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Macedonians manage to joke about a serious naming dispute with Greece

“Thump, thump…” – a comic by Darko Markovikj depicting his take on Macedonian nationalist chest-thumping, published by Citizens for European Macedonia in 2011. Used with permission.

While most citizens in the Republic of Macedonia (RM) consider the naming dispute with Greece as a serious matter, some have dealt with it through humor and satire.

Greeks have long accused the RM of confusing nomenclature with the neighboring Greek region of Macedonia and the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon.

The naming dispute is further complicated by the Greek blockade of RM's entry into the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unless it changes its name to differentiate from its northern administrative regions. This has led to a degree of xenophobia in both countries. Most citizens of RM consider the blockade a humiliating form of blackmail, while many Greek citizens believe their northern neighbors have designs of conquest.

Nationalists from both countries have stoked feelings of humiliation and frustration, exacerbating the problem while gaining political points for ‘patriotism’ in the process. In effect, the continuation of the naming dispute has benefited Russia's strategy to prevent the consolidation of EU and NATO in the Balkans.

The only point of consensus about the naming dispute between Macedonia and Greece is that it's not a laughing matter. Over the last quarter of a century, the presence of satirical or humorous contents about it has been negligible in comparison to grim commentary and hate speech. Purposefully or not, satire was often misinterpreted as hate speech.

Top Macedonian humorists talk names through satire

The cartoonist Darko Markovikj (also written as Marković, 1940-2016), worked with leading Macedonian independent media outlets until they were co-opted or closed by the nationalist government of VMRO-DPMNE (reigned 2006-2017), headed by strongman Nikola Gruevski.

Nicknamed DarMar (slang for ‘disorder’ or ‘havoc’), Markovikj used caricatures, comics, and animations to comment on daily events and political developments. During his long career, he espoused liberal and pro-democracy positions which were often at odds with mainstream socialism (before independence) and nationalism (after independence).

In 2009, when Gruevski included issues of Macedonian ethnic identity and language into the naming dispute negotiations, DarMar presciently linked it with desire for power:

“I'm for NATO… I'm for the European Union… But I refuse to give up my identity!” – cartoon by Darko Markovikj published by Citizens for European Macedonia. Used with permission.

The prolonging of the naming dispute has had long-term negative consequences on international stability and directly affected the livelihood of Macedonian citizens. The Greek economic embargo (1994-95) and the country's exclusion from the EU severely limited opportunities for economic development.

DarMar contrasted this with the nationalist rhetoric disputing whether contemporary ethnic Macedonians have the right to claim descent from Ancient Macedonians, or only from South Slavs who arrived in the region 1,600 years ago, yet considered as ‘newcomers’ to Greek nationalists:

“I'm no longer Ancient Macedonian… I'm not Macedonian Slav either..!” – “What are you now?” – “Now I'm a Macedonian laid-off worker.” Cartoon by Darko Markovikj published by Citizens for European Macedonia. Used with permission.

More recently, the leading satirical television show “Yesterday's News” (“Fcerasni novosti” in Macedonian) humorously addressed the naming dispute through Monty Python-type sketches.

One sketch refers to the Vardar river which flows through Skopje, the capital of the RM, and then turns south into Greece where it is known as Axios and empties into the Aegean Sea. The two comedians joked that plastic bottles floating in the river are not actually trash but rather ‘messages in a bottle’ as “part of the eco-geo-political pressure put on our southern neighbor.”  They continue:

Seeing that Facebook statuses won’t help us protect our name, citizens decided to put a different type of pressure on Greece. They started sending messages in bottles down the Vardar, which flows down to the abovementioned southern neighbor.

Aco: A flock of plastic bottles…. Jetza, what’s shall I say, a flock or a herd?
Jelena: I don’t have a clue. Just read what’s written. … and don’t call me Jetza.
Aco: Thousands of bottles have been seen floating down the Vardar River, drawn there by the not-so-heavy rain. Malicious environmentalists may call this genocide to Vardar’s flora and fauna and a reflection of our own barbarism. But it is not what it seems.
Although these bottles look like trash thrown out by many uncaring litterers, or by a single uncaring litterer, they are part of the eco-geo-political pressure put on our southern neighbor. Seeing that Facebook statuses won’t help us protect our name, citizens decided to put a different type of pressure on Greece. They started sending messages in bottles down the Vardar, which flows down to the abovementioned southern neighbor.
You can remain calm. Our name, identity and language are secure as long as there are enough concerned citizens like this one.

As politicians dispute names, citizens go for a Greek holiday

While the naming dispute rages on, many regular citizens of the RM enjoy heading to Greece as a primary travel destination as the nearest seaside with ample budget and luxury travel options.

