Resolving the Macedonian Name Dispute: Prospect for Transformative Mutual Recognition

Greece and Macedonia need to distinguish between issues where they can agree to disagree and those where they need to agree.

This article argues that the current window of opportunity must be seized and provides a roadmap to resolving the Macedonian Name Dispute. It argues that the dispute needs to be addressed under the principles of freedom, responsibility and mutual recognition. In this spirit, the two sides need to distinguish between issues where they can agree to disagree and those where they need to agree; they need to agree to the goal for their negotiations; and they need to agree on a breakthrough and a roadmap. They also need to agree on a story, that Macedonia is a region shared between several states which must all abstain from “identity monopoly.” On this ground, a new permanent name can be agreed to and its adoption for international, not domestic purposes, can be linked to NATO membership and EU negotiations. Name options are mapped out through three levels of specificity, where the authors indicate what they believe to be the pros and cons of each option.

What should be the new name of the Republic of Macedonia, currently referred to internationally as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)? This issue has dogged not only its relations with Greece, but to some extent the stability of the Balkans since 1991. While the Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM) promotes the intuitive principle that countries ought to choose their own names, Greeks have legitimate concerns over identity, history and geopolitics.

We believe that there is today a window of opportunity to resolve this dispute. Both the Greek and Macedonian governments are committed to a solution and therefore, presumably, to selling at home the compromises that this may entail.

The new Macedonian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, has clearly distanced himself from what some have referred to as the “Kitsh patriotism” or “antiquarianism” of his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, who launched the monuments project Skopje 2014. For instance, since his election Zaev has indicated a willingness to accommodate Greek concerns by discussing changing the name of Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport. And the two foreign ministers, Mr Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov have met and will meet again to discuss the prospects for resolving the name dispute.

In order to grasp this opportunity, discussions on a deal should be grounded in the principles of freedom, responsibility and mutual recognition.

Freedom. While the deal needs to be respectful of historical and identity concerns, people must ultimately free themselves from these concerns. Historians should not try to be diplomats, and diplomats should not rewrite history to serve their purpose. We cannot remain prisoners of contested readings of history.

Responsibility. The leaders of the two countries, but also their publics, have a responsibility to the next generation, which must be freed from this burden. Windows of opportunity can close fast, and best intentions get derailed as parties lose sight of the prize. All compromises hurt, all create risks for politicians, especially if they have to do with identity issues. Moderates must ignore accusations of treason, and arrive at a deal for the sake of future generations.

Mutual Recognition. Ultimately, this is an exercise in mutually recognizing each other’s dignity and good faith. In order to be truly transformative, each side needs to recognize not only the other side’s identity stories, sovereignty concerns and territorial integrity fears, but also their recognition: I recognize and trust that you recognize my sovereignty.

If we accept these guiding principles, how do we operationalize them?

First, the two sides need to distinguish between issues where they can agree to disagree, and those where they need to agree.  The first type of issue will require continued dialogue, involving historical or cultural Commissions and the likes. They include respective interpretations of history, interpretations which of course are not monolithic on each side. Also in this basket are Greek fears of irredentism from the other side, not only regarding territorial ambitions but also what are considered offensive claims about the so called ‘Macedonian minority’ in Greece.

There are good reasons to believe that these concerns are unfounded (ICJ judgement of December 5, 2011). But such highly political symbolic negotiations are about addressing the other side’s grievances, not one’s own beliefs. And while concerns regarding irredentism can be addressed through a formal declaration in the agreement itself, they can only be truly dealt with over time through confidence building and joint initiatives on textbooks and the like.

This leaves much on which the two parties need to agree to today.

Second, the negotiating parties need to agree to the goal for their negotiations. Something like: the goal of these negotiations is to agree on a sound basis for future neighbourly relations through honest and sincere mutual recognition between our countries and our peoples.

Third, the upcoming negotiations need to produce both a breakthrough and a roadmap.

  1. The breakthrough has to do with the name dispute and the immediate commitments that go along with it. For example, agreement on a name will immediately allow for a start of EU negotiations and lifting the veto on membership of NATO – both to be conducted under the new permanent name.
  1. The roadmap has to do with the process by which the agreement will become embedded at the domestic and international level (see implementation below).


What then of the name?

Here the two parties will need to display creativity and courage in equal measure. We summarise in the graph below what we believe the range of options are and the principles behind them.

Mapping out the Macedonian Name Dispute

Level 1: The Narrative

The parties need to start with a clear story – that this is a shared region inherited from times preceding the “nation-state” era. This is hardly controversial. Concretely, “Macedonia” is not a brand name but a region with shifting boundaries over many centuries, a region which is today overlaid by three or four modern nation-states. This is not just a technical issue about separating a region (spanning many states) and a state.

