Why is Macedonia changing its name and what does it mean for Europe?

Greek parliament votes in favour of rebranding, resolving months of tension with northern neighbour

Joe Sommerlad
Friday 25 January 2019 13:59 GMT
Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev sign agreement on Macedonia name change

Support truly
independent journalism

Our mission is to deliver unbiased, fact-based reporting that holds power to account and exposes the truth.

Whether $5 or $50, every contribution counts.

Support us to deliver journalism without an agenda.

Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


MPs in Greece have narrowly voted to ratify an agreement with its northern neighbour state Macedonia that will see the latter formally change its name.

In return for rebranding itself the “Republic of North Macedonia”, the country will now be able to pursue its application to join Nato and the EU without opposition from Athens as relations between the two states return to normal.

The deal passed with 153 votes in the 300-member Greek parliament, two more than needed. It had faced heated opposition and cost prime minister Alexis Tsipras his parliamentary majority after a right-wing partner in the governing coalition quit in protest.

The vote came after three days of acrimonious parliamentary debate and numerous street protests, some of which turned violent.

Scores of protesters who braved torrential rain and driving wind outside parliament chanted “traitors” as the legislators voted inside.

More than 150 people were detained for questioning following confrontations at demonstrations against the deal in Athens and two towns in northern Greece. Most were released without change.

Macedonia fulfilled its end of the bargain regarding the motion on 11 January, when all 81 members present for its own parliamentary vote on the question backed the constitutional amendments. The remaining 39 opposition politicians in the 120-seat house stayed away in protest.

Greeks, particularly right-wing nationalist politicians, have long argued that only the northern Greek region of Macedonia, site of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, should be entitled to use the name and not the separate Slavic country to its north, which has been officially known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The debate has raged for 27 years and the signing of an initial agreement to consider the change on 12 June 2018 was hailed as “an appointment with history” by Mr Tsipras and by Macedonia prime minister Zoran Zaev as a chance for the pair to reset relations and become “partners and allies”.

The men also expressed hope their example would inspire other Balkan states to resolve their own post-Cold War regional disputes.

Macedonians subsequently voted 91 per cent in favour of making the name-change in a referendum on 30 September, with Mr Zaev saying the vote sent out “a crystal-clear message” even though only 37 per cent of registered voters turned out at the ballot box.

“The people made a great choice and said ‘yes’ to our future. It is time for lawmakers to follow the voice of the people and to provide support,” the prime minister said.

Local resistance to the measure had been fierce, with many fearing it represents the first attempt by Greece to claim its territory and resent their country’s access to the security of the international community being dictated by a foreign power.

Rioting took place on the streets of the Greek city of Thessaloniki prior to the referendum, forcing police to use tear gas to disperse thousands of masked protestors demonstrating as Mr Tsipras arrived in town to make an address on his country’s economic prospects.

Support free-thinking journalism and attend Independent events

Macedonia made its first concessionary moves over the issue last January by pledging to rename Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport, the name a further annoyance to Greeks concerned about cultural appropriation and claims being made on its heroes of antiquity.

A motorway running to the border also named after the famous conqueror has been rechristened “Friendship Highway” in the same spirit of reconciliation.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in