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Why I travelled home to vote in favour of adding 'North' to Macedonia's name

Macedonia and Greece have been involved in a decades-long dispute over the name Macedonia and Alexander the Great.

Sasko Lazarov

Last month, Macedonians voted on whether to change the country’s name to North Macedonia, and end a 27-year dispute with Greece over its province which is also called Macedonia. Sasko Lazarov, a photographer with RollingNews.ie, wrote about why he travelled home to vote, and why it was so important to him.

THE ONLY RIGHT way to start this piece is with the person who is responsible for causing this whole mess: Alexander the Great. 

A cosmopolitan and curious person, Alexander III of Macedon wanted to discover what was beyond the next hill, mountain and river. His goal was to unite the world into one country, but he gave little thought to the total chaos he created in his own nation.

The core of the problem was that Alexander’s territory, once called the Old Kingdom of Macedonia, was split into three different countries in 1903, at the Treaty of Bucharest. As the Ottoman Empire lost its power and withdrew to Turkey, it left behind a vast, mountainous territory that was very difficult to control.

Macedonia had been under 500 years of Turkish rule, and after they left there was no authority who could protect the territory. There was no one to stop the European kings splitting up the old kingdom.

The Treaty split it into three parts into parts. The first was the Republic of Macedonia. The second was the north part of a Greek province, which would also be called Macedonia. The third was a very small part that is now in Bulgaria.

Decades later, some of the same monarchies allied with Nazi Germany – and partisans and rebels mobilised the local population of Macedonia, and kicked both Germans and royals out.

0164 Macedonian Referendum copy_90555262 Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev speaking to the press after he casts his ballot. Source: Sasko Lazarov via RollingNews.ie

That was the moment when Macedonia became a territory again; a place with borders, modern schools, hospitals and roads. That was the moment when the flag was up on a pole, and Macedonians could say, “Now we have a country again, after 500 years of Turks, Nazis and foreign monarchs”.

The Republic of Macedonia is the name of my birth country. It’s the name that I learned when I was born, and went to school. The first time I was asked where I’m from, that is the name I knew to say.

The message of the referendum that just occurred was that no one will have the exclusive right to the name of Macedonia.

The Yugoslavian Tiger

When I was born in 1980, hardly anyone ever mentioned Alexander. In the years after the war, 1945 – 1980, when my parents got married, there was no time to look at history. It was the time of progress: wages were high, industries were blossoming.

Yugoslavia was one nation then, like a precursor to the EU, where Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrians, Serbians, Slovenians and Herzegovinians were in it together, and achieving progress, wealth, and a drive forward.

All that was brilliant while it lasted, but it didn’t last for long. In 1992, during the Yugoslav wars, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia broke apart. Then Macedonia had no other option but to become independent.

My father’s generation cry for that time and speak about how much freedom and respect there was between all the Yugoslavian nations; they looked the same, spoke the same language and were called “slavs of the south” – with “Yugo” meaning south and “Slavia” meaning slavic country.

Restoring pride in Macedonia

After independence, the new country, just separated from Yugoslavia, started to grow: political parties were formed, and the leaders of those parties began to hunt for support.

0139 Macedonian Referendum copy_90555263 Zoran Zaev accompanied by his wife Zorica and his son Dusko. Source: RollingNews.ie

Some lamented the loss of the old Yugoslavian socialism in order to gain supporters, and some of them were bringing new ideas.

“We are descendants of Alexander the Great,” was one idea put forward – we only had 70 years of history with Yugoslavia and the slavs, but our origin comes from far before that.

Emphasising the noble past we came from gave some momentum and dignity to our heritage of antique civilisation. The feeling of belonging to something so big was very much welcomed by many Macedonians who suffered an inferiority complex.

Imposed visa regimes by the EU made us looked like a poor country of immigrants that will only take rather than give.

A nation by any other name

The dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia gathered traction after Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou  slapped the trade embargo on Macedonia on 16 February 1994 in a bid to pressure the infant Balkan state to change its flag and constitution.

Instead of opening the border when we were most in need, the people who were used to luxury in the past were suddenly humiliated by extreme poverty.

The capital city had the country’s only university hospital. The High Court was in a prefab, and the museum was nowhere to be found. The theatre was in a cheap, fast-made socialist-era building, and the nation had broken morale and the spending power of a developing country.

And then a young and promising leader appeared: Nikola Gruevski from VMRO-DPMNE party.

He promised and delivered the biggest statue in the world of Alexander the Great, in the middle of the square of the capital, so every modern young Macedonian can take a selfie with Alexander. He promised and delivered theatres with expensive velvet curtains, built a National Museum in the classic Hellenic-style. He built a big, intimidating Supreme Court, with the hope that people would think twice before disrespecting Macedonia.

He did this to repair the nation’s pride, and restore the country’s position.

Gruevski not only erected buildings, but also stoked the public imagination to dream: “What if Alexander was my uncle? What if he was my cousin?”

Greece Macedonia Referendum Tourists visit a statue of Alexander the Great, at the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Source: AP/PA Images

But Gruevski didn’t realise that he wouldn’t get the support of the EU, which instead backed their EU member state Greece, who also claim the hero has their own, and that he won’t be able to present this new dream to foreign tourists. Every new historical monument he built provoked Greece to block our entry into the European Union. 

Peace

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Republic of Macedonia, and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the Republic of Greece have finally began the process of normalising the climate between the two countries.

After a long, dark period of populistic right-wing parties in power in both countries, these two leaders of left-wing parties had a lot of handshakes and hugs at every public opportunity, and even exchanged ties as a symbolic gesture of friendship.

GREECE-MACEDONIA-AGREEMENT-NAME Prime Minister of FYROM Zoran Zaev, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

After all this, I felt that our two prime ministers finally had a bond of which Alexander would be proud, they’re both strong, young leaders (both are aged 44).

The result of the referendum means that Republic of Macedonia will add the word “North” to its name, and so will become the North Republic of Macedonia; not exclusively Macedonia, but just one part of the three, divided at the beginning of the century.

This is the most accurate way of describing that piece of land. The opposition argued that we would lose our identity as Macedonians; but they failed to realise that Macedonians are so mixed, ethnically and genetically, that the Italians call their mixed fruit salad “Macedonian”. It’s a mix of everything.

I want this addition to our country’s name to mean that the past is over. Our next generation will not even know where the border is, it will blend in so much; and that’s only possible with the EU.

If Macedonia joins the EU, and gets military support from Nato, political stability will strengthen. Foreign investors will be happier to build factories, knowing that these investment won’t be risked by potential civil wars.

With Macedonia in the EU, Greece won’t have to fear that Macedonia will have ambitions over their “Macedonian” province, and Macedonians can feel that Macedonia is finally together, with no border between the three parts, and all will fall into place.

I’d like the “North” to be the solution for Greeks and Macedonians to feel that they are from the EU, with no borders: just as Alexander would have wanted.

Sasko Lazarov is a photographer with RollingNews.ie

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