110611-N-FV216-174: SHIROKILAN, Ukraine (June 11, 2011) - A Macedonian marine provides extra countermeasure support during a joint land component demonstration as part of exercise Sea Breeze 2011. Air, land and naval forces from Azerbaijan, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Moldova, Sweden, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States are participating in Sea Breeze, the largest multinational maritime exercise this year in the Black Sea, June 6-18, and is co-hosted by the Ukrainian and U.S. Navies. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caitlin Conroy/RELEASED)

The Language of Geopolitics: The Republic of North Macedonia

In recent weeks, the nation of Macedonia has officially changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia as part of a bid to end a longstanding naming dispute with its Greek and Bulgarian neighbours. While the change in naming convention may appear superficial, the implications are significant. In this piece, Eamon Driscoll examines how Skopje’s decision to add an adjective to the national name may result in subtle shifts to NATO, the EU, and power projection in the Balkans.

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On 25 January 2019, the Greek parliament ratified the Prespa agreement with the Republic of Macedonia, paving the way for the latter joining NATO and the European Union. The result of discussions between Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev, the Republic of Macedonia will now be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia. The naming dispute arose when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Macedonia was unable to join the United Nations until 1993, when UN Security Council Resolution 817 welcomed Macedonia under the rather cumbersome name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Up to this point, Greece has been blocking Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU on the basis of a perceived threat to Greece’s territorial integrity.

Macedonia regional names

Fig 1.0 – The wider Macedonia region against modern borders

The issue is that Macedonia is also the name of the Greek region immediately to the south of the FYROM. Greek concerns that Macedonia, using its name, might lay claim to the entire Macedonian region, which also includes part of neighbouring Bulgaria. Those concerns were tolerated when North Macedonia was a region of Yugoslavia, but came to a head after the turbulent breakup of that country. The Republic of Macedonia initially flew a red flag bearing the Vergina Sun, an historic symbol of the Argead dynasty, whose members included Alexander the Great. This was in stark contrast to the flag of the Greek region of Macedonia, which flies a dark blue flag bearing the same Vergina Sun. Though the flag was changed in 1995 in favor of the stylized sun still used today, acquiescing to Greek demands, the Skopje airport was later renamed in honour of Alexander the Great, which re-inflamed the naming dispute. The airport was renamed again in February 2018 to Skopje International Airport as part of efforts to improve relations with Greece, and in November 2018, flights resumed between the two countries.

The decision has not been met with universal acclaim. Though it has come with the support of numerous states recognising the name change and supporting North Macedonia’s further integration into the wider global community, with the notable exception of Russia, there has been substantial opposition to the change within both Greek and Macedonian domestic politics. While some in Macedonia feel that the name change inherently relegates their nation to merely a part of the region, in Greece the decision has led to a split in the ruling coalition. Panos Kammenos, defence minister and leader of the Independent Greeks party quit the government in protest, leading Tsipras to call for a vote of confidence in his government. The main criticism levelled by Kammenos is that any name containing the word “Macedonia” is an inherent threat to Greece’s territorial integrity. This analyst would note that the name “North Macedonia” implicitly suggests that there is more of Macedonia to be added to it, as in the case of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which might not necessarily make the Greek Macedonians feel safer. Irredentism could see a spike immediately following the name change among those dissatisfied with the change, encouraging their pursuit of Greater Macedonia. These feelings may be intensified currently, given the possible perception of Greece as a regional bully, first forcing a flag change, then a name change. Macedonian identity has become slightly more fragile since the Prespa agreement.

But conflict is extremely unlikely to happen. On the 28th of January 2019, NATO approved the accession profile for North Macedonia to join the military alliance. Greece has agreed to be the first to sign the document as a sign of the new era of positive relations between Athens and Skopje. North Macedonian participation in the military alliance is the primary reason for Russian opposition to the name change, as Russia sees its Cold War rival expanding further in the Balkans. As such, the threat exists that the Kremlin could begin or enhance measures to sow dissent in North Macedonia or even take more drastic steps, as it is alleged to have done in 2016 as Montenegro was preparing to join NATO. Given that the Macedonian referendum to change its name was boycotted by the opposition and failed to clear the 50% threshold to avoid a parliamentary vote, there could be repercussions for the present government. The first indications of the Macedonian mood will come in April 2019 when the country holds elections for the ceremonial post of President.

Concerns about the name could be overruled by the people if it turns out that the benefits of joining NATO and the EU are more tangible and significant than adding one adjective to their nation’s name. Zaev had met with European leaders in Luxembourg in June 2018 and assured Macedonians that the process of joining the EU would begin in 2019, ultimately leading to North Macedonian accession in 2025 as part of the next round of EU enlargement. Although the EU has its own internal issues, namely the migration crisis, the desire of North Macedonia to join remains undeterred. It may well accomplish its goal alongside its Balkan neighbours Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, and, most interestingly, Turkey.

Turkey is one of Macedonia’s closest allies. President Erdogan supported the name change and supports Macedonia’s bid for accession to NATO. Ankara and Skopje are close political and economic partners, bolstered in 2008 by a strategic partnership accord. While much of the world is focusing on Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman ambitions in Syria, Turkey has been quietly expanding its soft power in the Balkans, particularly in Macedonia, Albania, and Bosnia & Herzegovina. Pending Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU, Ankara may see its influence in both organisations increase. Given the sometimes testy relationship between Erdogan and European leaders, Macedonia may find itself being used as a pawn in this greater game, pulled between Ankara and Brussels.

Though on the face of it, changing Macedonia to North Macedonia is a superficial measure, the effects have the potential to be significant. As ever, only time will tell what benefits or detriments come to the Republic of North Macedonia, but in the short-term, opponents and proponents will find themselves staring at each other across the political abyss. Its membership in NATO and the EU is all but assured, pending formal discussions and negotiations, but North Macedonia remains one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, yet one which is quietly being closely watched and influenced by Brussels, Moscow, and Ankara. North Macedonia will soon shrink from the headlines, but the effect of adding one adjective may be long-lasting and unpredictable.

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Eamon Driscoll is a graduate of the University of Ilinois and postgraduate of Geopolitics, Territory and Security at King’s College, London. Eamon focuses on issues in Russia and the wider Commonwealth of Independent States, which has furnished him with extensive experience on the topic of breakaway states. His current academic focus is on the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and how its unique position has forced the region to develop differently from other Russian territories, especially in the shadow of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.

Photo credit: Cover image – U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Caitlin Conroy // Madeconia map – ГоранМирчевски