Thousands of people took to the streets in the capital of Macedonia and in at least 14 cities across the world on March 4 in protest over the planned change of the country’s name.
The protests came as the Macedonian and Greek authorities have been making major progress in negotiations to solve the name dispute, which has lasted more than two decades. Greece objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province with the same name, and the government in Skopje has offered to change the country name — probably to a composite name including the word Macedonia — in the hope of solving the dispute.
While a deal with Greece would unlock Macedonia’s path towards EU and Nato membership, for Macedonians the issue is very sensitive as it touches the national language, culture and identity.
The protest in Skopje was organised by the association “Our name is our right”. People rallied in capital's main square to express their dissatisfaction with the government policy to find a compromise solution to the name spat that according to them “endangers national interests of the Macedonian people.” People from other Macedonian cities were taken by buses to Skopje to participate in the protest.
Several composite names have been put on table in the negotiation process, including Upper Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia, New Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).
The government has already changed the name of Alexander the Great airport to International Airport Skopje, and the main motorway that leads to Greece which had the same name has been renamed Friendship.
All this has been done to please Greece; Athens also objects to Macedonia laying claim to the ancient warrior Alexander the Great (also known as Alexander Macedon). The military hero is also claimed by Greece, as he spread Hellenistic culture widely during his imperialistic endeavours more than two millennia ago.
Another civil movement “We are Macedonia” started a symbolic protest in January in front of the Macedonian embassy in Washington. Activists read a declaration calling for an immediate halt to negotiations with Greece. The declaration also asked a resolution on recognising Macedonia under its constitutional name to be submitted to the UN General Assembly.
Macedonian nationals held protests simultaneously on March 4 in 14 cities abroad most of them in Australia, but also in the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovenia, Sweden, the UK and the US.
In Australia, rallies were organised in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth, with protestors saying that the Macedonia language, identity, history and culture are in danger.
A photo of Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who initiated the new push for a compromise with Athens, as well as Greek flags were burnt during the protest in Melbourne, Alsat-M reported.
According to some media around 30,000 people participated in the protest in Sydney, some of them holding signs “End the Macedonian genocide”.
Previously, protests against the name solution were held in Thessaloniki and Athens in Greece, with protestors saying that Macedonia is Greek and that the word Macedonia should not be part of the new name for the country.
Despite the protests, Skopje is expected to continue its efforts, as finding a compromise solution is the only way for Macedonia to join Nato and unblock its EU integration processes.
Greece vetoed Macedonia’s admission to Nato at the Bucharest summit in 2008 and also thwarted the country’s bid to get closer to EU even though the country has been a EU candidate since 2005.
The president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently said that if Macedonia continues to implement the needed reforms and solves the name dispute it will receive a recommendation to launch EU accession talks within a few months.
The Macedonian prime minister reiterated that the government is committed to solving the name dispute with Greece and that he expects the date for the launch of negotiations to be announced in June.