The Geopolitics Of The Macedonian Ethnogenesis

“The Balkan oasis of peace” was an epithet given to Yugoslav Macedonia during the bloody destruction of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. However, it seems much less convincing today, than twenty-five years ago as Europe is wondering if the territory of ex-Yugoslav Macedonia can become the last domino in the domino-effect of the collapse of the former Yugoslav federation[1] taking two fundamental reasons: “Albanian Question” in Macedonia, and Macedonia’s political-diplomatic dispute with neighboring Greece.

The name “Macedonia” today belongs to two independent states: Greece and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). A memory of the political-military achievements of Macedon kings Philip II and Alexander the Great are living in political narratives in both countries who derived great pride from their self-understood association with the name Macedonia. Therefore, claims by FYROM to the name Macedonia offend Greek national feelings, since North Greece’s region of Macedonia has equal or even more moral and historical claim to the title.

Balkan Irredentism

Probably, the focal point of Balkan nationalisms that can direct us to properly understand the historical evolution of this region to this day is that national-self-rule was and is the product of both secessionism and irredentism, unlike in majority of non-Balkan countries. Macedonian case in this matter is one of the typical examples of such phenomena. If we look at the Balkan maps of the first, initially autonomous provinces and later sovereign states, and compare them to their present-day maps we can notice that the first provinces/states emerged in the 19th century included no more than half the territory these states have today. All of East Balkan states were the product of secessions from the Ottoman Empire, first in the form of autonomous provinces and then as internationally recognized independent states. However, from the very beginning, they understood themselves as matrix-states (“Piedmont”) with an open irredentist mission to annex all “national” territories in the neighborhood according to self-interpreted “ethnic” and “historical” rights.[2]

The fact that modern Balkan states adopted the politics of irredentism inevitably led them to ethnic conflicts with the neighbors as in the Balkans, the marked territories targeted by one state conflicted with those targeted by other states, because of the mixed populations and, in many cases, their lack of a clear national consciousness in these territories as, for instance, Macedonian case clearly confirms this historical development of national politics. Macedonian nationalism is, however, the last nationalism to have been developed in South-East Europe, in the very end of the 19th century, in fact, by the creation of the first Macedonian revolutionary organization in Thessaloniki in 1893 by Bulgarian high school teachers. This is today a celebrated event in FYROM as the beginning of a Slavo-Macedonian struggle for a united national-state of a Greater Macedonia. Today’s FYROM represents, in fact, a historical accident of the 1912−1913 Balkan Wars – a territory which the Kingdom of Serbia received according to the 1913 Bucharest Peace Treaty.[3]

The National Institution Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood
The National Institution Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood, Skopje

It is not true that the idea to create a united Greater Macedonia which should include the so-called Pirin, Aegean and Vardar Macedonia only exist after 1991 within the political framework of some extreme Macedonian nationalists and that official Macedonia’s view recognizes the inviolability of Bulgaria’s and Greece’s borders and explicitly renounces any territorial claims. We cannot, however, forget that such idea was included into an official programme of the ruling political party in FYROM in the 1990s (reestablished nationalistic IMRO)[4] and that the 1991 Macedonia’s constitution was implicitly speaking to this direction. Greece and Bulgaria (Serbia to a certain extent too) should, therefore, fear a territorial threat from neighboring FYROM at least on the propaganda-diplomatic level.

Historical (Dis)Continuity and Contemporary Politics

Both Greek and FYROM historians usually and unfortunately are not making a clear difference between ancient and modern/contemporary times in dealing with the very sensitive question of Slavo-Macedonian and Greek national ethnogenesis. This is one of the reasons of their separate claims to have an exclusive copyright to the designation “Macedonian”.

In the paragraphs below, the basic viewpoints on Macedonian ethnogenesis by all most interested sides involved in this question will be presented.

