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.
"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.
In fact, she concedes, the only undisputable depiction of Alexander in the museum is a giant gold-colored bust of his head (made of plastic) that greets visitors in the lobby.
The dispute over the name Macedonia has haunted this young country since it broke from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Greece initially imposed trade sanctions and blocked its entrance to the UN until the temporary compromise – to call the country the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – was reached. UN-mediated negotiations have continued, with little success, ever since.
The dispute stirs angry passions on both sides. Like Blazho, many Slavic speakers in Macedonia – more than two-thirds of the population – claim direct descent from Alexander. That identity – which is taught in schools here though it is considered dubious by most historians – gives Macedonians a way to differentiate themselves from their other Slavic neighbors.
Greeks doggedly refer to the country as FYROM and often respond angrily to anyone who uses the term Macedonia to refer to the country – claiming that allowing the name to be used could lead to territorial claims.
Denko Maleski, Macedonia's first foreign minister, recalls going on vacation in the Greek city of Halkidiki with his family a few years ago. They enjoyed the sun and the food, and interactions with Greeks were always pleasant. That is until people asked where he was from, and he answered "Macedonia." As Greeks realized he meant the independent country and not the region of Greece, he says, "It was as if thousands of years of history came down on our heads."
Unlike Blazho, Mr. Maleski doesn't see modern Macedonia's historical claims in such stark literal terms. Now a professor of international law, he considers himself a democrat, a liberal who wants peaceful, multiethnic states in the historically tumultuous Balkan.
But, he says, the idea of Macedonia is the only thing that binds the young state together, the only identity it has that distinguishes it from its neighbors, which spent the first half of the 20th century fighting over and repeatedly carving up the territory of this country.
"The definition of Macedonia and Macedonians is something that holds people together," he says. "This is a new, modern state that is trying to position itself in Europe. It's a little country in a big world."
In the run-up to the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, international negotiations over the name dispute have moved into high gear. The US wants the country admitted to the organization during the summit – along with Albania and Croatia – but Greece is threatening to use its veto if the name issue isn't resolved first.
Macedonians see joining NATO as a first step toward integration with Europe and, ultimately, membership in the continent's most exclusive club: the European Union. It was the poorest republic in the former Yugoslavia and remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an official unemployment rate of 35 percent.
A list of five composite names – such as the Republic of Upper Macedonia and the Democratic Republic of Macedonia – leaked to local media have been discussed for weeks. While both countries now seem to accept the idea of a composite name, they disagree on which one. Late March 25, the UN negotiator Matthew Nimitz offered up a last-ditch compromise proposal, the details of which were not disclosed but which may include a geographic indicator to differentiate the country from the region of Greece.
Biljana Vankovska, a professor at the University of Skopje, is a hard-liner. She thinks Greece has no right to tell Macedonia what to call itself and says it's humiliating that her country is considering putting the issue to a referendum. But she also says the way Macedonia's government is desperately trying to claim Alexander's legacy by renaming the airport and installing ancient statues is "pathetic."
"It's a historical fact that his legacy spread all over this area. No one has a copyright on his name," she says, over espresso in a trendy suburban Skopje cafe. "But he belongs to the past."
Many ordinary people like Blazho disagree. The blood of Alexander, he says, runs in his veins. "Macedonians are brave, we are fighters. Like lions, we will defeat the tyrants."