The dispute about Macedonia's constitutional name goes back to the declaration of independence by the Republic of Macedonia in 1991.
Greece holds that the term Macedonia refers to the historical Kingdom of Macedon and that its use in a neighbouring country's name would usurp an essential part of exclusively "Greek" culture and heritage. It also contends that the use of the name Macedonia implies territorial ambitions on a northern Greek province that bears the same name. Loring M. Danforth, a professor of anthropology, describes the Greek perspective as follows:
"From the Greek nationalist perspective, then, the use of the name 'Macedonian' by the 'Slavs of Skopje' constitutes a 'felony', an 'act of plagiarism' against the Greek people. By calling themselves 'Macedonians' the Slavs are 'stealing' a Greek name; they are 'embezzling' Greek cultural heritage; they are 'falsifying' Greek history. As Evangelos Kofos, a historian employed by the Greek Foreign Ministry told a foreign reporter, 'It is as if a robber came into my house and stole my most precious jewels – my history, my culture, my identity' (The Boston Globe Jan. 5, 1993, p.9)."
(Loring M. Danforth "How can a Woman give birth to one Greek and one Macedonian?")
Following the Republic of Macedonia's declaration of independence in 1991, Greece's vigorous objections to the inclusion of the word "Macedonia" in the country's name delayed its recognition by the international community and its accession to the UN. A compromise formula, "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM), was devised as a provisional reference rather than an official name for the country. Macedonia joined the UN in April 1993 under this name. Other international organisations, such as the IMF and the World Bank, adopted the UN terminology, while many countries recognised the country as the FYR of Macedonia. Greece initially did not recognise the country at all, and imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia. The embargo, which lasted until 1995 was particularly damaging for the Macedonian economy; a landlocked country, it is dependent on access to Greek ports.
A 1995 Interim Accord, in which neither country is mentioned by name, led to a relative normalisation of relations. The Republic of Macedonia agreed to alter its flag, dropping the Vergina Sun, a symbol found among the tombs of the ancient kings of Macedon (and designated by the Greek Parliament in 1993 as an official national symbol). Macedonia also made amendments to its constitution, expressly denying any claims on Greek territory. Greece agreed not to block Macedonian accession to international organisations of which Greece was itself a member, provided that Macedonia would accede under the name of "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" – and not its constitutional name. Greece has since become one of Macedonia's closest economic partners and the largest foreign investor in the country.
The name issue, however, has not been resolved so far, despite UN mediation. In recent years, Macedonian proposals have usually involved a "double name formula", whereby the country would be referred to by its constitutional name by the rest of the world while Greece would refer to it by another name. Greece rejected this idea and proposed a composite name such as Upper Macedonia or Macedonia-Skopje.
Reaching a consensus is made more difficult by public opinion in Greece and Macedonia. Those willing to make compromises have faced domestic criticism from hardliners. An opinion poll published in the Athens newspaper Kathimerini showed that 84 percent of Greeks supported a veto for Macedonia's NATO bid if the name dispute could not be resolved (IHT). Another poll in March 2008 showed that 83 percent of Macedonians said they were against changing the constitutional name in order to secure NATO membership (CRPM poll).
Over the last two years the debate has again heated up, with Greece hardening its stance. The renaming of Skopje airport after Alexander the Great in December 2006 did not help to foster Greek understanding for Macedonia's position.
In April 2008, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski declared his frustration with the unchanging Greek position:
"Greece announced that if Macedonia does not change its name, there will be a veto during the NATO summit and Macedonia will not receive an invitation. Our citizens are a little bit frustrated because of this blackmail and are not ready to make additional changes. We are ready to discuss. We are ready to try to overcome the problem, but the citizens are not ready to completely change our name and to change our identity.
[…] We are aware that Greece can veto NATO membership. If they have power in NATO they have ten times more power in the EU, because in the EU there is the principle of solidarity… Foreign investors are coming, but I am fully aware that if this issue were resolved, there would be many more, there would be much less hesitation among investors, because [now]they are saying 'Oh, they have no support from Greece, so what will happen?' and so on."
While by now over 120 countries, including permanent UN Security Council members United States, China, and Russia have recognised Macedonia under its constitutional name, the row reached new heights at the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. Rejecting all proposals by the Macedonian government and UN mediator Matthew Nimetz – including the name "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje) –Greece vetoed Macedonia’s accession to NATO. As Macedonia would also have agreed to accede as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", the Greek veto was nothing but a clear breach of the 1995 Interim Agreement.
The fallout from Bucharest not only led to early parliamentary elections, but also – given that Greece is not likely to change its position – began to bode badly for Macedonia's aspirations to start EU negotiations as soon as possible. Negotiations have resumed in July 2008.