The original conflict between the two countries can be summarised as two sides bent on “identity monopoly.” Calling the country only Macedonia was perceived by Greeks to deny them their own Macedonian identity. The Greek retort that there should not be ‘Macedonia’ in their northern neighbour’s name at all constitutes an equally blatant attempt to monopolise the Macedonian identity for Greece. “Macedonia” should not be monopolized as an identity marker by any of the states of that region.

The truth of the matter is that national identities do not descend from heaven or ascend from the earth. They are constructed, like all social phenomena.

So this story is about sharing a collective identity, albeit a fluid one, that must be shared both by individuals who can choose to call themselves whatever they want, and by their respective countries.

But here is the twist: as part of sharing the overall “Macedonian” identity, we must mutually recognise and respect our different (national) versions of what this identity might mean. So we must agree to disagree about the historical validity of this and that claim.

But by the same token, we need to agree on a name that will reflect such recognition for all sides. Greek politicians need a name which will allow them to retain the Greek stamp over the ancient past of Macedonia as a region for domestic purposes, regardless of whether or not the rest of humanity cares. Equally, their northern neighbours need to be reassured that Greece will stop branding them as only Serbs or Bulgarians. Let they be free whoever wants to proclaim: I am Macedonian too.


Level 2. PrincipleVariations on Macedonia +

From the general idea of “a shared region” many names follow. We see three generic categories:

  • The first is the current constitutional name of the country, eg The Republic of Macedonia, which arguably does not deny the right of others to the name in the same way as “The Republic of Ireland” does not claim to be the whole of the island of Ireland.  Proponents for leaving the name unchanged can thus argue that regions are regions and states are states. But Greeks on their side hear this as a technical and disingenuous argument which leaves the identity problem intact. They do not read “Republic of” (or the shorthand, R. Macedonia) as a qualifier on identity monopoly. After all, a great many countries around the world are “Republic of” which is invariably translated in the simple name. Who nowadays calls The French Republic anything else but France? To be sure, there is a state of Luxembourg and also a province of Luxembourg which is a part of Wallonia in Belgium. But if someone introduces herself as from Luxembourg, how many will guess that she might be from Belgium?! This is not a happy prospect for the Greek side. In other words, to retain the status quo is at best perceived on the Greek side as ‘shared identity with hierarchy’ and at worse as just a version of ‘identity monopoly’.
  • This leaves two other categories which both involve qualifying the name Macedonia through a composite name, or retaining “Republic of”, followed by a composite name.


Level 3. OptionsQualifiers to indicate distinct entities

Here again we see three categories, each privileging a certain approach to distinguishing between the region of Macedonia and the state in question and each approaching the challenge of “sharing identity” in a different way.

  • One qualifier is to leave “Republic of Macedonia” intact, as in Republic of Macedonia (Skopje), an option which was accepted by both sides at different points in time. This option has the advantage of constituting a simple and accurate amendment to the current name. But some on the Greek side fear that the qualifier “Skopje” will have the magic property of progressively disappearing over time, like “Republic” itself.  Could such concerns be addressed in the agreement? An alternative way of leaving “Republic of Macedonia” intact would be that of a qualifier in front eg “Northern Republic of Macedonia.” But this option can appear illogical and confusing since there is no “Southern Republic of Macedonia”.
  • The idea of a composite name as a qualifier, under any of its variants, has been supported officially by Greece and the UN since the mid-1990s. Indeed, Cyrus Vance, the first UN mediator, apparently generated scores of plausible variants, none of which were accepted in the end at that time. Indeed a composite name continues to be opposed by many people on both sides even though this would be the most obvious compromise. Specifically:
  • Slavic Macedonia has to do with a distinction based on ethnicity, Slavs vs Greeks, but runs into the immediate objection of the fate of non-Slav population or other ethnic communities in the country (mainly ethnic Albanians) and the problematic grounds for building a nation on ethnic rather than civic grounds. Extending the names to Slav-Albania Macedonia does not satisfy anyone either.
  • Since this story is about geography and territory, other proposals revolve around locating the Republic itself as Vardar, Upper, Northern, Central, or even European Macedonia. In a way, these are simple geographical descriptors which were at one point favoured by the Greek side in their conference of parties. Vardar (confusingly, also the Greek name for the river Axios) raises more problems than it solves, as significant parts of the current territory of the country were administrated by the Serbs as Vardarska Banovina before WWI, thus reminding ethnic Albanians of their unhappy status at the time. Northern and Upper (with different connotations) are perceived as a more neutral geographical variant so far, not offensive to either side, and inclusive of Albanians. To be sure, they can be disputed from a Bulgarian angle, where a more accurate descriptor would be Western. But Bulgarians have different concerns than the name anyway. Ironically, Central Macedonia has the advantage of  the qualifier “central”  which is notoriously ambiguous (think of central Europe which is truly eastern Europe) and has a positive connotation.  Some like European Macedonia to refer to the European perspective and orientation of the country, but then what would be the non-European Macedonia?
  • Alternatively, New or Nova Macedonia relies on chronology and the fact that the state was created either in 1945 as a state in Yugoslavia or in 1991 as an independent state following the breakup of Yugoslavia, but in any case after the other states which share what we refer to here as the region of Macedonia. Proponents – including us – argue that this simply underlines a factual point and implies a positive connotation, like New York or New Zealand. Aside from pointing out that this is already the name of a daily paper, opponents fear that this option will imply a break with the Antiquarian connection or the roots of the country in 9th century Slavic immigration. But by implying that Macedonia is a civic not an ethnic nation, New Macedonia would encapsulate a message in a name: this is a modern nation indeed looking to the future and not to the past. Finally, New Macedonia clearly states: Let us leave the fights over Alexandre the Great’s legacy behind us.
  • A third and further variation is for each of these to be preceded by the words Republic of, which has the advantage of familiarity with regards to the (domestically used) status quo name of Republic of Macedonia.


