At least 140,000 Greeks took to the streets of Athens on February 4, protesting the use of Macedonia in any government proposals or settlements with the former Yugoslav republic. The rally seeks to end a deep-seeded, decades-long naming dispute. Many Greeks object to Macedonia’s name because of Greece’s own region called Macedonia, arguing that its neighbor’s use of the name implies a territorial claim on Greece’s Macedonia. The dispute dates back to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 and subsequent breakaway and establishment of the newly independent country, which joined the United Nations in 1993 as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Today, it is commonly known as Macedonia, although the Greeks reject this and seek clear differentiation. It is a sensitive case that evokes strong emotion from Greece, where they consider the meaning of Macedonia as the ancient kingdom ruled by Alexander the Great fundamental to their homeland and heritage. The Republic of Macedonia hasn’t been able to join the European Union or NATO because Greece opposes its name.
The issue has strained negotiations between Athens and Skopje, the Macedonian capital, but also internally, between Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza party and their small coalition ally, the right-wing Independent Greeks. The leader of the Independent Greeks, Panos Kammenos, has insisted that Macedonia not be used in any part of their neighbor’s name. The powerful Greek Orthodox church also backs this campaign.
Macedonia’s current prime minister, Zoran Zaev, and Prime Minister Tsipras are working on composite names as a compromise, which includes Upper Macedonia, New Macedonia, or Northern Macedonia. A recent poll, however, shows that 59 percent of Greeks reject even a composite name. Sunday’s protest demonstrated the extent of controversy around the subject. Protesters held banners that said “Hands off Macedonia!” and “Macedonia is Greece.” As highly acclaimed Greek composer and former minister Mikis Theodorakis told the protestors, “There is only one Macedonia. It was, is and will forever be Greek.”