A Greek Name in Modern Usage

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A Controversy over the terms[*]

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The difference over the name ‘Macedonia’, as a state appellation, has been resolved temporarily since 1993 by the adoption of the provisional name ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’.[1] Nevertheless, there is considerable confusion and ambiguity over the derivatives of that name; more specifically, the noun Macedonians and the adjective Macedonian in their ethnic, regional, cultural, historical and legal (citizenship) variants.

The noun Macedonians

In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) the noun Macedonians (Makedonci = Makedontsi- in the local language) identifies, (a) in the legal and civic sense, all citizens of the Republic (including Albanians, Greeks, Roma etc), and (b) in the ethnic/national sense, a million and a half local Slav-speaking population.

In Greece the noun Macedonians (Μακεδόνες = Makedhones[2] in the Greek language) identifies, in the regional/cultural sense, almost two and a half million ethnic Greeks of the region of Greek Macedonia.

In Bulgaria the same name Macedonians (Makedonci = Makedontsi- in Bulgarian) identifies, in the regional sense, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians.

These three variants of the noun ‘Macedonians’ are also in use in diaspora by persons who have emigrated from the three Macedonian regions, namely, Greek Macedonia, FYROM, and the SW Bulgarian region of Pirin.

To complicate matters further, there is a fourth, historical dimension of the name Macedonians, which refers to the first ‘owners’ of the name, who actually gave their name to the region. They were Greek-speaking people who inhabited roughly the region of present-day Greek Macedonia in classical antiquity identifying themselves as Μακεδόνες (Makedhones) in their Greek language.

The adjective Macedonian

The adjective Macedonian derives: (a) from the noun of the geographical region Macedonia, and (b) from the noun of the name of the people in its regional, ethnic, historical variants as described above. As such, the Macedonian adjective describes identities of persons (Macedonian community, minority, people, personalities etc), abstract values (Macedonian history, culture, traditions), institutions/associations (Macedonian administrative, scientific, professional, educational, civic, business/commercial, religious), as well as tangible objects and items (products, publications, etc). In the Slavonic languages of FYROM and Bulgaria the adjective Macedonian, both in its ethnic and regional provenance, is spelled in Cyrillic, in an identical form as Makedonski. On the other hand, in the Greek language the same adjective Macedonian, in its regional/cultural/historical context, appears as Μακεδονικός = Makedhonikos (-i -o for the feminine and neuter endings).

It becomes clear that the identification as ‘Macedonian’ of abstract values and tangible objects of different ethnic or geographical provenance gives rise to serious problems of communication. Confusion is not confined regionally but spreads worldwide by means of the international usage of the term in the public media and by international agencies involved in one way or another with Macedonian issues.

In the early 1990s, the emergence of an internationally recognized state entity bearing the Macedonian name ‘Republika na Makedonija’ stimulated and, to a certain degree, popularized the monopolization of the ethnic variant of the adjective Macedonian at the expense of the regional/cultural one. As a result, a controversy emerged about the self-identification of diverse groups—Greeks, Bulgarians—in the southern Balkans by one and the same appellation, Macedonian. Moreover, because of their Macedonian provenance and identity, historical and cultural objects, although alien to FYROM and its ethnic Slav Macedonians, ran the risk to be absorbed into the Slavonic Macedonian domain and pantheon. By the same token, long-established cultural property rights of Greek or Bulgarian provenance might be legally challenged. Such dire consequences need not necessarily emerge as a result of government policy directed from Skopje. More likely, they could follow a gradual process of erosion by means of the worldwide monopolization of the Macedonian name by FYROM.

In the early years of the 20th century, a popular axiom claimed that whoever controlled Macedonia could dominate the Balkans. A century later, it appears that whoever monopolizes the Macedonian name might well claim title deeds to whatever is associated or defined by that name: the history, the culture, the peoples as well as the entire geographical region of Macedonia. A careful study of mainly post-1991 school literature in FYROM, propagating the monopolization of the Macedonian identity to the new generations of students would be a revealing exercise, indeed.

A careful assessment of the elements of the controversy leads to the conclusion that different historical, cultural, regional, ethnic and legal references are identified with one and the same name. Locally, the problem is less acute as use of different languages automatically clarifies the divergent versions of the name of the people. Thus, in FYROM, mention of Makedonci is easily understood to refer to the ethnic identity of the persons concerned. In Greece, reference to Makedhones creates no problems about the regional identification of the bearers of that name. In addition, the adjective makedhonikos in Greece defines the regional or historical Greek origin of objects so described. Equally, in FYROM the adjective makedonski assigns an ethnic Slav Macedonian quality.

