Macedonia: a decades-long quarrel over a name

Map showing the Greek province of Macedonia and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (AFP Photo/Kun TIAN)

Skopje (AFP) - With Sunday's referendum proposing the new name "Republic of North Macedonia", the country hopes to resolve a row poisoning relations with Greece and blocking efforts to join the EU and NATO.

The name adopted by Macedonia at independence 27 years ago is also that of a large region in Greece that evokes national pride as the cradle of Alexander the Great's ancient empire.

Here is some background about the dispute.

- Rejected from the start -

Macedonia proclaims its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 but its international recognition is immediately stalled by Greece because of its name.

Besides claiming the title as part of its heritage and identity, Greece fears Skopje could harbour territorial ambitions over its region of Macedonia just across the border.

- A country called FYROM -

It is only with the adoption of a provisional name -- the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) -- that the country is finally admitted into the United Nations in 1993.

Most other nations, including Russia and the United States, later recognise its constitutional title, the Republic of Macedonia.

- Greece clamps down -

In 1994 Greece imposes an economic embargo on Macedonia and prevents it from using the Greek port at Thessaloniki, Skopje's main trading post.

Greece also demands that Macedonia drop from its flag the rayed sun of Vergina, claiming it as an ancient Greek symbol, as well as certain articles from its constitution.

- A thaw -

In September 1995 the neighbours sign an accord in New York opening the way for a normalisation of trade and political ties but leaving the name dispute hanging.

The following month they open liaison offices in their respective capitals and a new Macedonian flag -- with the controversial rayed sun replaced -- is raised for the first time at the United Nations.

And in 2001 Greece expresses support for Skopje as it faces an armed conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels.

- Greek vetoes -

After Macedonia becomes a candidate for EU membership in 2005, Greece blocks the start of negotiations, still rejecting its title.

In 2009 Macedonia is invited for membership of NATO under the provisional name but again faces a Greek veto.

Relations sink with the erection of a huge statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje in 2011. Athens views it as an attempt to appropriate one of its greatest military heroes.

- New name breakthrough -

Soon after his election in May 2017, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev promises a new push to settle the name dispute as he relaunches the drive for EU and NATO membership.

In a conciliatory gesture, "Alexander the Great" is dropped from the names of the main international airport in Skopje and the main motorway linking Macedonia with Greece, officially renamed "Friendship Highway".

Negotiations are relaunched in January 2018 under UN auspices, despite strong opposition from Greek nationalists. Tens of thousands of Greeks protest in Thessaloniki, the capital of the Macedonia region.

Names under discussion include "New Macedonia", "Northern Macedonia" and "Upper Macedonia", and in June the two sides settle on "Republic of North Macedonia".

It is ratified by the Macedonian parliament in July and, if accepted in Sunday's referendum, will need to go back to parliament which must approve constitutional changes.

The deal will also need to be ratified by the Greek parliament. A poll in June shows most Greeks oppose the deal.

NATO in July invites Macedonia to start membership talks, subject to the name change.