This week the parliament in Athens ratified the so-called “Prespa Agreement” ending Greece’s 27-year-long diplomatic confrontation with its northern neighbour, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). From now on, the latter’s official name will be “Republic of North Macedonia”. Athens has pledged to no longer veto Skopje’s NATO and EU membership bid, as repeatedly done since the former Yugoslav republic gained independence in 1991.
The widespread street protests against the agreement that have broken out in North Macedonia over the last two years have reminded the international community that the national identity of the former Yugoslav republic still lacks an inclusive and accepted definition. According to the last census, beside the majority of Macedonians (64.2%), Albanians make up a considerable minority (25.2%), together with the Roma (officially 2.7%, probably between 6.5 and 13 %), Turks (3.9%) and Serbs (1.8%). Small ethnic groups such as Aromenians, Bosnians and Bulgarians complete the fragmented demographic picture of this landlocked country that only recognises the Macedonian language as its official language.
Since its independence, North Macedonia has struggled to promote a clear-cut and recognised national identity. The most controversial attempt to establish this identity took place during former prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s two terms in power. In 2010 the conservative leader launched a project named “Skopje 2014” — popularly known as “antikvizacija” (antiquization, which refers to the identity politics based on the assumption that there is a direct link between today’s ethnic Macedonians and Ancient Macedonians). Dozens of statues of Greek heroes and philosophers popped up in the centre of the capital, including a towering horse statue of Alexander the Great. With this operation, which led the Guardian to award Skopje the title of “Europe’s new capital of kitsch,” the government argued that the famous warrior that conquered the Persian empire in the 4th century BC was their predecessor, despite Macedonians having Slavic origins tied to Bulgarian language and culture. The government’s identity politics exacerbated the conflict with Athens, pushing the solution to the “name issue” off the table during Gruevski’s mandate.
The current government coalition led by Zoran Zaev reversed the isolationist foreign policy pursued by his predecessor. Revamping Skopje’s Western ambitions has been at the core of Zaev’s diplomatic efforts since his appointment in May 2017. A few months later, he signed a Friendship Treaty with Bulgaria, boosting economic cooperation between the two Balkan countries. He also succeeded in captivating the heartfelt support of EU elites and improving Skopje’s image on the international stage.
Having secured the historical agreement with Athens, Zaev and his allies have now pledged to establish a working state system based on the rule of law and market economy, although critics claim the government lacks both the will and the means to push forward this ambitious overhaul. As for the national identity of Macedonians, not only has the new name proved unable to gather trans-national support to date, but it is also likely to trigger a backlash from hardcore nationalists, which may marginalise minorities even more. Today, North Macedonia’s religious and ethnic communities are like a patchwork, whose different pieces have yet to find a satisfactory way to stay together.