Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, the head of the ruling coalition’s junior party,
called on the migration minister to resign today (16 March) for failing to use the full name of northern neighbour the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Yannis Mouzalas called it simply “Macedonia” in a late-night interview on Tuesday (15 March), accidentally launching himself into a long and bitter dispute over the proper title of the territory.
Mouzalas quickly apologised for what he said was a blunder, but other members of the government backed him, saying the row was a dangerous distraction from his efforts to deal with Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War Two.
“I asked for Mouzalas to resign on his own, to protect the government and leave,” Kammenos told Mega TV, saying it was a serious matter for his right-wing Independent Greeks party.
“The effort to weaken the minister, who struggles every day to handle the refugee crisis, is irresponsible and hypocritical, particularly ahead of the upcoming EU leaders summit,” the
government as a whole said a statement.
Many Greeks feel a strong emotional tie to the name Macedonia, used historically to describe the birthplace of Alexander the Great and part of ancient Greece.
Some also worry its modern-day use by a separate country covering much of the same territory implies a claim on the northern Greek province of the same name.
The modern country, which emerged from Yugoslavia in 1991, is officially listed as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at the United Nations.
Kammenos said he had passed on his concerns to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, head of the dominant left-wing Syriza party.
“I continue to support this government and Tsipras until the end but I have red lines. Since the minister recognises that he made a huge gaffe, he should go home,” Kammenos said.
The ruling coalition is clinging to a thin parliamentary majority, and needs the Independent Greeks party on side to pass reforms under a third financial; bailout clinched last year. The coalition has a three-seat majority in the 300-seat parliament.
The spat is unlikely to rattle the coalition but reflects underlying differences between the two parties that are on opposite poles of the political spectrum.
The Greek government reacts each time a Commission official calls Macedonia by the constitutional name of the Balkan country. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini made the blunder of calling Macedonia ‘Macedonia’ in March 2015, but has been careful not to repeat the mistake again.
Neighbouring Macedonia lies along the now closed Balkan migration route refugees have used to head to central and northern Europe. The closure has led to logjams along the border with more than 12,000 refugees and migrants camped there.
Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The country is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present. The government of Macedonia however says the majority of the population are not Slavs, but descendants from Alexander the Great.
Of all the hurdles standing in the way of Macedonia's EU accession, the so-called 'name dispute' with Greece appears to be the biggest.
Seen from Athens, the official name used by Skopje – the Republic of Macedonia – is an open challenge to the Greek region of Macedonia. In reprisal, Greece vowed to veto Macedonia's participation in international organisations, including the EU, until the issue is resolved.
Although Macedonia is recognised as the country's constitutional name most EU countries, the name dispute with Greece has led to an impasse for the country's membership of both the EU and Nato. UK, Poland, Romania and 13 other EU countries call the country Macedonia, while France, Germany, Spain and 9 other EU members call it Fyrom.
Greece also considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history. The airport in Skopje was named after Alexander the Great, who is seen by Greece as a hero of its ancient history. Recently, Skopje angered Athens by erecting a giant statue of a ‘warrior on horseback’ resembling Alexander the Great.