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Macedonians manage to joke about a serious naming dispute with Greece

Categories: Eastern & Central Europe, Western Europe, Greece, Macedonia, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Humor, International Relations, Media & Journalism, Politics
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“Thump, thump…” – a comic by Darko Markovikj depicting his take on Macedonian nationalist chest-thumping, published by Citizens for European Macedonia [2] in 2011. Used with permission.

While most citizens in the Republic of Macedonia (RM) consider the naming dispute [3] 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 [4]. 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 [5] 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 [6].

Top Macedonian humorists talk names through satire

The cartoonist Darko Markovikj [7] (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 [8] (reigned 2006-2017), headed by strongman Nikola Gruevski [9].

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 [10], DarMar presciently linked it with desire for power:

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“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 [2]. 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 [12] (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 [13] have the right to claim descent from Ancient Macedonians [14], or only from South Slavs [15] who arrived in the region 1,600 years ago, yet considered as ‘newcomers’ to Greek nationalists:

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“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 [2]. Used with permission.

More recently, the leading satirical television show “Yesterday's News” (“Fcerasni novosti” [17] in Macedonian) humorously addressed the naming dispute through Monty Python [18]-type sketches.

One sketch refers to the Vardar river [19] 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 [20]. 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 [22], causing major delays at the border crossings.