Greek Viewpoint

Modern Greek intellectuals state that there is an unbroken historical continuity between ancient and modern Greeks what is far from the truth.[5] However, a very important component of this theory of historical continuity is the claim that Antique Macedon people are from ethnical point of view, culturally and linguistically part of the ancient Greek world. This idea is deeply rooted in the official framework of Greek national identity and ethnogenesis. After Greece became independent from Ottoman Empire in 1829/1830 Greeks used this theory of historical continuity in order to make moral and political claims to ancient Macedon territory and Macedon cultural legacy. Today, the effects of such claims are clearly visible in Greek attitude to oppose FYROM’s right to use the term “Macedonia” in the official state-name, to use as state-symbols those in relation to Antique Macedon (for instance, a “Sun of Vergina”), to relate the identity of FYROM with ancient Kingdom of Macedon and to usurp the history of Antique Macedon (for instance, erecting monuments to Philip II and Alexander the Great, naming public objects and national infrastructure with their names like the highway, airport or national stadium in Skopje, etc.).[6] In other words, from a Greek perspective, “Slavs of Skopje” (but never “Macedonians”) are “stealing Greek name”, “embezzling” Greek cultural heritage and “falsifying” Greek history.[7] A usual official Greek answer to the question who were the people of Antique Macedon is: one of the many Greek (Hellenic) tribes who finally at the time of Philip II and Alexander the Great became the unifiers of all Greece (Hellas) (after the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC in Beotia/Boeotia, Greece).

Modern Greek historiography and ethnology support an idea of the essential cultural, linguistic and civilizational Greekness of Antique Macedon based on linguistic arguments and different archaeological material which are coming from excavations of ancient Macedon sites done after the WWI onward (Vergina, Pella, Philippi, etc). As a matter of fact, there is at least thousand years of continuous presence of Greek (Hellenic) culture on the territory of Antique Macedon. In addition, the aristocracy of ancient Kingdom of Macedon played a crucial role in rooting of Hellenic culture in Macedonia. These two facts are an unbeaten reality by any objective academician but, at the same time, both facts do not mean that ancient Macedon people have been the ethnic Greeks. However, surely, they have not been either Slavs, but being Hellenized several centuries before Slavs arrived at the Balkans.

Slavo-Macedonian Viewpoint

The claim of historical continuity is also found in both positions of some of the nationalists among FYROM’s authorities and in extreme propaganda by Slavo-Macedonian nationalists, especially by those who are living in emigration. They try to demonstrate the continuity between antique Macedons and modern Slavo-Macedonians by denying the very fact that the former were not the Slavs as the later are. Nevertheless, they claim that today’s Slavo-Macedonians are direct ethnic descendants of the inhabitants of ancient Kingdom of Macedon. For instance, we can read:

Only those Macedonians who feel direct descendants of Philip and Alexander in unbroken continuity will remain eternally immune to the assimilation propagandas of the neighboring states and will never betray the Macedonian race

[A programmatic statement of Makedonsko Sonce, the weekly organ of the World Macedonian Congress]

Even though that this is just the opinion of some extreme nationalists (more moderate patriots acknowledge the fact that modern Slavo-Macedonians have no ethnic relation to ancient Macedonians as Slavs arrived at Macedonia only in the sixth century AD[8]), such propaganda strengthens Greek position as more academic and objective. The crux of the matter is that as Greeks claim that the ancient Macedonian culture is part of Antique Greek world, and that modern Greeks are their direct descendants, it is for them impossible that others claim to be as well as the descendants of the ancient Macedonians.

An idea that modern Slavo-Macedonians are ethnic descendants of ancient Macedon people is essentially propagated at the expense of Greeks and it became very strengthened at the first years of FYROM’s independence after 1991[9] with the usurpation of ancient Macedon symbols,[10] for instance of the Sun of Vergina – a symbol used by ancient Macedon royal dynasty and found in Macedon King Philip’s tomb in Greece. Moreover, the new FYROM’s authorities went further in direct provoking Greece and Greeks as on the Republic of Macedonia’s commemorative currency was put the image of the White Tower of the city of Thessaloniki, which is situated in Aegean Macedonia of Greece being the second largest city of the country. For Greeks, it became quite clear that their northern neighbor has territorial pretensions on the land of the state of Greece. Such claims were backed and by both FYROM’s irredentist constitution and the programme of the leading FYROM’s political party – the VMRO-DPMNE (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – The Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity), which was fighting for the unification of “all Macedonia” (FYROM, Aegean Macedonia of Greece, Pirin Macedonia of Bulgaria and the land around Pčinja river in Serbia).


