Feud Between Greece, Macedonia Continues Over Claim to Alexander the Great

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 28, 2009

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Alexander the Great died more than 2,300 years ago. But his cult of personality is just starting to grip this tiny Balkan country.

To the annoyance of next-door Greece, which has long claimed the conqueror as its own, Macedonia has anointed Alexander its national hero. The government has renamed the international airport here in his honor, as well as the main highway to Greece. Soon to come: a 72-foot-tall marble colossus of Alexander astride his favorite warhorse, Bucephalus, which will dominate the skyline of the capital, Skopje.

The mania over Alexander is the latest chapter in a long-running feud between Macedonia and Greece that some officials fear has the potential to destabilize a region still trying to recover from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The dispute centers on a basic question: Does Macedonia, a country born out of the rubble of the former Yugoslavia, have the right to call itself what it wants? For 18 years, the conflict has defied attempts by the United States, the United Nations and European powers to find a solution.

The Greek government refuses to recognize its neighbor's constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, which it sees as a thinly veiled bid to lay claim to three of its northern districts, a region known as Greek Macedonia. After Macedonia declared independence in 1991, Greece prevented it from joining the United Nations and imposed an economic blockade that nearly strangled the fledgling country.

Greece also vetoed Macedonia's bid to join NATO last year and is blocking its admission to the European Union until it changes its name to the Republic of Skopje, the Slavic Republic of Macedonia or something similar.

Macedonian officials said they cannot understand why Greece sees their country's name as a threat or thinks they have a secret plan to annex northern Greece.

"It's laughable," said Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki, noting that the Macedonian military consists of 8,000 troops and a fleet of eight helicopters. "In America, you have a good phrase to describe a confusing situation. You say, 'It's all Greek to me.' Sometimes we say it's all Greek to us as well."

Greeks complain that the Republic of Macedonia is challenging their national identity and stealing their history. Alexander, the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, was born in the city of Pella, located in present-day Greece. The Athens government says there is no question that he was Greek. The Republic of Macedonia, it says, consists of Slavs and other outsiders who invaded the region a millennium after Alexander died.

"This practice is bothering Greece a lot," said Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Yannis Valinakis. "It demonstrates Skopje's lack of goodwill and respect."

Under a truce brokered in 1995 by former U.S. secretary of state Cyrus Vance, Macedonia was allowed to join the United Nations on the Greek condition that it refer to itself in multinational institutions as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. It was also required to change its flag and rewrite its constitution to include a promise never to violate Greek territory or interfere in Greece's internal affairs.

Macedonians hate the FYROM label, which is a reminder of communist times. Although the government has persuaded more than 120 countries, including the United States, to recognize it as the Republic of Macedonia, it is still forced to go by FYROM at the United Nations.

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