As a professor (now an emeritus professor) of Classics and Ancient History at The University of Western Australia, I became involved in the Macedonian naming dispute about ten years ago, when I noticed that under then Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski a statue that seemed to be intended to represent Alexander the Great was to be erected in Skopje, and various other monuments were being given names that implied that what was then The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia was connected with the ancient Macedonia that existed in the 4th century B.C. I knew that this was incorrect, so I gave a little talk on the subject to a Greek audience, and created a small pamphlet entitled The Myth of Modern Macedonia to combat this presence.
This was a personal initiative, because my university has no position with regard to this matter, and is interested only in avoiding disputes on campus (which have not happened) or the appearance of favouring either group. I have never agreed with the extremist Greek position, that the name of ‘Macedonia’ should never be used to describe the FYROM. It has been used to describe an enlarged Macedonia since the second century BC, so modification of the name of the modern country has always seemed to me to be the best solution. In my pamphlet I suggested that ‘North Macedonia’ might be an acceptable way of resolving the problem. I am very pleased that both governments have now accepted this name.
The only thing with which I disagree in the text of the Prespes Agreement that I have studied is that the language of North Macedonia is to be called ‘Macedonian’.
This can lead to confusion between the modern language and the ancient Macedonian dialect (although the latter is almost completely irrecoverable, because the ancient Macedonians hardly ever used writing, and all that we have is about a hundred and fifty words and names, some of them perhaps slightly misspelt in the manuscripts, that have been recorded in the Byzantine period). It is clear, however, that it was one of a number of slightly similar dialects that were spoken in the north of today’s Greece and to the north and west of it, before the Attic dialect became the basis of the koine language that spread over the eastern Mediterranean world after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
I would have preferred that the North Macedonian language should be called ‘Modern Macedonian’ to make this distinction clear. If there is any chance of making this change, I hope that both sides can agree on it. However, what is much more important is that the Greeks and North Macedonians who have furiously resisted this change of name should now cease their complaints, and start working to make this agreement a success, because it will be beneficial for both countries. There is a lot of work to do, both in the short term and in the coming decades, and I estimate that it will take at least fifty years before things become fully settled. In the first place, many hours of work will be required in both countries to rework documents of many kinds and rename organisations in North Macedonia. Then there is the enormous task of editing teaching material in North Macedonia so that it does not give a false view of history.
Finally, it will take more than one generation for the mistaken beliefs of the North Macedonians, beliefs on which for so many of them their identity is based, to be corrected and replaced by a more accurate understanding of their history.
John Melville-Jones is a professor at the Australian Insitute of Western Australia.
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