What’s in a name?

Michael Rubin

By Michael Rubin:

From the ashes of Yugoslavia’s 1991 collapse arose five countries: Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. These were joined subsequently by Montenegro, which dissolved its federation with Serbia in 2006 and Kosovo, whose secession from Serbia the world recognized in 2008.  Largely because of Serbian nationalism gone awry, many of these new countries were born of fire and war. Tens of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Serbs, and Kosovars lost their lives; war and ethnic cleansing displaced hundreds of thousands more.

While the scars of war are still present, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia—the former Yugoslav Republics most affected by war—are largely peaceful today. Croatia will likely join the European Union in 2013, and Bosnia and Serbia soon after.

Two decades after the Balkans erupted in conflict, it is ironic that the only country whose sovereignty and legitimacy remains consistently challenged is Macedonia, the only country born of Yugoslavia’s initial breakup that escaped war. The problem lays in Macedonia’s name: Even though Macedonia was the name of one of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics since 1944, Greece objected to Macedonia achieving independence under its own name. Macedonia was, after all, also a province of Greece and Athens argued that recognizing an independent Macedonia might encourage secret Macedonia expansionist ambitions. Additionally, Greece claimed the legacy of ancient Macedonia, and Greek nationalists claimed that by taking the name Macedonia, the new republic was seeking to co-opt the legacy of Alexander the Great.

Direct talks did not resolve the impasse and so the United Nations sought to side-step the controversy by referring to the new country as the Former Yugolsav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).  Greece did not lift its objects even after the European Community’s Arbitration Commission found that “the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ cannot…imply any territorial claim against another State.”

Certainly the dispute between Greece and Macedonia parallels the dispute between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government. For years, Turkey imposed unofficial sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan, referring to the federal region as, at most, northern Iraq. Turkish border authorities at Habur were infamous for denying entry to anyone who, under questioning, had said they had arrived from or were born in Kurdistan or even Iraqi Kurdistan. Inside Turkey, hapless travelers and Kurds have found themselves in prison for referring to southeastern Anatolia as Kurdistan.

Precedent matters in international relations, and so Iraqi Kurds should now thank Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for changing Turkey’s position vis-à-vis Kurdistan. Not only does Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas provide ammunition in Western circles for those who wish to legitimize the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) but now, because of Erdoğan’s own animosity toward the European Union, he has set a precedent which Kurds can seize upon to demand formal recognition for the name Kurdistan.  Speaking in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia late last month, Erdoğan sided firmly with Macedonia on the name dispute. “It is a natural and constitutional right for Macedonia to use that name [Macedonia]. We support Macedonia in this process,” Erdoğan said. “We do not understand Greece’s stance and approach to the matter. We do not think Greece’s attitude is right. Greece’s name is clear. Macedonia’s decision to use its name should be respected.”

If Erdoğan believes it is up to any state and any region to choose its own name, then no longer should the Turkish government complain when diplomats and officials speak of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraqi Kurdistan, or even South Kurdistan. Nor, if Erdoğan’s words are extended to his own country, should his government imprison those who see Diyarbakir, Urfa, Mersin and Van as towns in a broader, multi-provincial Kurdistan region.  American diplomats in Erbil need not respect contrived Turkish sensitivity to the Kurdistan name, given Erdoğan’s September 29 Skopje declaration. The greatest irony would be if Iraqi Kurdish officials bend over backward to appease their Turkish neighbor on the Kurdistan name issue when the prime minister of Turkey himself argues that people should be able to call themselves whatever they like.

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