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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from North Macedonia

Macedonia vs Macedonia: A Dispute with No End

  SKOPJE, North Macedonia – In the U.S., we have two Dakotas, two Carolinas and a pair of Virginias. Any issues over their division and names dissipated long ago.

  Such is not the case when discussing the two Macedonias – yes, two - which until a couple of days ago was news to me. A month ago, I was not familiar with either Macedonia, although I had some knowledge of ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great.

  So here I was, in late August, visiting one Macedonia and learning about the other. This Macedonia, officially North Macedonia, is a landlocked nation about the size of Vermont located on Greece’s northern border in a region known as the Balkans. I quickly learned that you don’t want to mention the North part to anyone here as you could have your nose re-positioned.

  Lucky for me, I found the right person to sort things out. Nikola Minov is a history professor at SS. Cyril & Methodius University here in the capital, Skopje [pronounced Sco-pee-uh]. We met on a Sunday morning in Skopje’s old bazaar, on the east side of the Vardar River, which divides the city center. Although it was early, Nikola ordered a beer.

  “I’m going on holiday tomorrow,” he said.

  He’s 42 and wore his ball cap backwards, setting an informal tone to our discussion.

  We began with a brief history lesson: Ancient Macedonia, led by Alexander, ruled the world from India to Greece in the 4th century B.C. after a military campaign lasting 11 years. After Alexander died at 32 in 323, Macedonia quickly crumbled.

  Fast forward to 1913. Macedonia had been reduced to a small region controlled by Turkey’s Ottoman Empire for 400 years. A pair of Balkans wars preceding World War 1 ended the Turks control of the area and set the map.

  One part of Macedonia became a region in Greece. This part of Macedonia got bounced around, controlled by Serbia, then Bulgaria and then the Serbs again. Eventually, after World War II, it became one of six republics within the newly created Yugoslavia, a communist nation that was less repressive than its eastern European counterparts during the Cold War. Its new name: the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

A New Era

 When Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991, along with Europe’s other socialist regimes, its six republics achieved autonomy. Dropping the Socialist part of its name, it appeared the Republic of Macedonia could finally move forward and become a true independent nation. Except for one major, nagging problem, according to Nikola.

  “The Macedonians living in Greece said, ‘We are Macedonia. You can’t be Macedonia.’”

  This development shocked all Macedonians, Nikola among them. He explained:

  “We had no idea these people living in northern Greece were Macedonian. We said, ‘How can you be Macedonian, you don’t speak Slavic, you speak Greek.?’ [The ancient Macedonian language is no longer spoken.] I mean my whole life I thought I was Macedonian. Suddenly, I’m not?”

  To help me better understand his dilemma, Nikola asked a question:

  “Where are you from?”

  “Ohio,” I said.

  “OK, imagine growing up in Ohio and living there your entire life. And then one day you’re told Ohio can’t be Ohio anymore.”

  That I understood.

  So resolute were the Greek Macedonians about their northern neighbors being imposters, more than one million of them took to the streets in a protest march in 1991.

  “They made it pretty clear that the people to the north – us – cannot call themselves Macedonian in any way,” Nikola said. “And they had the Greek government behind them.”

Negotiations Begin

  Thus began a diplomatic haggling saga over what to call this country lasting 30 years.

  “During the first 10 years of negotiations, there was no movement at all,” Nikola said. “The Greek side – the most powerful side – did not want any changes at all. They simply said to us: You cannot be Macedonia. They called us Skopje.”

  Around 2000 the stalemate thawed a bit.

  As Nikola put it: “The Greeks realized we weren’t going away. And, finally, we understood these people feel they are truly Macedonian.”

  As negotiations continued, the rest of the world wasn’t sure what to call this Macedonia. Officially, in international diplomatic circles, it was referred to as former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – a temporary moniker until the dispute was settled.

  Controversial actions by both sides kept them from reaching an agreement.

“We wanted to join NATO, but Greece voted against us,” Nikola said. “At the time we had a conservative nationalist party in power. So, in response to the Greeks’ NATO snub they started building statues affirming our Macedonian identity.”

  I passed two of the statues Nikola mentioned on my way to meet him. One, in the main square, was initially called Warrior on a Horse. But everyone knows it’s Alexander the Great. It’s a massive presence with horse and man reaching almost 50 feet into the Skopje sky. For good measure, they also built one of Alexander’s father, Phillip II, at the opposite end of the square. That one, mounted on a pedestal, measures almost 100 feet.

  “I think they got their point across,” I said to Nikola.

  “For sure,” he said. “The Greeks were infuriated.”

Dispute Settled

  Despite the continuous squabbling, the two sides finally came together in June, 2018. Many names were considered, but it came down to Upper Macedonia and North Macedonia, with the latter winning out. So, after three decades, how were they able to come up with a solution? I asked Nikola.

  “It took left-wing politicians on both sides and a year when there were no elections,” he said.

  Has the agreement held?

  “Officially, yes,” he said. “But unofficially no. The Greek Macedonians still call us Skopje and the people here only call this Macedonia, never using the word North.”

  Meanwhile, after this dispute was settled, another emerged, this one between North Macedonia and a third group of ethnic Macedonians living in Bulgaria who are backed by the Bulgarian government. Nikola was prepared to explain that one but we decided to call it a day. Learning about two Macedonias in one morning was enough for me, we agreed.

  As I walked back to my hotel, passing Philip II and Alexander with a new understanding of their presence, I reflected on everything Nikola had told me, still unsure about the whys of everything that happened.

  One thing was certain: I was thankful Ohio is still Ohio - and not South Michigan.

  Editor’s note: First in a series of articles from a reporting trip to North Macedonia Aug. 14-16, 2021.

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