” to a country populated primarily by Slavs. Yet a great many residents of the Macedonian part of Greece have little historical connection with the region. This part of Greece is heavily populated by the ancestors of folks who came from Asia Minor as part of a population swap with Turkey in the 1920s.

Politically, it made sense for Greek leaders to speak of a Macedonian people as they forged a common Greek identity in the context of mass migration into a relatively new nation (Greece gained independence in the 1820s and did not acquire its Macedonian region until almost 100 years later).

Similarly, it makes sense for leaders of “Macedonia” to use that name as they try to forge a national identity. And it makes sense to use it if one is interested in irredentist expansion of territory.

Outside of these purposes, I’m not sure that the concept of a Macedonian people holds together. And as a region, Macedonia encompasses parts of several countries in addition to Northern Macedonia and Greece.

I say this not as a critique, or “deconstruction,” of nationalism. Nationalism can be a fine thing and I think it has served modern Greece well more often than not.

However, it’s possible to take nationalism too far. The controversy over the name Macedonia arguably provides an example. I hope it will be resolved based on the agreement the two governments have reached.

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