The articles and press reports covering the name dispute between Macedonia and Greece have largely died out nowadays, when the anti-climactic NATO summit in Bucharest came and went without an invitation being extended to Macedonia. That doesn’t mean the dispute has ended, however, nor have its roots been thoroughly examined. The key issue at stake here is cultural heritage, and what ownership of cultural heritage means for the people of the Balkans. Recognition by the world (including Greece) as the Republic of Macedonia, implicates that the people of Macedonia, Macedonians, own a right to the cultural heritage bequeathed to the region by the ancient Macedonians (Philip, Alexander, etc). In the Balkans, this right to cultural heritage translates into other kinds of entitlement, such as entitlement to territory once ruled by the ancient Macedonians. It is this local belief, combined with the fact that the Greeks see themselves as the cultural and ethnic descendants of Alexander the Great and his people, that has caused the matter of self-determination to become an inflamed dispute involving the entire NATO alliance.
The first question that needs to be answered is why the Macedonians want to call themselves Macedonians. Ethnically and linguistically, modern Macedonians are southern Slavs with close ties to the Bulgarians. The term, Macedonia, though, acquired a geographic meaning rather than an ethnic meaning during the Roman era, with the establishment of the Roman province of Macedonia. Thus, after the Slavs migrated into the geographic lands called Macedonia and absorbed the local populace, they adopted the name Macedonians in part because they indeed were Macedonians (people living in an area often delineate themselves as a member of that community, New Yorker, for example). In the wake of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the Balkan wars (which were fought over Macedonia), the people living in the region used the name to rebuff claims that they were Bulgarian, Greek, or Serbian, thus entrenching the name Macedonia into the region’s communal identity.
In effect, the people were forging a distinct national identity out of the simple fact that they lived near each other. That’s not a horrible reason to form a nation, and it certainly has its merits. By the time that the Ottoman Empire was on the decline, most of her Slavic subjects had been under her control for at least the greater part of five centuries. Most of what survived was the Slavic dialect (though heavily influenced by Turkish; the local languages were ‘purified’ after liberation), the local religion (usually Orthodox Christianity), and the knowledge that they were second class citizens in the empire. During the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, a national consciousness began to form each of the separate groups living in the region. These groups identified with previous kingdoms or empires on the peninsula, and thus was the continuity between the Middle Ages and the 19th century born. Macedonia’s case, thus, isn’t all that different from the other countries on the peninsula. It just got to the game a little later and wasn’t able to legitimize itself before its neighboring countries were able to ‘prove’ their ties to history.
What does all of this have to do with the name? The battle over the name signifies a battle over the cultural heritage left by the ancient Macedonians. Also, the Balkan states were all founded on the principle of one people, one history, one nation. The national consciousnesses that were formed were extremely strong; and each nation sought to incorporate into their modern state everything that was seen as historically theirs. For Serbians that meant Kosovo, for Bulgarians that meant Thrace and Macedonia, for Greeks that meant the whole of the territory once owned by the Byzantine Empire (there was talk of a coup from within in the Ottoman Empire to place the Greeks in command and create a successor of the Byzantine Empire). Finally, for Macedonians, that means the region of Macedonia, part of which is in Bulgaria and Greece. Notwithstanding the fact that there have been Macedonian agitators for a ‘Macedonia with a port on the Aegean’, the Greek people themselves have been through this process of nation building themselves, and know the feelings that it can generate.
The solution isn’t as simple as a simply giving Macedonia a new name. The fact of the matter is, many, most, probably, Macedonians feel like genuine Macedonians, descended from the noble tribe of Alexander the Great. But then, the Greeks feel that they are the true descendants of Alexander and his kin. So it’s not a conflict over a name, it’s a name for a conflict. This conflict can only be resolved through the realization that, in fact, the cultural heritage of Alexander the Great belongs to all peoples of the region. The concept of one people, one history, is ridiculous. A regions history may belong to more than one people, especially when the region is small as the Balkans and as populated as it is by different ethnic groups.
What needs to happen is a concerted effort to stamp out the nascent cultural nationalism present in every Balkan country. It’s not needed. The countries are all neighbors, and they all stand to profit from eased relations. Economically, socially, and politically, the more the people of the Balkans realize that they have much more in common than they thought, and that they have many common goals to pursue, the better off the region will be.
And the world can finally stop using the Balkans as a negative stereotype.