Would Macedonia by any other name sound so . . . controversial?
As 21st-century international disputes go, this is a benign one: what name to give Macedonia, the landlocked Balkan nation that was once part of Yugoslavia.
The U.S. State Department supports the name Republic of Macedonia, and Greece and the United Nations support the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, commonly known by the cumbersome acronym FYROM. Now 16 legislatures in the United States have seen fit to weigh in on this issue in support of Greece's position.
What, one may ask, do state legislators thousands of miles away know about this international exercise in name-calling? Very little, it turns out.
“It’s all about the former Czechoslovakian area, the whole thing,” said state Sen. Phil Leventis of South Carolina, who proposed the 2005 resolution in his state. Never mind that Macedonia was never part of Czechoslovakia, a country that ceased to exist in 1993, or that its successor nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, lie some 600 miles to the north of Macedonia.
Lambert C. Boissiere Jr., a former state senator from Louisiana, sponsored the state’s 2003 resolution. Boissiere, who is now the constable of New Orleans, could offer no details of the region or the dispute. But he could recall that the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on St. Bernard Avenue in New Orleans had asked him to sponsor the resolution, and he offered to call his secretary in Baton Rouge for more details.
And James Trakas, a Greek-American and former state representative who sponsored the Ohio resolution, said, “I think it is important to have the state of Ohio go on record with issues of importance. This issue is an emotional issue.”
Trakas said a group of Macedonian Greeks in northeast Ohio asked him to sponsor the resolution. “Almost everyone kind of laughed and said, 'You people in that part of the state have different priorities,'” Trakas said.
The Pan-Macedonian Association, a pro-Greek organization, lobbied for the resolutions in many states. All 16 resolutions are posted on the group’s Web site, panmacedonia.info, along with proclamations from last summer’s annual convention in Las Vegas.
Panos Spiliakos, the president of the organization, said the name Macedonia should belong to Greece. He said the Macedonians to Greece’s north have stolen Greek history and must be stopped from promulgating further fallacies.
“It is not enough to be right, you have to be powerful enough to establish that you are right,” Spiliakos said.
While Spiliakos does not want the name Macedonia used by one of Greece’s neighbors, the former Yugoslav Republic doesn’t necessarily have to use FYROM, he said. He suggests Albaniaslavia or perhaps Slavalbania. Then there’s Vardarska Republika, after a river that traverses the region to Greece’s north.
That the country calling itself Macedonia even has two names is the result of a series of tragicomic twists. A nation of 2 million and slightly larger than the state of Vermont, Macedonia has been at the center of controversy since it declared independence in 1991. Since then, the northernmost region of Greece, also named Macedonia, has shared a border with a country calling itself Macedonia.
The name FYROM was created to placate Greece, many of whose citizens refuse to use the name Macedonia when referring to their northern neighbor because of conflicting claims to the legacy of the ancient Macedonians and heroes like Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon. Most Greeks choose to say they share a border with the FYROMians.
Since Nov. 4, 2004, the State Department has recognized the constitutional name that the country gave itself in 1991, the Republic of Macedonia. Three states, South Carolina, Nevada and Wisconsin, passed nonbinding resolutions stating that the name Macedonia should apply only to the northernmost province of Greece.
Dan Vrakas, a former representative in Wisconsin, was surprised to learn that his resolution conflicted with the stated policy of the State Department. “On this one I break with the State Department, although I agree with them on 99 percent of the issues,” Vrakas said.
The state resolutions have mostly slipped through without notice, but not Boissiere’s in Louisiana. In a June 15, 2003, editorial, “It’s All Greek to Them,” the Times-Picayune of New Orleans wrote that Boissiere had inserted the Louisiana Legislature into “one of the world’s most absurd and pointless international disputes.’”
Boissiere fired off a response to the paper. “I am shocked by the callousness you show toward a matter that is of extreme significance and importance to these honorable Greek-American citizens,” Boissiere wrote before concluding, “Long live Macedonia, a Greek province!”