When Macedonia declared independence in 1991, the new country chose a name that evoked the past glories of its most famous claimed son, Alexander the Great.
However, nearly three decades on, the decision to use the name of the ancient kingdom ruled by a general who once conquered half of known civilization is hampering the fledgling nation’s place in the modern world.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic home to about 2.2 million people, has fought since its inception with neighboring Greece over the name it shares with a northern Greek province.
Many Greeks fear the use of the name suggests Skopje might harbor territorial ambitions.
What started as a tug-of-love over a 2,400-year-old ruler — a source of great pride for both nations — has morphed into a charged political dispute holding back Skopje’s efforts to join the EU and NATO.
Athens, a member of both, has so far blocked Skopje’s bids over the name issue.
“There is no other way to join NATO without solving the name issue,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg this week said on a visit to the Macedonian capital.
Known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia at the UN, the country last year elected a new government offering some hope of a breakthrough.
Replacing a nationalist, right-wing administration, the Social Democrats relaunched talks with Athens in a bid to settle the dispute.
This week, a UN envoy said he was “very hopeful” that a solution was in reach, while Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said the row could be ended “by the end of the first quarter of 2018.”
However, Macedonians are split over whether changing the name of their homeland is too high a price to pay to join the world’s largest single market and defense alliance.
Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority has applauded moves toward a compromise.
However, other Macedonians, mainly ethnic Slavs, are less enthusiastic.
“I’m Macedonian. How can something like this [the country’s name] be changed?” said Done Stojanoski, a retired shopkeeper.
“Why don’t they change the name of Americans?” the 67-year-old added.
As Greek nationalist groups mobilize for mass demonstrations this weekend, a raft of not particularly catchy alternative names is circulating. These include: “Upper Macedonia,” “Northern Macedonia,” “New Macedonia” and “Macedonia-Skopje.”
“No, no,” said Zlatko Andreevski, a 32-year-old farmer from the central town of Prilep. “What would I call myself, northern-Macedonian? It doesn’t suit me.”
Public opinion is hard to accurately gauge, but a survey carried out in June 2016 showed that more than one-thirds of Macedonians want to join both the EU and NATO.
However, nearly 65 percent of those polled were against changing Macedonia’s name.
Liljana Stoilova, a 43-year-old vegetable farmer, would accept being a citizen of “‘Northern Macedonia’ as long as we remain Macedonians and our language remains Macedonian.”
However, in a nation experiencing a mass exodus of young professionals and with an average monthly salary of 350 euros (US$430), pragmatism among some Macedonians comes before patriotism.
Accepting the name change “would give us priority to enter both NATO and EU. Politicians have to settle this,” said Gani Rahman, 49, an ethnic Albanian waiter.
However, it is not clear how a name change would work in practice. One outstanding issue is whether the new name would be used internationally or just domestically, and in official correspondence or not.
Another is the amount of facilities and landmarks named after Alexander the Great.
Nano Ruzin, a political scientist who served as Macedonia’s ambassador to NATO, said Skopje’s international airport would probably need renaming after any deal.
“Some changes are necessary from an aesthetic point of view,” he said, including several neo-classical monuments in the capital.
Ali Amethi, a former leader of an ethnic Albanian political party said that some monuments would need removing entirely.
While he is in favor of a name change, he said there should be some red lines.
“For Albanians, the names of ‘the Slav Republic’ or ‘the National Republic of Macedonia’ would be unacceptable,” he said.
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