A one-day shopping tour is seen as a sign of social status, giving citizens the chance to shop for brands unavailable in the RM while enjoying ‘a coffee by the sea’ in Thessaloniki, just a few hours away by car from Skopje.

This week, as Macedonians looked forward to a four-day long weekend starting May 24 around two major national holidays, opposition parties refused to accept the latest proposal to solve naming dispute proposed by Macedonian and Greek prime ministers. One Twitter user joked about the ‘implications’ of this for holiday travelers:

As a sign of protest, Macedonians will occupy Greece.
The attack starts on Thursday, and will result in blocking of all border crossings. The operation will last till Monday. The action's cost will be several million euros.
Greek association of merchants and hotel owners stated that they're not afraid. “Do come!” they shout.

Sure enough, the first day of the long weekend attracted over 10,000 Macedonian citizens who piled into cars bound for Greece, causing major delays at the border crossings.

7 comments

  • James Humphreys

    The Republic of Illyrians Macedonia, as Illyrian is what ancient Greeks called their northern neighbours, or republic of non Hellenic Macedonia, or republic of Gligorov Macedonia or Gligorovia

  • It’s not funny. Macedon was Greek Kingdom. Alexander the Great was Greek King of Macedon. But you will never get [ex] Yugoslavs from FYRoM to admit it.

    The right to bear the name – Nobody is more Macedonian than Hellenic-Macedonians.

    The name dispute must conclude on principle of preserving historical (accuracy) cohesion. And on the principle of erga omnes.

    • James Humphreys

      I’m from Britain, and I find it funny that greeks are focusing on something trivial; a few ago, your country was in crisis, how much money is your government is wasting on meeting with your northern neighbour, to resolve on what to call a country, if it that IMPORTANT to a country, I’m sure it would had been resolved in the 1990’s not taken nearly 4 decades, and when has your northern neighbour invaded your country; there is a Greek magazine showing, elerfteri ORA showing your northern neighbour into 4 and one showing has the Greek flag, so much as your northern neighbour being irredentist, when a Greek magazine showing your northern neighbour being part of greeks. You always find history full of inaccuracies, but your northern neighbour will call themselves Macedonians, and unless there is a referendum.

      • ak

        Jimmy, mate, dont you have Brexit to worry about? Why dont you let Greeks and Skopjanites decide whats trivial and jog on back to Regis or something. I think its tea time

        • James Humphreys

          Just because, I’m a Brit, doesn’t mean I can’t be interested in foreign affairs, and learn about other countries; would, I like to see a certain type of brexit, yes, however whatever, we end up with probably won’t be unique to us, and other countries manage to cope fine.
          Why is it concerning that to you, I am interested, I am a lover of geography and knowing what a country is called is important, and majority of people outside the Balkan area, and I call your northern neighbour, Republic of Macedonia love it or loath it

    • Sam

      I think the Macedonians have allowed what really is important to get lost. This is not a dispute over a name, or who has ownership over a cultural legacy it has nothing to do with that
      but what happened to the Macedonians of Greece.

      In 1991 the Greek Government continued Nation building it took the “Greeks” from Turkey who were settled in Macedonia after the Balkan Wars and manufactured the Macedonian dispute of today
      and in itself the Macedonian-Greek Identity from scratch. I saw it myself in Australia long old friends no longer my friends because I was a threat to them suddenly they got absorbed with what was happening back home and the Greek Govt
      used and manipulated them even though they will probably not ever admit it.

      Let me tell you ethnic Macedonians use the term “prosfigi” or to to simplify things the Pontians

      Macedonian Immigration to the United States, Canada and Australia and the communities that grew from it was established a long, long, long time ago and I never believed as a kid growing up in Australia that my Greek mates would one day consider themselves as Macedonian I mean it was like bizarre to even think it and I never did. In some warped strange way the more I talk to Greeks they mostly recognize me as I am and I see there is a hidden truth of what it means to be Greek and its very loose to the point it’s all BS held together by the Greek Orthodox Church with tape with the mere fact Greeks today live on a patch of land and believe are a literal continuation of the ancients

      Ethnic Macedonians have been discriminated and assimilated for over 100 years and I can say Hellenism has been darn good and almost removing Greece of all its National Minority’s those that built the back of Greece and that is the Skelton in the Closet for Greece

      The Macedonians keep on paying for it

  • James Humphreys

    I do find it ironic, that your northern neighbours, call themselves Macedonia, when they wanted to put, The in the name, and are alphabetical after Thailand in the UN, as the 1st president of your northern neighbour, said by having: Former Yugoslavia, that Serbia, might claim territory from Macedonia, and that it was Tito, that gave the name Macedonia in the first place; Your northern neighbours should have two names, after all Greece has two a standard official name Hellenic Republic and a colloquial name Greece, so Greece would be hypocrites, and I found it ironic that other Greeks and you call it FYROM, as what does the M stand for.

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