Clearly, Athens not only perceives the (mis)use of such symbols as a “cultural threat” but also understand it as an actual threat to the territorial integrity of Greece. This feeling was strengthened by the Article 49 in the constitution which was stating that the Republic of Macedonia cares for the status and rights of Macedonian people in neighbouring countries which Greece saw as a reference to alleged Macedonian minority in North Greece and, therefore, interpreted the article as a territorial threat to this region and Greece’s sovereignty. Moreover, the maps of a “Greater Macedonia” regularly circulated in FYROM, on which North Greece was included into the so-called “united Macedonia”.[11] All these facts are strong reasons for Greece to be afraid of territorial claims by FYROM concerning Aegean Macedonia that is about 1/3 of Greece. It has to be noted that the wish to create a “free, united and independent Macedonia” by “liberating” parts of a historical-geographic Macedonia which are “temporarily occupied” by Greece and Bulgaria (after the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913), is not merely the goal only by the extreme Macedonian nationalists but rather has a greater support by the people. However, more moderate Macedonian nationalists (which have the biggest influence over FYROM’s political life) formally recognize the inviolability of Greek and Bulgarian state-borders and officially reject any territorial claims (irredenta).[12] Nevertheless, they demand the recognition of Macedonian minority in Greece and Bulgaria by these countries and that it should be granted the basic minority rights which Macedonians deserve according to the international norms and standards.[13]

This demand is, in fact, the fundamental apple of discord between Skopje and Sofia and secondary political problem in relations Skopje-Athens as both Bulgaria and Greece do not recognize any “Macedonians” on their state-territories while Sofia does not recognize at all the existence of “Macedonians” and their language as “Macedonian” under the reasonable claim that Slavo-Macedonians are, actually, ethnic Bulgarians who speak a dialect from Macedonia of Bulgarian language. In Greece, those speakers of Slavonic language are officially called as Slavophone Greeks. As they are of Christian Orthodox denomination, as the ethnic Greeks are too, Slavophone Greeks cannot enjoy the status of a minority in Greece as Athens recognizes only religious minorities – i.e., those who are not Christian Orthodox. In common speech, Greeks are calling those Slavophone Greeks as Bulgarians[14] as their language does not differ too much from Bulgarian. Therefore, Greeks are refuting the crucial standpoint by FYROM’s authorities about alleged historical continuity of the modern Macedonian identity: if there are Macedonians today they have to be descendants of ancient people of (non-Slavic) Macedons. However, both Greeks and Bulgarians in this respect have the same position: a self-identification by definition of FYROM’s “Macedonians” means only what the people think about themselves – irrespective of whether they are historically accurate or not.

Bulgarian Viewpoint

Bulgarian position in regard to the question of the national identity of FYROM’s “Macedonians” is quite clear: they are ethnolinguistic Bulgarians. Sofia is also very keen to use historical continuity as a method to prove Bulgarian claims about the ethnolinguistic identity of FYROM’s Slavonic population just from the opposite direction in comparison to the position by Skopje: if there were Bulgarians in Macedonia in the Middle Ages as the only Slavs then today Slavo-Macedonians can be only of Bulgarian origin and blood. Bulgarians, in essence, deny present-day reality in FYROM that officially exist both “Macedonians” and “Macedonian” language which is, however, formally recognized internationally. Sofia is right that Macedonian nationality is created by Comintern between two world wars and officially recognized by Titoist Yugoslav authorities after the WWII when the Socialist Republic of Macedonia became created within the Yugoslav federation composed by six republics of six recognized nations of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, what Bulgarians do not want to recognize as a matter of fact is that such “Macedonian” policy of the post-1945 Yugoslav government was, in fact, primarily against Serbian national interest as a consequence of a deep anti-Serbian policy by mainly Croatian-Slovenian predominance and influence in the ruling structure of Titoist dictatorship.[15]

Sofia’s main argument in dealing with Slavo-Macedonian identity is the linguistic feature of the issue as it is quite clear that the so-called “Macedonian” language as spoken in Serbian-Yugoslav Vardar Macedonia is extremely similar to Bulgarian language to such extent that today FYROM’s Slavo-Macedonians and Bulgarians are communicating in their languages with each other without any translation or interpreter like Romanians and Moldavians. To be clear, all three languages spoken by Slavo-Macedonians, Bulgarians, and Serbs are similar and belonging to a South Slavic linguistic group, but as a matter of fact, the spoken language of Slavo-Macedonians is much closer to Bulgarian (if not the same) then to Serbian.[16] Genuine Bulgarian national feelings and identity in Vardar Macedonia, according to Sofia, was gradually disappearing in the 20th century primarily because of three reasons:

  • Yugoslav propaganda of serbization in the inter-war time.
  • Confrontation of a Slavic population with Bulgarian occupation authorities during the WWII.
  • Titoist organized anti-Bulgarian propaganda after the WWII in order to macedonize Slavs of the People’s (later Socialist) Republic of Macedonia.

