FOR almost a quarter of a century Macedonia, the southernmost part of long-vanished Yugoslavia, has been called FYROM by the United Nations, the EU and many other organisations. This stands for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is part of a bizarre issue that has bedevilled Macedonia’s relations with its neighbour, Greece, since it became independent in 1991. Last week, UN-chaired negotiations on a deal, which could help Macedonia get an invitation to join NATO and begin talks on EU accession (both currently blocked by Greece), began again after three years. There is goodwill on both sides. Radmila Sekerinska, Macedonia’s defence minister, describes the talks as a “huge opportunity” to resolve the issue. 

In some languages “Macedonia” is a name for a fruit salad. That’s because the historic Ottoman region of Macedonia was composed of so many different peoples. Historically Jews comprised the biggest single group in the port city of Thessaloniki. The region was also home to Turks, Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians, Serbs and other Slavs. It was divided in the Balkan wars of 1912-13. The south became Greek, another small part Bulgarian and the rest part of “South Serbia”. In 1944 the Yugoslav communists decided that it would become one of Yugoslavia’s six republics. If its majority-Slav population once lacked a strong Macedonian identity like Serbs or Croats, this had changed by 1991. 

When Yugoslavia fell apart, Greece blocked the recognition of Macedonia by members of the EU’s forerunner, the European Community. It claimed that the name implied territorial ambitions on Greek Macedonia. The issue duly became a rallying call for Greek nationalists. Only the people of Greek Macedonia had a right to call themselves Macedonian, they argued. Most had little idea that, much as they thought of themselves as Greek and Macedonian, so their Yugoslav neighbours also had dual identities. In 1995 a deal was struck. Pending a final agreement Greece would not block Macedonia from joining international organisations if it called itself FYROM. In subsequent years, Greek leaders agreed that Macedonia could use its name but only with a qualifier, such as “New” or “Upper”. In 2008, however, Greece stopped NATO from asking Macedonia to join and has since stopped the EU from opening accession negotiations. The then-populist government in Macedonia responded with similarly nationalistic fervour. It ramped up a campaign to rename stadiums and motorways after Alexander the Great and his father Philip of Macedon, and erected statues to them. Many Greeks took this as proof that the Slavs wanted to pinch their Hellenic identity. 

A new Macedonian government, which has been in place since May, and a Greek government beset by economic challenges are rather keener to improve relations. But plenty of nationalists in both countries are prepared to torpedo any deal. The biggest question concerns identity. Both governments may agree to a name for Macedonia (New Macedonia seems the most likely at present). But if they also try to negotiate whether, for example, the EU can refer to citizens of Macedonia as “Macedonians” the talks will founder. The European Stability Initiative, a think-tank, has proposed staggering a resolution of the issue. But then, it once wrote a paper describing such a resolution by reference to “Waiting for Godot”: a play in which two friends wait forever for someone to come. Don’t expect him to arrive in 2018—though he just might.