[lg policy] What's in a name? In Macedonia, this is no easy question. (fwd)

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Date: Sat, 23 May 2009 11:45:18 -0400
From: Harold Schiffman <haroldfs at gmail.com>
Reply-To: Language Policy List <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
To: lp <lgpolicy-list at groups.sas.upenn.edu>
Subject: [lg policy] What's in a name? In Macedonia, this is no easy question.

from the May 22, 2009 edition -

What's in a name? In Macedonia, this is no easy question.

In an interview, Macedonia's new president, Gjorge Ivanov, says he
hopes to resolve a long-simmering name dispute with Greece.

By Chris Deliso | Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Skopje, Macedonia

At first glance, being Macedonia's president has never been better.
With the opening of a grand villa residence surrounded by shady pines,
high on the slopes of Mt. Vodno overlooking Skopje, banished forever
is the former ignominious reality of presidents sharing space in the
antiquated parliament building downtown, almost 18 years since the
small Balkan country declared independence from Yugoslavia on Sept. 8,

Despite the tranquility of his elevated quarters, however, the new
residence's first occupant, who was inaugurated May 12, won't have
time to relax. Despite never having held public office, political
science professor Gjorge Ivanov – once a student leader in the
pro-democracy movement that helped topple communism in Eastern Europe
– won in April as the candidate of the ruling center-right VMRO-DPMNE
party.  Professor Ivanov campaigned under the slogan of "One for All."
Indeed, considerable teamwork, consensus building, and foreign support
– especially from the United States – will be essential for him to
navigate through one of the most intractable, and certainly the
strangest, of issues in the Balkans today: the dispute with Greece
over Macedonia's right to its chosen name.

The name issue has been manipulated by politicians in both Athens and
Skopje ever since Macedonia's independence. Greece immediately
protested, claiming that the existence of its own, eponymous northern
province, and issues of ancient historical heritage, precluded the
possibility of a state named Macedonia. In 1995, following a crippling
Greek economic embargo, the "provisional" name of "Former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia" was applied to allow the country to attain
United Nations membership. However, the Republic of Macedonia retains
its constitutional name, and most countries (including the US)
recognize it thus.

Nevertheless, Greece has used its political and economic might to
block its smaller and weaker neighbor's international development –
notably at last year's NATO summit in Bucharest, where Athens
torpedoed Macedonia's anticipated NATO invitation. Despite personal
pleas from then-President Bush, Greece held firm – no name change, no
membership. Since then, nationalism has hardened in both countries,
and with it, foreign pressure to reach a compromise solution through
UN-brokered talks.

In his visit to the region earlier this week, US Vice President Joseph
Biden urged Balkan nations to integrate more with a unified Europe
rather than focus on ethnic and national differences.  "When will this
region tire of the sickening excessive nationalism that generates such
carnage?" Mr. Biden asked, during a speech Thursday in neighboring

A changing of the guard

The chronic antagonism between President Ivanov's predecessor, Branko
Crvenkovski, and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski stymied cooperation on
reaching a unified negotiating position for tackling the name dispute;
unhelpfully, both leaders publicly attacked each other's proposals.
Longtime chief of the rival Social Democratic Party of Macedonia
(SDSM), Mr. Crvenkovski was politically opposed to the ruling party
and its government. (Since stepping down upon President Ivanov's
inauguration, Crvenkovski has returned to the SDSM, and intends to
restore the once-powerful party's sagging fortunes).

After the VMRO-DPMNE won parliamentary elections in 2006 and again in
2008, the animosity between Gruevski and Crvenkovski became a
comfortable excuse for not solving the name dispute. However, with his
nominating party controlling both government and parliament, Ivanov
acknowledges that "now, there is no excuse for any of us to not solve
the major problems facing the country" – including the name dispute.
Indeed, Mr. Gruevski, Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Milososki,
and the president recently met to create a common strategy for future
name-dispute negotiations.

Nevertheless, foreign diplomats often sigh in despair at the
apparently insurmountable gulf between the Greek and Macedonian
positions. Various proposed "compromise names" have been rejected by
either Athens or Skopje. Other issues have also started to creep in,
such as arguments over Macedonian identity and language, Greece's
contested Macedonian minority, and arcane spats over ancient history
and Alexander the Great.

Keeping it simple

According to Ivanov, such extraneous issues should be avoided; here,
he echoes the American position expressed by US Ambassador Philip
Reeker, who recently told Macedonian media that "the issue is [simply]
about the name; that's why we call it a 'name' issue."  Ivanov is
grateful for America's support, and plans to visit Macedonian troops
supporting US peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan.  In his spacious
office, Ivanov prominently displays the first flag flown over the
recently opened American Embassy in Skopje – a personal gift from
Ambassador Reeker. A colossal structure overlooking the River Vardar,
the embassy seems to reaffirm America's strong commitment here.

Behind the name

In a fractious region where minority rights and ethnic grievances
still simmer, there's clearly more at stake than nomenclature. Greeks
call their northern neighbors "Slavo-Macedonians," evoking modern
Macedonians' Slavic roots. Macedonians consider this demeaning
because, among other things, the name excludes non-Slavic minorities
like Albanians and Turks – groups comprising more than 30 percent of
Macedonia's population. The new president is keenly aware of such
dangers. "If we follow the logic of addressing questions that were not
originally part of the talks, like identity and language, we are
addressing subjects that divide, not unite," he notes, referring to
Macedonia's multiethnic character, and the celebrated old French
concept of a salade Macédoine.

"There are different ingredients in the salad," quips the president.
"Nevertheless, each one keeps its unique flavor."

Time for action?

According to Ivanov, the government's team will intensify activities
following Greece's June European Parliament elections. Although Greek
media has reported that UN mediator Matthew Nimitz will visit both
countries next month, with summer holidays about to begin, it's likely
that real talks won't start until autumn.

While avoiding specifics, the president notes two key conditions for a

Macedonia seeks a "reasonable compromise," he says, not one reached
"under pressure or coercion – but a compromise made according to the
Macedonian constitution, by which the sovereign right of the citizens
to agree is respected, by referendum."

The idea of a final referendum was originally broached by Prime
Minister Gruevski, and is as much about smart politicking as public

Any solution the government might agree to with the Greeks, leaders
fear, will inevitably be criticized by the opposition as

The same holds true for Greek internal politics. Any solution agreed
by the Greek government is bound to be assailed as national betrayal
by the domestic opposition, meaning a public referendum could be
called there also.

And, if Greece's rumored 2009 parliamentary elections do occur, name
negotiations will again be postponed.

Currently, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis's Nea Dimokratia
party, battered by corruption scandals and social unrest, holds a slim
parliamentary majority.

Behind the scenes, international diplomats are already courting the
rival PASOK center-left party – conceivably, reempowered with the next

Meanwhile, Macedonia's new president has been undertaking his own
diplomatic endeavors.

"On my first working day, I went to Brussels," says Ivanov, "to meet
representatives of the EU and NATO. I went because I wanted to show
them I really mean what I promised in my campaign."

www.csmonitor.com | Copyright © 2009 The Christian Science Monitor.
All rights reserved.


Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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