The problem emerges when the various versions of Macedonian/Macedonians are translated into foreign languages by one and the same name (Macedonian, macedonien etc). The issue at hand is not merely one of semantics. Whoever succeeds to impose on foreign languages its own version of ‘Macedonian’ acquires international monopoly for its use. Moreover, in an indirect way, it lays claim to anything identified as ‘Macedonian’, including different peoples or communities identified as ‘Macedonian’, diverse ‘Macedonian’ historical and cultural values, even commodities from different Macedonian regions or countries.

Under such conditions, it is no wonder that a mini ‘civilisation clash’ is brewing in a traditionally volatile region of the Balkans. Unintentionally, the international community is also implicated by means of its uncritical adoption of the FYROM version of the Macedonian name. Although the issue at hand is no more directly connected with traditional territorial claims or security, a controversy involving conflicting issues of identity and perceptions of heritage should not be allowed to affect adversely the positive climate being built in the region. This is precisely the reasoning behind the U.N. Security Council’s resolution 817 (1993), which stated that the difference over the Macedonian name ‘needs to be resolved in the interest of the maintenance of peaceful and good-neighbourly relations in the region’.

More than a decade has passed since the Security Council’s resolution admitted the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ to the United Nations Organisation. Relations and co-operation between Greece and FYROM have experienced an impressive improvement in almost all spheres. Such improved conditions in the region may open the way for Skopje to commence entry negotiations with the European Union. Athens appears supportive.

Undoubtedly, this process will be facilitated if the parties concerned realise that the controversy over the sensitive issues of self-identification and cultural heritage need to be resolved. Similarly, the international community, namely, the European Union and the United States, being indirectly implicated on account of the rendition of the ‘Macedonian’ name in their respective languages, should contribute towards an equitable resolution of the problem...

2005: A U.N. Postscript

Recently, the confusion caused in international bodies by the conflicting uses of noun and adjective derivatives of the name ‘Macedonia’ has apparently drawn the attention of responsible international bodies. The United Nations, apart for seeking since 1993 an acceptable solution to the provisional state name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, is now exploring ways to cope with situations arising from attempts at the monopolization of the Macedonian name by one or the other contender.

Early in 2005, Mathew Nimetz, the Special Representative appointed by U.N. Secretary General Anan to mediate the difference over the name between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, submitted to the two parties his recommendations for resolving the issue.[3] Although the disputed name of the state was at the core of his proposals (he opted for the international usage of the name Republika Makedonija - Skopje) the UN mediator addressed also a number of issues related to the Macedonian name and its derivatives.

Thus, the draft for a new Security Council resolution noted inter alia that the name

‘Macedonia’ has reference to a geographic area encompassing all or portions of several States in the region of Southeast Europe... that ‘Macedonia’ has importance to a long association with the heritage, culture and history of the Hellenic Republic and Hellenic people since antiquity, that ‘Macedonia’ is a name commonly used to refer to a region of northern Greece, and that the people of such region are, within the Hellenic Republic, customarily referred to as ‘Macedonians’.

Moreover, in his own explanatory draft statement to the Security Council, the Special Representative specifically mentioned that within the Greek national territory there is a large area that constituted a part of historic Macedonia as well as a large population who also identify themselves as ‘Macedonians’, albeit ‘Greek Macedonians’. And added:

In Republika Makedonija-Skopje it must be acknowledged that there is an administrative region in Greece named "Greek Macedonia" (and not "Aegean Macedonia" or "Egejska Makedonija pod Grcja" (Aegean Macedonia under Greece) and that those who reside in Greek Macedonia commonly identify themselves as Greek Macedonians in a Greek regional and cultural sense of the name, and such names shall be generally used and respected.

He concluded his report with an important assessment and a practical recommendation:

It is recognized that the terms ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonian’ are broadly used in the region... and these names are not under the exclusive control of any one State or authority... and that the authorities of both States should refrain from challenging legally the use of ‘Macedonia’ or ‘Macedonian’ or similar designations in a commercial or regional context when used in connection with products and services emanating from Republika Makedonija-Skopje or when emanating from Greek Macedonia.

Whereas a final decision on these recommendations is still pending (September 2005), it is important that these points have been initialed and recorded by the most competent authority of the Special Representative acting under the authority of a Security Council resolution. The main actors in the field, Athens and Skopje, now have before them an authoritative blueprint to try to resolve their differences.


* Excerpts from the commentary: Evangelos Kofos, ‘The Controversy over the Terms ‘Macedonians’ and ‘Macedonian’; A Probable Exit Scenario’, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, Vol.5, No. 1 (January 2005),  129–133. [↑]

1. UN Security Council Resolution 817/1993 and Council of Europe, Committee of Ministers Resolution 95/23 and 19 October 1995. Similar resolutions have been adopted by the EU and OSCE. [↑]

2. The complex ‘dh’ is pronounced like ‘th’ in the Enlglish article ‘the’. [↑]

3. Texts were published in the Athens daily Eleftherotypia, 13 Apr. 2005. [↑]


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