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Is it Macedonia by any other name?

Tatters of Alexander the Great's empire aren't arguing over territory, but what a nation can call itself.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent / March 27, 2008

Carving out an identity: At a rally over a name dispute between Greece and Macedonia, Greeks wave their national flags behind a huge, sheer banner depicting Alexander the Great. Greece wants to block Macedonia’s NATO and EU membership until the two agree on a name for the former Yugoslavian republic of Macedonia.

Grigoris Siamidis

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Skopje, macedonia

On a recent crisp afternoon, as he shared a park bench and the last rays of sunlight with a friend, Zhezhouski Blazho was indignant. He's not an educated man, he says, but after 86 years on this earth, he knows a few things: among them what he is.

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"We are Macedonians," insists the retired shepherd, from his usual bench in the Women's Park outside his country's parliament. "What was Alexander the Great when he conquered Greece? What was Philip [Alexander's father]? We are the children of Alexander."

Here in this small Balkan nation sandwiched between Albania, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, and Greece, that assertion is more than mere genealogical trivia. Who has the right to lay claim to the legacy of Alexander the Great, and the name of his 4th-century BC empire of Macedonia, is a very contemporary political question that threatens hopes for a more stable future in the Balkans – not to mention NATO expansion plans in the region.

Mr. Blazho's nation calls itself the Republic of Macedonia, and many countries, including the US, recognize it by that name.

But Greece – which has no designs on the territory of this Vermont-sized nation, but just the name – says that everyone knows Alexander was Greek and that Macedonia is in Greece (indeed, there is a region of Greece called Macedonia). They insist that their Slavic-majority neighbor – known in Athens and at the United Nations as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – is trying to steal their heritage.

That assertion drives Blazho and his park bench mate, a retired Yugoslav major, to distraction.

"We haven't done anything bad to the Greeks," says Blazho.

"It's irrational what the Greeks want from us. To change our name," chimes in his friend. "If the Greeks were so attached to the name Macedonia, why didn't they call their country Macedonia?"

In the ethnic caldron of the Balkans, all national identities are comparatively new, forged as the region's empires crumbled. Modern Macedonian identity, however, is still very much a work in progress, and the country's government is waging a concerted effort to claim the brand of Alexander and forge a link between the present and that hallowed past. Visitors to the capital, Skopje, now arrive in the Alexander the Great Airport (though you can't fly there direct from neighboring Greece). And milk-white classical-era sculptures – borrowed from the national collection – have been mounted on the steps of the main government building.

But at the hulking, Soviet-era Museum of Macedonia, hard evidence of those links is harder to find.

Nada Andonovska, a museum representative, sweeps through fading exhibits of Paleolithic pottery and Bronze-Age jewelry and pauses in a room with a handful of classical sculptures and a few Hellenic pots, in front of a large map. Modern Macedonia was part of Alexander's ancient empire, and later, part of the Roman administrative territory of Macedonia, she explains. Alexander had to learn Greek, she notes. It wasn't his native language. Though she concedes, too, that he almost certainly didn't speak anything related to modern Macedonian – a Slavic language related to Serbian and Bulgarian that Greeks insist is a dialect of Bulgarian, not its own language – because Slavs only came to the region in the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

Across the room, Ms. Andonovska points to a tiny bust, displayed behind glass along with other artifacts. Doesn't it look like Alexander, she asks? "It hasn't been written up," she adds hastily. "So there's no absolute evidence."

Andonovska hustles on to a display of old coins. The museum has a collection of coins from Alexander and Philip's time, she says, but they're not on display for security reasons.

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