BALKAN BLOG: Waiting for North Macedonia to be born

BALKAN BLOG: Waiting for North Macedonia to be born
Under the deal with Greece, North Macedonia should not use the old 16-ray Vergina Sun, a symbol of the ancient Macedonian kingdom; the current Macedonian flag is a variation of the sun with only eight rays.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje February 11, 2019

After the Greek parliament ratified the Nato accession protocol with Macedonia on February 8, the authorities in Skopje now have to start the complex process of renaming the country and slowly but surely reshaping its fragile identity.

The June 2018 name deal with Greece, seen as “historic” because it is aimed at solving the nearly three decades long dispute between the two neighbours, is not only about changing the name of the country now known as Macedonia to North Macedonia. It also implies internal modifications that will eventually eradicate connections between Macedonians and their ancient historical roots.

The deal came about due to the Greek insistence on a compromise solution, as Greece has a province in the north called also Macedonia. The term Macedonia is a very sensitive issue in Greece. Greeks do not recognise that there are Macedonians on the other side of the border, or that people there speak a language that is called Macedonian. Instead they call them Skopjanians. For Greeks there is only one Macedonia: the Greek province in the north of their own country. 

After the dispute with Skopje erupted, Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into Nato and the EU for years. However, a compromise has finally been reached. For many in Macedonia, it has been a painful and humiliating process, but for others the benefits of the agreement, which include opening the way for Nato and EU accession, more FDI and better economy, are much more important.

Next steps

What’s next is for Greece to send a verbal note to the authorities in Skopje on February 11 to confirm that the Prespa name agreement and the Nato protocol were ratified by the Greek parliament, which practically puts into force the name deal. The government in Skopje should officially announce the date of the deal becoming effective in the Official Gazette, which is expected in the next few days.

The Macedonian government will hold a special session on February 12 to specify details on how the renaming will proceed. There are no calculations how much these changes will cost.

The first thing that needs to be done by the authorities in Skopje is to change the signs on border crossings and state institutions to reflect the name change. The first sign will be placed at the Bogorodica border crossing with Greece.

At the same time, the authorities are obliged to inform international organisations and other states that Macedonia is going to use the new name North Macedonia, and both countries — future North Macedonia and Greece — must to inform UN secretary general Antonio Guterres of the date of entering into force of the final agreement with Greece.

With this, the previous interim agreement with Greece from 1995, under which Macedonia was called Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) by international organisations and Greece, will cease to exist.

Macedonian ministries, government institutions, state-owned companies and embassies will all have to change their signs to bear the new name.

These changes should be made within seven days of the date of entering into force of the agreement.

Leaving the past behind

But it is not only that. The name deal foresees other details that will permanently reshape the country’s identity. North Macedonia cannot claim ties with ancient times and will continue to exist as a modern state without the deep historical roots it was proud of until now.

Under the agreement, Greece has taken full ownership of ancient Macedonia and its leader and great warrior Alexander the Great. Monuments and statues erected by the former Macedonian government under the conservative VMRO-DPMNE party through the €700mn Skopje revamp project in 2006-2016 should be reconsidered and some will bear explainers stating that they belong to Hellenistic culture.  One of them is the biggest monument in Skopje, Warrior on Horse, which actually is a statue of Alexander the Great. These changes should be made within six months.

Under the deal, future North Macedonia should not use the old 16-ray Vergina Sun, a symbol of the ancient Macedonian kingdom, a territory which has belonged to Greece since the Bucharest Treaty in 1913, following the Balkans wars, which divided the territory of Macedonia between neighbouring countries. The symbol was used on the first Macedonian flag, but this was later changed to a variation of the Vergina Sun with only eight rays, so Skopje won’t have to change the flag for a second time. The old flag is, however, used unofficially within the country, for example at sporting events. 

What’s not disputed is that modern Macedonia has existed since 1944 with the acts of the Anti-Fascist Assembly of People’s Liberation of Macedonia (ASNOM) when Macedonia became part of former Yugoslavia. In 1991 Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The dispute with Greece emerged immediately following the secession from ex-Yugoslavia.

What future Macedonian generations will learn about history remains to be decided by the interstate expert commission.

How businesses will use trademarks bearing the term “Macedonian” as a brand is also an issue that yet to be decided.

Future North Macedonia will have a "transitional period” to change all official documents for internal and external use no later than five years after the entry into force of the agreement.

The process of changing documents solely for internal use should begin with the opening of each chapter of the planned EU accession talks and will be finalised within five years from then.

North Macedonia’s future

For the Social Democratic government, the future is more important than the past.

With the dispute solved, Macedonia, a candidate country since 2005, expects to be invited to launch EU accession talks later this year, provided it carries out the required reforms.

However, Greek opposition leader from New Democracy Kyriakos Mitsotakis threatened in the parliament that when his party comes to power it will use the veto to block the process of opening EU chapters by Skopje. It is not clear if Mitsotakis knows that under the deal, Greece is obliged not to hamper Skopje’s bids to join Nato and the EU.

This is not first time in recent history a country has been renamed. Other examples of countries changing their names for various reasons include Burma to Myanmar, Swaziland to Kingdom of eSwatini, and recently the Czech Republic’s government said it wants the country to be known as Czechia as an official short name.

But how people in the small southern European country soon to be known as North Macedonia will accept the changes remains to be seen.