As a result of such historic development, today the overwhelming majority of the Slavic population in FYROM lost their authentic Bulgarian identity but their spoken language is still a fundamental evidence of their Bulgarian origin – a fact that is proven by many historical sources collected and published in 1980 by Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in Sofia in several languages.[17] Therefore, when Sofia recognized the independence of the Republic of Macedonia after the break-up of Yugoslavia, Macedonian national identity and language separate from Bulgarian were not.

Serbian Viewpoint

Differently from Greece and Bulgaria, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) up to 1996 recognized the independence of ex-Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in full satisfaction by Skopje: under the name of the Republic of Macedonia, independent Macedonian nationality and a separate Macedonian language. Therefore, Belgrade recognized, in fact, Slavo-Macedonians as not ethnic Serbs. Such diplomatic decision deteriorated historically very good relations with Greece as Athens insisted that Skopje cannot use the name of Macedonia included into the official state-title. From this respect, Belgrade did the same as did Sofia but differently as Tirana did: Albania recognized FYROM in April 1993 as well as the political continuity of Macedonia from August 2nd, 1944 when a communist Anti-Fascist Assembly of National Liberation of Macedonia proclaimed Macedonia’s statehood.

From the 19th century up to 1945 Serbs mainly understood the territory of today’s FYROM as “South” or “Vardar” Serbia for the reason that it was included into the medieval Serbian empire proclaimed by the emperor Stefan Dušan in 1346 in Skopje as a capital of the state.[18] Vardar Macedonia was part of Serbia from 1299 till 1371.[19] That is a territory which the Kingdom of Serbia annexed from the Ottoman Empire after the Second Balkan War in 1913 when “geographic-historical” Macedonia became divided between Greece (51% – Aegean Macedonia), Serbia (39% – Vardar Macedonia) and Bulgaria (10% – Pirin Macedonia).[20]

However, while Serbian position to the question of Macedonian identity after 1945 is mainly clear from the political point of view, great difficulties exist at the academic and popular level as many Serbian academicians and people claim Macedonians as ethnolinguistic Serbs. One of the crucial arguments to support this position is the fact that “Slava” – family patron day (a pagan tradition accommodated to the new Christian environment), as a custom, exists only among Serbs wherever they live. As Slavo-Macedonians celebrate “Slava” as well as they have to be of Serbian origin.

Nevertheless, moderate Serbian position is that throughout the centuries Slavo-Macedonians, in fact, did not have any specific ethnic characteristics as being, according to the famous Serbian and Yugoslav ethnologist and geographer Jovan Cvijić, just “une masse flottant” living between Serbian and Bulgarian ethnic identities.[21] In other words, J. Cvijić claimed in 1906 that Slavo-Macedonians are only an amorphous mass that is going to be assimilated either by Serbs or Bulgarians, depending on the influence of the relevant propaganda. Many moderate Serbian nationalists will also accept his standpoint that the name “Bulgarian”, which was usually used by Slavs of Macedonia around the year 1900, was not an ethnolinguistic name but rather the product of strong Bulgarian propaganda in the region of Macedonia which started to be spread out from 1870 when the autonomous Bulgarian Exarchate was established by the Ottoman sultan with a jurisdiction over the biggest portion of geographic-historical Macedonia.


Taking into consideration FYROM’s name dispute between Athens and Skopje and a Greek fear of territorial irredentism coming from FYROM’s side, a strong obstruction of Greece towards international recognition and participation of FYROM from 1991 to 1993 was quite understandable at least from a political standpoint knowing that the ancient Macedon culture and history are deeply embedded into a Greek history and national consciousness. For all of these reasons, it is for Greeks very difficult to accept that another nation can claim a name, culture, and history which in their eyes are part of Greek civilization.

FYROM’s territorial irredentism can have and has very practical geopolitical reasons of the economic nature: the landlocked country is desperately searching for the outlet of the seacoast. The most optimal solution is a Greek Aegean Sea with its biggest port of Thessaloniki – a city marked as a capital of a united Greater Macedonia by all Slavo-Macedonian nationalists. Nevertheless, the territory of geographical-historical Macedonia has been for the last 150 years one of the focal apples of discord in South-East Europe. A stable prosperous country of Macedonia, however, can serve in the future as a bridge between all of her four neighbors[22] under one condition: to relinquish its territorial irredentism.


[1] Marijana Ivanova, “The Last Domino? FYR of Macedonia Facing New Challenges”, EuroBalkans, Autumn/Winter 1999, 47.

[2] About the geopolitical and historical context of contemporary Balkan questions, see [Derek Hall, Darrick Danta (eds.), Reconstructing the Balkans: A Geography of the New Southeast Europe, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 1996].

