Despite wildfires which devastated the countryside and caused over sixty deaths, Greece has turned down an offer of help from its neighbour Macedonia. Macedonia offered 3 vehicles, 26 firefighters and a back-up crew of 60 at their southern border with Greece. However despite a fire death toll which has now risen to over sixty people as of 27 August, the Macedonian request to enter the country was ignored by the Greek Civil Protection Directorate and the firefighters went home. The incident is the latest salvo in a long and sordid battle over naming rights to both the region and the former Yugoslav republic.
The dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia is based on the Greek contention that the Macedonians have plagiarised an important part of Greek history as a first step towards claiming part of Greek territory. The modern Slav Macedonia is unrelated to the ancient Macedon of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. The modern term did not emerge until the end of the 19th century when a group in Thessaloniki formed a secret society dedicated to Macedonian independence from the Ottoman Empire. The Balkan wars of 1912-13 destroyed Ottoman power in Europe and led to lasting partition of Macedonia between Greece and Serbia.
After World War I, Woodrow Wilson’s 14 point plan proposed an independent Macedonia but Serbia supported by France prevented it from happening. The Serbs also re-badged the province as Southern Serbia in their new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia in 1929). They were opposed by an insurgent group called the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO). IMRO operated out of Bulgaria and sought an independent Macedonian state until they were outlawed in 1934.
Before World War II Macedonia was known as “Vardarska Banovina” (Province of the Vardar river). Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis in 1941 and their harsh rule led to the rise of the Yugoslav Communist Party. When the Nazis were finally kicked out in 1944, newly installed Communist leader Marshal Tito named Yugoslavia's southernmost republic as the "Socialist Republic of Macedonia". Greece contends that Tito used the name Macedonia deliberately in order both to lay claim to the northern province of Greece of the same name, and more particularly, the city of Thessaloniki with its Aegean port. But Tito did not act out that threat. Instead he turned his back on Greece and closed the border causing great dislocation among Macedonian families.
Tito’s death in 1980 eventually led to the ethnic divisions and fractious break-up of Yugoslavia at the end of the decade. In 1991 Macedonia was the only former Yugoslav republic to gain its independence without bloodshed. Greece immediately objected to many aspects of independent Macedonia's state symbols and laws including its constitution and its contentious 16-ray Vergina Sun flag. Macedonia acceded to all these demands after a damaging Greek trade embargo which ended in 1995. The only remaining unresolved issue is the name.
Due to sustained Greek objections, Macedonia took its seat in the UN in 1993 under the provisional name of FYROM – Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The UN stressed this was a temporary measure “pending settlement of the difference that has arisen over the name of the State”.
The two parties are no closer to that settlement 14 years later. In July Greece ruled out any move that the country could join NATO as the “Republic of Macedonia.” The need for a solution is supported by the European Union, while at a meeting in Washington with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, FYROM Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki was urged to assist efforts to resolve the name issue. Greece had earlier agreed it might be known with its capital city Macedonia-Skopje (similar to Congo-Brazzaville) but Macedonia has rejected this.
The most recent development on the issue came on 31 July when Greek PM Costas Karamanlis sent a message to the Macedonian authorities that Athens is waiting for an adequate response on "the concession it made". Karamanlis addressed the issue of differences over the name of Macedonia during talks with French President Sarkozy, focusing on the European perspective of the Western Balkan's countries.
According to the International Crisis Group, (ICG) the best prospects for agreement lie in a triangular solution with the following three elements coming into effect simultaneously:
- a bilateral treaty between Skopje and Athens involving Macedonian concessions to Greek concerns, including allowing Greece to have its own name for Macedonia
- acknowledging Macedonia’s name as ‘Republika Makedonija’ (in Macedonian language only)
- adoption and use for working purposes by the United Nations and other intergovernmental organisations of the Macedonian-language name ‘Republika Makedonija’.
However that may be wishful thinking on the ICG's part as well as Greece's. For simplicity, everyone else in the world without a dog in this fight will call the country "Macedonia".