NATO gained its 30th member this week as North Macedonia, a landlocked country of 2 million people in south-eastern Europe, was admitted into the alliance. It is an important step for one of the continent’s poorest nations and a boost to prospective EU membership, the country having applied back in 2004, with petitions for formal talks rebuffed as recently as November 2019.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks on the path to North Macedonia’s political and diplomatic advancement is in its name. What’s in a name? A lot in this case, just ask the Greeks.
There are multiple ways to define the region known as ‘Macedonia’, and it has many historical antecedents. It holds a special place in the Greek national consciousness in particular, being a powerful kingdom during the Classical period of Antiquity and a forerunner to the dominant Hellenistic state.
Greece’s northernmost provinces are still administered as ‘Macedonia’ and herein lies a problem that until recently seemed unsolvable. How could a country detached from the body politic of modern Greece carry the Macedonian name? Well, quite reasonably it would seem to this writer.
North Macedonia – i.e. the country that has just received NATO membership and whose capital is Skopje – was incorporated into that ancient powerful kingdom of Macedon around 356BC. Its land was subsequently a staging post as Roman forces launched south-eastwards during the Second Punic War, where Philip V famously held back the invading troops before the Romans turned the tide during the 2nd century BC, making Macedonia its first province.
Slavic tribes arrived in the region around the 6th century and by the 10th century had been Christianised. North Macedonia fell under Bulgarian influence in the 12th century before it was swallowed up by the rampaging Ottoman Empire in 1371, in whose grasp it would remain until the Balkan Wars preceding World War One. At this point the country became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, what would later be Yugoslavia.
North Macedonia was one of the poorest constituent parts of Yugoslavia, its destitute rural populace not helped by the triumph of communism post-World War Two. In 1991 the territory declared independence after Croatia and Slovenia left the Yugoslav federation and it was largely freed the horrors of the wars that tore apart the Balkans over the next decade.
In order to join the global pantheon of nations, however, Skopje was forced to adopt the rather clumsy title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Greece would not allow its accession into any organisations of which it was a member (and this is pretty much any body of significance for Skopje) using the simple sobriquet ‘Macedonia’.
What seemed like a rather petty Greek quibble was only resolved in February 2019 when ‘North Macedonia’ was officially sanctioned as the new name of the nation. That Greek ‘Macedonia’ comprises that country’s ‘northern’ provinces seemingly doesn’t add any confusion.
Nevertheless, this tiny successor to an historically rich and once all-conquering name can now firmly set its sights on the future. NATO membership provides strong assurances against invasion, a big bonus in the troubled Balkan region. EU membership is now a possibility, especially if the North Macedonians can solidify their democratic credentials and take advantage of Lonely Planet’s naming the country its #1 destination to visit this year by ushering in a tourist boom (Covid-19 notwithstanding) that further diversifies the sources of national income.
For a country dealt a bad geographical hand and trampled upon for centuries by great powers and aggressive neighbours, hopefully the coming decades will relaunch the Macedonian name into the heart of European politics, allowing its patient population to prosper.