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What’s In a Country’s Name?

The Olympics are one more stage for Greece and Macedonia to argue about the latter’s name.

By: /
1 August, 2012
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

The Olympic Games are a useful reminder of the power of nationalism. Every four years, we find ourselves rooting for people we do not know because they are wearing colours that we identify with. This is not different from the usual sports identification process – try wearing a Maple Leafs sweater into a Montreal bar – but it is perhaps a bit more amplified as team and country reinforce each other at the Olympic level. 

I was reminded of this while watching the Twitter feed about the opening ceremony. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) came up in conversation. I guess Macedonia marched along with Fiji and France rather than with Manitoba (kidding). In all seriousness, though, Greece has obsessively blocked Macedonia’s entrance into international organizations under its preferred name, because Macedonia is also the name of a region in Greece. So FYROM is the default until this is resolved – even at the Olympics, which is supposedly a place where nationalist rancour is put aside (yeah, right).

What did I Tweet that angered some Greeks?

Greeks say that the name Macedonia poses an irredentist threat to Greece – that Macedonia would claim northern parts of Greece. Who am I to question that?


Well, I wrote the book on irredentism. OK, I co-wrote the book on irredentism. OK, OK, I co-wrote a book on irredentism. Anyhow, yes, there are folks in Macedonia who have irredentist ambitions, but those folks are not a powerful force. More importantly, Greece is a much more powerful country – militarily, economically, and politically – so there is really no threat at all of Macedonia taking over hunks of Greece to create a Greater Macedonia.

No, Macedonia is actually threatened by irredentism – the brief skirmish that NATO ended in 2001 was part of a Greater Albania project. Actually, aside from Turkey (which is a big aside), the biggest irredentist threat in the neighbourhood is … Greece. Greece’s involvement in Cyprus has often been a bit questionable, and Greece has played politics with the Albanian Orthodox Church to get folks in there that support giving up hunks of Albania to Greece.

To be clear, I am not saying that I am in love with the government of Macedonia, which has often been flawed. What I am saying is that Macedonia does not present a real security threat to Greece. Instead, it provides an opportunity for politicians to take nationalist stances: The politician who lets Macedonia enter an international organization under the name Macedonia will be accused of betrayal.

On Twitter, I compared this outbidding dynamic of a largely substance-less issue to the silliness of American politicians comparing flag pins that they now must wear or else be accused of being not sufficiently American or patriotic. The difference is that the flag-pin competition has not had any real impact, whereas keeping Macedonia out of organizations has hurt its economy and perhaps been damaging politically. Rather than focusing on the substantial issues of the day, Macedonian politicians can focus on the name game, too. 

Indeed, as I have mentioned before, these nationalist games are handy distractions from good governance. How has Greece’s government performed during the era of FYROM/the “threat” of Macedonian irredentism? Not so good.

Of course, the irony here is that Greece gave us the Olympics. The Games provide us with the basic dynamics that drive nationalism itself – competitive self-esteem. Medal counts will shape how we feel about our countries. We will only note the deviant performances by athletes from countries we are not fond of (see the stories of Chinese swimmers). And it gives another chance for Greece to keep Macedonia from competing under its preferred name. 

Perhaps the people we should learn from are the nation-less folks. The four athletes that aren’t representing particular countries during this year’s Olympic Games made a positive impression at the opening ceremony. Free of the politics of nationalism, they can just be happy and enthusiastic without having to make anyone else feel bad.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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