Macedonia changes its name: Why this matters to Greece

Macedonia changes its name: Why this matters to Greece

A country votes to rename itself. Why the name matters to Greece, and what it can bring Macedonia

This Word Means: Republic of North Macedonia
Supporters of the movement boycotting the deal with neighboring Greece to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia protest in front of the parliament building during parliamentary debates on constitutional amendments related to the name change, in Skopje, Macedonia (Reuters)

On Friday, parliamentarians of the Republic of Macedonia voted to change their country’s name to the “Republic of North Macedonia”. The move now awaits approval from Greece’s Parliament. A longstanding dispute between the two countries led to the move, because a region of Greece bordering the Macedonian republic is also called Macedonia. The change of name, if cleared by Athens, would pave the way for the small republic to enter NATO and the European Union.

Macedonia broke away from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and declared independence. It measures a little over 25,000 sq km, and has a population just over 2 million. Neighbouring Greece has objected to its name all through, suggesting it implied the Macedonian republic’s territorial aspirations over the northern region of Greece. For the Greeks, Macedonia is significant as the cradle of Alexander the Great’s empire. Insisting that the name apply only to the Greek region, the Greeks have been blocking the Macedonian republic’s entry to NATO and EU membership.

In June last year, the two countries reached an agreement. Macedonia said it would change its name, and Greece said it would drop its objection to the neighboring country’s entry into the EU and NATO if the changes are formally adopted. The name appears to have been chosen back then, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras having said that the neighbouring country would be Severna Makedonija or Republic of North Macedonia. On Friday, 81 of 120 Macedonian MPs voted in favour of the name change, securing the required 2/3rds majority. However, the Greek Parliament still needs to vote — and this will likely prove no easy task given how deeply divisive the issue remains there, a report in The New York Times observed. Before the vote in the Macedonian capital Skopje, a rift seemed to be growing over the issue between Prime Minister Tsipras and his right-wing coalition partner, Panos Kammenos, who has threatened to leave the government, The NYT report said.

NATO and European leaders, meanwhile, have welcomed the move. “NATO strongly supports the full implementation of the agreement, which is an important contribution to a stable and prosperous region,” The NYT quoted NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg as saying. Federica Mogherini, high representative of the European Union, and Johannes Hahn, who leads efforts to expand the bloc, issued a joint statement: “Political leaders and citizens alike have shown their determination to seize this unique and historic opportunity in solving one of the oldest disputes in the region.”