As of February 2019, Macedonia has officially changed their name to the Republic of North Macedonia after the signing of the Prespa agreement. The agreement between Greece and Macedonia required the latter country to add “North” to their name. The name disagreement is the result of Greece’s assertions that the name “Macedonia” makes territorial claims over their own region of Macedonia and of history surrounding the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Since Macedonia became a candidate for EU and NATO succession, Greece has continually used its veto powers to prevent the state from joining either group. However, the Prespa agreement required Greece to agree to cease using its veto power against North Macedonia in exchange for the official name change. With the Prespa agreement now in effect, North Macedonia appears to be on its way to becoming a NATO member state (Hajdari).
Macedonia has experienced significant backsliding in its short time as an independent state. In 1991, the country voted to become independent from Yugoslavia, forming a parliamentary republic. Currently, Freedom House describes North Macedonia as a transitional government or a hybrid regime. This status is partly due to a long period in which conservative populist party VMRO-Democratic Party for National Unity held power. This period from 2006 to 2016, in which Prime Minister Gruevski was the head of parliament, was characterized by political corruption and undemocratic practices in parliament (Freedom House). The country has experienced democratic backsliding for roughly a decade. Populist leader Prime Minister Gruevski resigned in 2016 after a wiretapping and surveillance scandal in which the government sponsored the illegal recording of thousands of individuals (Freedom House).
For years, Prime Minister Gruevski used this dispute with Greece as a method to increase support of his conservative party the VMRO-DPMNE. He adamantly opposed Macedonia changing their name and used nationalist rhetoric surrounding this issue to gain more support. Gruevski’s project “Skopje 2014” was an expensive and nationalist infrastructure project which worsened name disputes with Greece (Hajdari). Prime Minister Gruevski set forward to erect statues across the nation’s capital of Skopje of historical figures that North Macedonia is thought to have claim to. The project was the VMRO-DPMNE’s way to “bolster national pride” (Santora). The most controversial of these statues was a large stone Alexander the Great, and another of his father Philip of Macedonia. In addition to their claim to the name “Macedonia”, Greece was upset by these statues as they claim Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedonia to be figures of Greek history, as they were born in what is now modern Greece. This was done by Gruevski to gain support from those who felt they were being “bullied by Greece” to leave behind their own culture (Hajdari).
The settlement of this dispute with Greece opens the door for NATO membership, which will provide the small nation with security and stability (Hajdari). The New York Times labeled the name decision the “key to peace and security” for North Macedonia. It also curtails influence of the Kremlin, as Russia still seeks to have influence over the Balkan countries (Erlanger and Gladstone). Choosing to change their name is a step away from its authoritarian past, and towards a democratic future. The next likely step is accession into the European Union, which will require pro-democratic changes within the country. Entrance into these two groups would not only bring the country into an alliance of Western democracies, but provide the country with a stable military alliance, and foster economic growth.
Pipa Norris, in “Is Western Democracy Backsliding?”, describes regime consolidation as occurring when three characteristics are present:
“(i) Culturally, the overwhelming majority of people believe that democracy is the best form of government, so that any further reforms reflect these values and principles.
(ii) Constitutionally, all the major actors and organs of the state reflect democratic norms and practices.
(iii) Behaviorally, no significant groups actively seek to overthrow the regime or secede from the state” (2).
For North Macedonia, the historic name change signals an improvement in each of these characteristics. Culturally, the Prespa agreement shows a shift in North Macedonian politics in which, democracy is being valued over nationalism and populism. The choice made here, while it may not have been supported by an overwhelming majority, shows a shift in which the country’s choices reflects the goal of achieving a consolidated democracy, rather than continuing a feud over the name for the sake of nationalist pride. Choosing to change the name in order to successfully enter NATO or the European Union exhibits a step forward for democracy and signals upcoming democratic improvements in order to meet the Copenhagen Criteria to join the EU. The Prespa agreement was voted on through legitimate processes that, constitutionally, reflected democratic norms and practices. Behaviorally, this decision reflects the government wanting not to overthrow the regimes or to act as autocrats, but Prime Minister Zaev and the SDSM seeking to improve the state of North Macedonia.
The decision to change the name of the country to North Macedonia displays a step forward for the state, and an improvement where democratic backsliding has been present for years. In Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die, they emphasizes that “even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy” (99). Constitutions are a set rules for democracy but alone, do not prevent backsliding, nor cause regime consolidation. The cultural belief that democracy is valuable, and decisions that reflect that, must be present in order for democracy to improve and to prevent backsliding. The Prespa agreement show a backsliding country making steps towards ending nationalist feuds, curtailing backsliding, and valuing democratic alliances. The addition of “North” to Macedonia, signals a step forward for a previously backsliding country.
Erlanger, Steven, and Rick Gladstone. “With North Macedonia’s Inclusion, NATO Gets a Boost That Sends a Message.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2019,
Hajdari, Una. “How a Name Change Opened the Door to NATO for Macedonia.” The New YorkTimes, The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2019,www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/world/europe/macedonia-nato.html.
Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. “Macedonia.” Freedom House, 28 June 2018,freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/macedonia.
“Nations in Transit 2018.” Freedom House, 4 June 2018,freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2018/macedonia.
Norris, Pippa. 2017. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” HarvardKennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series.
Santora, Marc. “Dancing Nymphs and Pirate Ships: Notes from a Capital of Kitsch.” The NewYork Times, The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2018,www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/world/europe/macedonia-skopje.html?module=inline.
Santora, Marc. “What’s in a Name? For Macedonia, the Key to Peace and Security.” The NewYork Times, The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/03/20/world/europe/macedonia-greece-name.html.
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