The Republic of Macedonia, a tiny landlocked country of a little more than 2 million people and one of the successor states resulting from the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, has been seeking accession to the European Union for almost the past decade, without any success.
One of the unusual roadblocks to EU membership lies with the opposition of neighbor Greece, which objects strongly to the country’s name, citing that "Macedonia" is a Hellenic (Greek) name and the Greek province of Macedonia borders the Republic of Macedonia. Meanwhile, Macedonians (that is, those in the Republic of Macedonia) feel the name is Slavic in origin and must remain the name of their nation.
Macedonia is symbolically important to Greece since it is the home of legendary heroes like King Philip II of Macedon and his illustrious son, Alexander the Great. In addition, Athens may be worried that the former Yugoslav republic has territorial designs on its northern regions.
Something as seemingly trivial as a disputed name has nonetheless prevented the Republic of Macedonia from joining both the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.
The country was allowed entry into the United Nations in 1993 but only under the provisional -- and rather cumbersome – name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In fact, this is the name that Athens officials would like their northern neighbors to adopt.
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While some countries like the United States uses "the Republic of Macedonia" in official communications, some international organizations and many countries in Europe prefer the Greece-favored name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
The dispute over the name shows no sign of abating.
This week, discussions regarding Macedonia’s EU accession talks were entirely put off of the agenda at the European Council Summit in Brussels (while EU officials endorsed the commencement of accession talks for another Balkan, state, Serbia). Indeed, this marked the fifth straight year the council blocked any talks for Macedonia’s accession.
Reportedly, 80 percent of the Macedonian population favors EU accession. However, the country’s name is only one of many other issues standing in the way of EU membership.
Recently, Frank La Rue, a U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, spent four days in the country at the invitation of Macedonia’s government. La Rue denounced the repressed state of the media there, after a television station and four newspapers were shut down in 2011 and a reporter, Tomislav Kezarovski, spent 30 days in jail for an article he wrote back in 2008.
“I am deeply concerned by the use of multiple legal instruments limiting the space for an independent media, silencing important critical voices,” he said, according to the U.N. News Center.
La Rue also said that investigative journalists and media groups could not freely report on the news in the country. Another report cited recent attacks suffered by Macedonia’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Macedonia’s economy also presents some concerns -- according to the CIA/World Factbook, almost one-third (31.3 percent) of the adult workforce is jobless and about 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
The prime minister of Macedonia since 2006, Nikola Gruevski, who strongly supports EU accession, is a divisive and controversial figure, a nationalist who has clamped down on media freedoms.
A source in the country told the Economist: “When it comes to power, [Gruevski] is a boxer, and he won't stand in the way of people taking out opposition media. He is vindictive, and, when it comes to the media, he is totally selective when it comes to implementing the law.”
Now, in a somewhat mysterious move, Macedonians are seeking to deepen their trade and economic ties with Greece’s traditional rival, Turkey. Macedonia signed a memorandum of understanding with Ankara with respect to cooperative agricultural ventures.
The Turks, of course, remain locked outside the EU themselves, despite years of negotiations and hand-wringing.
According to Turkish Press, Turkey’s minister of food, agriculture and livestock, Mehdi Eker, said the Republic of Macedonia represents an important gateway to the West for Ankara. Moreover, he said that the historical and cultural ties were of great importance to his country (Macedonia once belonged to the vast Ottoman Empire and has a small ethnic Turkish population).
“We desire to enhance our relations [with Macedonia] in every subsector in agriculture and constitute an environment where agriculture contributes more economically, including trade,” Eker said. “In this context, new aid will be added to agenda besides the aid we made to Macedonia before -- in particular, technical aid.”