Implementation: Conditions for Success

Is one of these many variations acceptable to the parties?

We believe so, under three sets of conditions.

The first condition has to do with the story that comes along with it. That this is a name which is about reconciliation and sharing the region of Macedonia (level 1) and therefore for international consumption: it does not impinge upon people’s lives, or dictate how they should call themselves and their language. This is not about self definition, but about formal external definition. Greeks will have to accept that their northern neighbours call themselves ‘Macedonians’ too, just as these Macedonians will have to accept that Greeks must feel unthreatened by whatever permanent international name they agree to. The story should also be about what is actually changing, eg that this is not a change of name for the country but rather the adoption of a permanent international name to replace a provisional international name (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

The second set of conditions is that the benefits that will come along with the adoption of this new name will be tangible, significant, and immediately visible: speedy membership in NATO, the start of accession negotiations with the EU, access to EU funds and support that go along with it, and other cooperative ventures. Various plans have been produced over the years which put more or less emphasis on sequencing in order to compensate for the relative lack of trust between the two countries at this stage (Skopje views Athens as a powerful neighbour which can wield its veto over NATO and EU membership at any time; Athens fears that when it loses that leverage, Skopje can break any agreement on a name without consequences). One plan proposed by ESI suggests that the name change to be enshrined immediately in the constitution only be effective initially in international relations (wherever FYROM was used before), to eventually be entrenched in the Macedonian Constitution (and therefore used erga omnes) with a referendum to take place on the eve of the country’s accession to the EU – the question being: do you agree to enter the EU under this name? Such an approach has the advantage of allowing each side to retain leverage until the moment comes. The disadvantage is that the issue would not be settled fast. Indeed, EU accession might not be on the cards for more than a decade. Other options would entail a Macedonian referendum immediately after the agreement, asking whether Macedonian citizens agree to starting negotiations with the EU and entering NATO under this permanent name to be enshrined in the Constitution. This would be more risky but also clearer to the public.

Finally, a third set of conditions have to do with the kind of confidence building and dialogue over the issues where each side have for the moment agreed to disagree as mentioned at the outset. Clearly, fears of irredentism cannot be address by a name but must be addressed by a process. Every name option mentioned above (level 3) can be interpreted as leaving room for irredentism or as opening a space for further mutual dialogue: that is up to future initiatives and the real and true practice of mutual recognition.

In the end, this is a story not only of rapprochement but also reconciliation that calls for imaginative and broad-based exchanges between the two societies. On this last count, we would like to introduce one last symbolic suggestion in addition to the above scenario. Why not build a brand new Centre for Macedonian Exchanges on the point at the boundary between the three countries which, if one visits today, appears ominously as the middle of nowhere (near Tumba Peak in Belasica). There are around 160 tri-country points in the world. One of the most beautiful one is the shared Iguazu waterfalls at the intersection of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. Why not make our very special Balkan one a symbol of a regional identity that is shared and therefore jointly owned, a symbol of transnational reconciliation?

Veton Latifi is professor of International Relations at the South East European University, Tetovo, Republic of Macedonia. Kalypso Nicolaidis is an ECFR council member and professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford, UK. We would like to thank the participants of the SEESOX workshop on the Macedonian Name Dispute who met in Oxford on November 18th 2017 for an honest and thorough exchange of ideas. See

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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