It appears that after twenty-seven years, the conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter country’s name will be settled if the referendum passes: what was the Republic of Macedonia will now be known as Northern Macedonia.

I have been involved in efforts to resolve this conflict since 1991. I was shuttling between the Greek and Macedonian governments when the conflict was developing because I happened to be consulting to both countries’ prime ministers at the time.

I failed. I was born in Macedonia and carry a Macedonian passport, but I was attacked by the media and labeled a Macedonian traitor. I was eased out of my consulting assignment.

Twenty-seven years later, the conflict might be over.

For those readers unfamiliar with the gravity of the issue: this is dispute over a country’s name that took twenty-seven years to resolve, a dispute that provoked Greece to place economic sanctions on Macedonia (its neighbor immediately to the north), to defy American pressure to cooperate, and to veto any attempts to admit Macedonia into NATO or the EU.

The subject of Macedonia’s name evokes emotional responses almost as intense as those evoked by the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You do not want to start discussing the subject over dinner in either of the countries involved—trust me, I’ve tried. I do not remember what I ate at those dinners, or if I ate at all.

What is the issue? Why was I so eager to resolve it?

Macedonia claims that they are the country of Alexander III of Macedon, Alexander the Great. They even named the airport in their capital Skopje “Alexander the Great” Airport.

The Greeks went wild. Alexander the Great is Greek, they said. The Yugoslav Macedonians are stealing the Greek legacy, the Greek history, the Greek tradition—how dare they?

They insisted that the country be referred to at the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.

This situation raises the question: who are the Macedonian people?

The Serbs claim that they are Slavs—people very much like the Serbs, except who speak a Serbian dialect of Bulgarian. But, because Macedonians speak this dialect of Bulgarian, the Bulgarians claim that Macedonia is part of Bulgaria. Meanwhile, the Greeks claim that Macedonians are Greek. Northern Greece contains a large region called Macedonia, and yet the people there are forbidden from carrying Macedonian names, having Macedonian cultural centers, or celebrating Macedonian cultural celebrations.

Why is that? It’s simple: Greece fears the breakdown of their nation.

When the Republic of Macedonia separated from the disintegrating Yugoslavia and declared independence in 1991, the Greek government grew deeply concerned that the Macedonians of Northern Greece might want to do the same and conspire to join the new Republic of Macedonia because, for centuries, the Greek Macedonians have dreamed of having their own country. So, Greece insisted Macedonia change its name. Since they refused, Greece imposed an embargo on the new country. Bulgaria, immediately east of the Republic of Macedonia, did not like the new country’s name either, and for the same reason: Western Bulgaria is populated by ethnic Macedonians who the Bulgarians suspected might also want to join the new country they believed they belonged to.

Is that all? No.

It appears that about 40% of the Republic of Macedonia’s population is Albanian (although the number is a rough estimate because recent censuses have been largely boycotted by the Albania population of Macedonia).

These Albanians do not see themselves as Macedonians: their language is different, and their religions are different. They populate Western Macedonia, a region where they have their own enterprises and their own educational institutions in their own Albanian language. They do not mix with Macedonians. Just as Israelis will keep their feet away from Palestinian areas that are technically part of Israel, Macedonians are careful when visiting Albanian parts of Macedonia.

When consulting to the Macedonian government in the early 1990s, I reasoned that if Macedonia were vetoed from joining the EU but if Albania successfully joined, then the Albanians in Macedonia would revolt and join mother Albania, and Macedonia will cease to exist. I claimed that it was imperative for Macedonia to join NATO in order to prevent attacks by neighboring countries and that it was also important that Macedonia join EU. In a sense, there are no borders in the EU, and so the threat of Albanians in Macedonia joining Albania would be null.

No amount of reason could help me. The Macedonian prime minister at the time, Branko Crvenkovski, made fun of my recommendations. He said, “You Americans only care about money. That is what is sacred to you, and nothing else. We care about our name, our heritage. You would have us change our name to the Republic of Coca-Cola if they offered us enough money.“

I was moving back and forth between the Greek and Macedonia governments for few years.

When Andreas Papandreou was still the prime minister of Greece but too ill to perform his role, I spoke to his son George Papandreou (at that time, Greece’s minister of education). I convinced him to agree to the name New Macedonia and to remove the embargo and the veto. George then talked to his father, who agreed.

I told him that Serbia was not an ally (although they both share the same religion) and that Greece was not the enemy—it was just the opposite. I told him that Serbia would try to claim Kosovo for itself by expelling the Albanians who lived there, but where would they go?

The Albanians would not go to Albania—the country was, and is, too poor. They would not cross the Adriatic to get to Italy. No, Serbia would push the Albanians to Macedonia, Albanians would become the majority in Macedonia, and the country called Macedonia would cease to exist.

If that were to happen, Greece would be surrounded by Muslims in the north and in the south. It would not be something to look forward to; Greece has had a long-term tension with Turkey. But, I knew Serbia would push their Albanian population into Macedonia because I was consulting to the Serbian government at the time, and Slobodan Milošević, President of Serbia, discussed exactly this subject with me. Serbia did just that. And, in the aftermath, NATO attacked Serbia to stop what was later described as “ethnic cleansing.”

It was imperative that the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia changed their country’s name in order to survive. But, symbols evoke emotions and compel people to ignore logic and reason. As far as I can tell from my correspondence with friends, the economic conditions eventually grew critical enough that reason finally prevailed.

I am happy it might happen now.

Just Thinking,

Ichak Kalderon Adizes