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Macedonia renamed: Countries' name-changes try to 'clean the slate'

On Sunday, Greek and Macedonian officials reached an agreement to solve a three-decade dispute over Macedonia's name. If the change is approved, the Republic of North Macedonia will join a small club of countries once known by a different name. 

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People protest on June 17 in Bitola, Macedonia, against the deal between Greece and Macedonia to give their country a new name, North Macedonia.

Boris Grdanoski/AP

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When Greece and Macedonia signed an agreement Sunday to bring an end to their vicious, three-decade diplomatic dispute, the story had an unlikely hero.

An adjective.

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Yes, the force that finally brought an end to the poisonous conflict that had long kept Macedonia out of NATO and the European Union was not bold political leadership or a savvy negotiator. Or at least, it wasn’t only those things.

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It was also a single, lowly modifier.

It was the word north.

Specifically, Macedonia agreed that it would officially change its name to “North Macedonia,” a nod to the two countries’ shared claims over the history of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. 

That move puts (North) Macedonia in a rarefied global club, of countries who have officially changed what they call themselves – and how the world knows them as well. In April, the tiny southern African kingdom formerly known as Swaziland announced that it was undergoing a name change to eSwatini, or “land of the Swazis” in the local siSwati language. And in 2016, the country you may know as the Czech Republic formally changed its English short-form name to Czechia.

Although there isn’t a single set of reasons why a country might want a new name, many name changes follow a familiar pattern, says Steven Gruzd , head of the governance and foreign policy program at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg. They are a way to start over.

“It's about asserting independence, distancing [yourself] from colonialism, evoking history, trying to clean the slate,” he says.

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In Africa, for instance, many countries changed their names at independence to create space between themselves and their former colonial overlords. So the Bechuanaland Protectorate became Botswana, or the “land of the Tswana.” The Gold Coast became Ghana, or “warrior king.”  And Southern Rhodesia re-styled itself Zimbabwe – a nod to the Great Zimbabwe civilization that ruled from the 11th to the 15th centuries.

But the decision to change a name is almost always at least as much about the present as the past.

Take the 27-year dispute between Greece and Macedonia, purportedly over the origins of Macedonia’s name. Greeks say the word belongs to them and them alone, since the ancient kingdom of Macedonia ruled by Alexander the Great was largely based in modern-day Greece. Macedonians, meanwhile, say that same kingdom contained much of their modern country, and so they have just as much claim to the name as the Greeks do.

But the standoff was never just about ancient history. Since Macedonia splintered off from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Greece suspected that the small new country secretly harbored ambitions to expand into its territory – specifically, into a northern Greek region that shared a name and a near-identical flag with Macedonia.

So from the moment of Macedonia’s independence in 1991, the Greeks fought tooth-and-nail against recognition of the new country. In 1995, the two countries struck an inelegant bargain. In exchange for letting Macedonia join the global fraternity of countries – the United Nations – the new country had to agree to call itself the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. And it amended its constitution to make clear it had no claims on Greek land.

Still, the fight dragged on. For people on all sides, after all, the name was deeply symbolic, and that wasn’t easy to let go of.

Naming rights

For Mswati III, the King of eSwatini, that was also true of his country’s name. But for him, the old name had been another kind of symbol, of an African country poisoned by Western influence.

Changing the name is “built on the idea that we are reclaiming our values,” says Bheki Makhubu, editor of The Nation, an independent political magazine in eSwatini. “It’s like the King is saying, Let’s go back to our roots. Let’s reclaim our identity from a world that wants to steal it from us.”

But like some other country name changes, eSwatini’s new moniker is also a way for its leader to assert his own power.

“It’s also part of a narrow brand of nationalism that centers on the King himself,” says Mr. Makhubu, a prominent government critic. Renaming the country allows Mswati to frame himself as a true patriot, Makhubu says, “even though we have an absolute monarchy that’s utterly failed our people.” 

Mswati isn’t the first leader to use a new country name to shore up his own popularity. When Mobutu Sese Seko became the president of Congo in 1965, he launched an aggressive campaign of what he called authenticité to scrub the new country clean of its old colonial influences. Much of it centered around changing the names of people (he dropped the Western-sounding “Joseph-Désiré” from his own name) and places (the capital Léopoldville, for instance, became Kinshasa). And in 1971, Mobutu announced that he was changing the name of the country itself, to Zaire – a local name for the Congo River.

Unfortunately for Mobutu, his rule didn’t last. And when a new president, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, came to power in 1997, he announced he was changing the name back to Congo.

New name, new chapter

But of course, changing your country’s name isn’t as simple as just saying you’re going to do it.

In Macedonia, for instance, the new name will now be put up for a popular vote, and the agreement between Greece and Macedonia must be ratified by the parliaments of both countries.

But even after that’s all done, it’s not over. Countries have to send official notice of the change to the UN, which then registers the new title in its database of World Geographical Names. Among other things, the country must advise on how to write its new name in each of the six official UN languages (the UN says Swaziland has instigated this process, but it is not yet completed). Once this is done, the alphabetical order for where the country sits at the UN is adjusted.

“It’s a hugely expensive undertaking – virtually everything needs to change, from maps to legal documents to car registrations,” says Mr. Gruzd of the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Ideology can override practicality.”

Still, for many countries, the nitty gritty expenses are worth it for the chance to recast your own history.

When Thomas Sankara came to power as president of Upper Volta, a small West African country, in 1983, he immediately turned his attention to transforming his poor, aid-dependent country into a model for an independent African state not reliant on the West. He rejected most foreign aid and instituted farming assistance programs that drastically reduced the need for imported food, while refusing the most ostentatious trappings of the presidency – working in an office without air conditioning and driving a cheap, boxy Renault.

A country like his, he said, needed “to take bold and radical initiatives” to reinvent itself. And where better than the country’s name?

In 1984, Sankara announced that Upper Volta – a creation of the French – no longer existed. His country was now Burkina Faso. Translation: “the land of honest people.”