[3] Vanni Cappelli, “The Macedonian Question…Again”, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1998, 133.

[4] VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity). A Macedonian „national unity“ is seen as a creation of a Greater (geographic-historical) Macedonia.

[5] On the main markers of Greek national identity in Archaic, Classical, and Hellenistic periods, see [Katerina Zacharia (ed.), Hellenismas: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity, New York: Routledge, 2008].

[6] Victor Roudometof, “Nationalism and Identity Politics in the Balkans: Greece and the Macedonian Question”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1996, 253−301.

[7] Nicolas K. Martis, The Falsification of Macedonian History, Athens: Graphic Arts, 1984; Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1993, 3−10.

[8] Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1993, 3−10.

[9] A referendum on independence was held on September 8th, 1991 and based on its results on September 17th, 1991 it was adopted the Declaration of Sovereignty and Statehood. The Assembly (Sobranie) adopted new constitution on November 17th, 1991 according to which, the Republic of Macedonia became the official state-name of this former Yugoslav socialist republic [Sabrina P. Ramet (ed.), Central and Southeast European Politics since 1989, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 348].

[10] Nikolaos Zahariadis, “Nationalism and Small-State Foreign Policy: The Greek Response to the Macedonian Issue”, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 109, No. 4., 1994, 647−667.

[11] John Shea on a history of Macedonia [ /shea.html].

[12] Irredentism is, in fact, a synonym for “piedmontization” after the model of the unification of Italy, build around the Piedmont state in the 1860s. In the case of Macedonian nationalism, FYROM has to play a role of Macedonian Piedmont.

[13] Loring M. Danforth, “Claims to Macedonian Identity: The Macedonian Question and the Breakup of Yugoslavia”, Anthropology Today, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1993, 3−10.

[14] Hugh Poulton, The Balkans: Minorities and States in Conflict, London: Minority Rights Publications, 1994, 175.

[15] Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito (1892−1980) by himself was half Slovenian and half Croatian from Roman Catholic family born in Croatia (Kumrovec in Zagorje) very close to the border with Slovenia. During the WWI he was fighting on the Serbian front as a solder of infamous Austro-Hungarian 42. Devil Division which committed terrible war crimes against civilians in West Serbia in 1914 [Перо Симић, Тито и Срби. Књига 1 (1914−1944), Београд: Laguna, 2016, 25−48].

[16] On the Balkan languages, national identity and nationalism, see in [Stephen Barbour, Cathie Carmichael (eds.), Language and Nationalism in Europe, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 221−239].

[17] Macedonia: Anthology of Documents and Materials, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, Historical Institute and Institute of Bulgarian Language, Sofia, 1980.

[18] Станоје Станојевић, Сви српски владари, Београд: Отворена књига, 2015, 56−57.

[19] In 1371 the second and last Serbia’s emperor, Stefan Uroš, died and the empire became forever gone as the feudal lords decomposed it [Јованка Калић, Срби у позном средњем веку, друго издање, Београд: Службени лист СРЈ, 2001, 10−11; Миладин Стевановић, Душаново царство, Београд: Књига-комерц, 2001, 181−187].

[20] Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans: From Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992, 377−382.

[21] Јован Цвијић, Неколика посматрања о етнографији македонских Словена, Београд, 1906. However, Cvijić marked the Slavo-Macedonians as the Serbs on his Ethnographic Map of the Balkan Peninsula in 1918 which was made for the political purpose to claim the Vardar Macedonia for the new Yugoslav state rather than for the post-WWI Bulgaria.

[22] Hough Poulton, Who are the Macedonians?, Hong Kong: Hurst & Company London, 1995, 210.

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  1. Dimitar

    I recommend the extended Glossary. Sotirović offers a pastiche of Western anti-Macedonian authors. One must remember that the hand is animated by the head and Sotirović’s association with Soros has disqualified him from any credibility whatsover. Also, try having a civil discussion with him, an impossiblity, the man has the consciousness of a street fighter or a thug.

  2. Sanimideg

    Thank you Mr Sotirovic for one more excellent and academically balanced article.

  3. I agree with Dimitar that the only reasonable and moral solution for FYROM name dispute is The Republic of Paeonia with its capital in Prdež.

  4. I agree with Dimitar that the only reasonable and moral solution for FYROM name dispute is The Republic of Paeonia with its capital in Prdež.

  5. Pollitecon publications does not publish anything that is respected by academics. Your own Macedonian historians will soon be writing an acceptable history of the ethnic Macedonian people, once the Prespa agreement is ratified.

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