North Macedonia: The long history behind the country’s new name

The main square in North Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. Image: Getty.

Macedonian fans at the Handball World Cup, contested in Germany earlier this year, were easily idenitifiable, from the Alexander the Great helmets they wore to support their team, who played as Macedonia – despite the dispute with Greece over their country’s name coming to its conclusion with the new name of North Macedonia.

These helmets, of course, get to the heart of this dispute, with the Greeks seeing the ancient conqueror as a Hellenic figure and important part of Greek culture. Indeed it was Alexander the Great, the infamous ruler of ancient Macedon, who inaugurated the Hellenistic period of ancient Mediterranean history in the third to first centuries BC. It’s objections like this from Greece that have led to 28 years of the official name for its northern neighbour being The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYRO-Macedonia for short.

The new North Macedonia is only part of the modern region of Macedonia (and indeed of the ancient kingdom, which existed from about the 600sBC to the Roman conquest in 167BC). Northern Greece around the city of Salonica and the south-western part of Bulgaria also form part of the region, with those living in those areas also self-identifying as Macedonians.

Disentangling who has best claim to the name is fraught. The ancient Macedonians spoke a Hellenic language, conquered Greece and spread Hellenic culture across the Mediterranean. The modern Macedonian language is South Slavic, a language group that was only introduced to the Balkan in the fourth or fifth centuries AD. However, language is not the same as genetics; indigenous peoples adopt new languages over time. English, for example, only came to Britain around the same time and many modern English people are descended from ancient Britons as well as Anglo-Saxons. Indeed it was the Byzantine monks Cyril and Methodius who first codified the South Slavic languages in the 800sAD, what today is known as Old Church Slavonic.

The dispute is cultural, though it has led to political implications, up until now blocking North Macedonia from NATO or EU membership. The name was seen as laying claim to the heritage and perhaps territorially to the whole region. Neighbouring places – the country and the Greek regions – having the same name was also seen as confusing, although doing so would not be unique: two countries are called Congo and four have Guinea as part of their name. Within Europe, the Belgian province of Luxembourg neighbours the country of Luxembourg (the capital of which is also called Luxembourg). Moldova is the eastern part of Moldavia, the western part being in Romania and the northern and southern parts in Ukraine. Further apart, Georgia is a country in the Caucasus and a US state.

To resolve the issue, the UN suggested various names, each of which added a distinguishing adjective: New Macedonia, Upper Macedonia, Vardar Macedonia, Macedonia-Skopje and North Macedonia.

New Macedonia could have referred to the fact that the country only recently gained independence, in 1991. And it would sit alongside New Zealand, which was named after the Dutch province of Zeeland (Zealand is also the largest Danish island, including its capital Copenhagen). But it would negate the long history of the region.

Upper Macedonia would be a geographical expression, since the country is generally at a higher altitude. Bolivia was known as Upper Peru before its independence from Spain, and in West Africa, the enigmatically named Upper Volta was renamed the even more enigmatic Burkina Faso in 1984. The issue in this case, however, is that the Bulgarian part of Macedonia is also at high ground, being made up largely of the Pirin mountains.

The Vardar is the major river of the country, flowing through its capital Skopje. Many countries and territories have been named after rivers – Gambia in West Africa is a long thin country following the eponymous river for its lower 350 miles to the sea and never more than 30-miles wide. Belize, Congo, Jordan, Moldova, Niger, Nigeria, Paraguay and Uruguay are all named after rivers. So are many US states and other regions and provinces around the world. India, one of the world’s largest countries, is named after the River Indus, which is now almost wholly within Pakistan. This is one of the problems with naming territories after watercourses – rivers flow downhill going through other places. The Vardar flows into the Aegean through Greek Macedonia, just to the west of Salonica.

Using the capital to denote a country is seen with Guinea-Bissau, where the neighbouring Republic of Guinea is also sometimes unofficially called Guinea-Conakry. Other unofficial uses are Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa, the latter being the Democratic Republic of Congo or DR Congo. And Mexico is named after its capital. Throughout the Macedonian naming dispute, Greece often referred to the Republic of Skopje, which is perhaps one reason (as well as alienating other towns and cities in the country) why this solution would not have worked.

This has left North, a compass point that is hard to dispute (although it isn’t always wholly accurate: the northernmost point of the island of Ireland is not in Northern Ireland). The use of North, South, East and West in country names may seem common but actually isn’t. Both Koreas and previously Germany, Vietnam and Yemen, all have or had different official names. North Cyprus is not an officially recognised country. Western Sahara is a disputed territory and the Pacific island country of Samoa dropped Western (which distinguished it from American Samoa) in 1997. Compass points denote many counties, provinces or federal states within countries, but as far as sovereign nations go, North Macedonia will only be in the company of East Timor, South Africa and South Sudan. Though, lest you forget this saga, to its south are the Greek regions of Central Macedonia, Eastern Macedonia and Western Macedonia.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.