Columbia University

How the Word “Macedonia” is Re-injecting Ideology into Greek Populism by Jacob Hirsch @ Columbia University

Tension in Greece over the name of one its northern neighbors is already threatening to pull apart the country’s populist coalition. Two weeks after similar demonstrations in the city of Thessaloniki, more than 100,000 protestors gathered in the Greek capital of Athens on February 4th to march against the use of the word “Macedonia.” At the behest of the Greek government, the nation has been provisionally called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM) by the international community since its independence. Leaders in Skopje, however, are looking toward integration with the European Union and accession to NATO, both of which require a final settlement of the naming dispute with Greece.

The history of the dispute itself is one steeped in nationalism and revisionist history. “Macedonia” is a historical region currently split between Greece and FYROM named for the ancient Greek tribe that produced Alexander the Great. Both countries now consider this region and historical figure as foundational pillars for their national myths, and the Greek citizenry has been less than thrilled with what they perceive as a threat to their territorial and cultural integrity. Greece has blocked FYROM’s applications to major international organizations on this basis. Recent trends of integration (as well as more conciliatory administrations in both countries) have encouraged the government in Skopje to nail down the name and restart the stalled processes.

Protests throughout Greece over the potential inclusion of “Macedonia” in the new official name have begun to pull apart the coalition that currently governs the country. A seemingly improbable marriage of the left and right wings of the political spectrum has maintained a majority in the Hellenic Parliament since elections in late 2015. The Coalition of the Radical Left (known by the transliteration of its Greek acronym, Syriza) maintains 145 of 300 seats, while the Independent Greeks (ANEL), a right-wing populist party, provides an additional 9 seats.

The situation since 2015 in Greece demonstrates the nonessentiality of linkages between populist movements and concrete ideology. Yet at the same time, the current friction between the governing parties over the Macedonian provides a key example of how the salience of cleavages can shape a resulting ideology.

Syriza and ANEL have little ideological overlap in their platforms beyond opposition to the austerity programs imposed by the European Union, IMF, and the World Bank (collectively deemed the “troika”). Syriza seeks to protect the migrants flooding from Syria, whereas ANEL espouses rhetoric of deportation and anti-multiculturalism; when the coalition proposed in 2015 to extend civil unions to same-sex couples, representatives from ANEL voted against it.  And yet for over two years, the coalition has held fast.

According to the theoretical work of Rodrik, the ideology of a populist regime is heavily influenced by the type of cleavage that is most salient for the voters. Parties that prey on a majority-minority cleavage tend to adopt right-wing stances, whereas those that prey on an elite-majority cleavage tend to adopt left-wing stances.  Greece faces an acute combination of economic crisis blamed on Germany and Brussels with a rapid influx of refugees, particularly from Syria and Sudan. As such, it has given rise to both kinds of populism (though the left-wing brand predominates).

The coexistence of these populist movements would not be strange, but the fact that they have joined together in a coalition government is cause for a raised eyebrow. A functional coalition comprised of parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum raises questions about the ideological rigidity of the parties themselves. If these parties can govern a country together relatively peacefully for so long, can there be that much of a difference between their platforms? Such a phenomenon only furthers the idea that populism has no inherent ideological features, a notion proposed by earlier readings and built upon by Rodrik and Guiso.

Within the Greek context, this situation also points to the relative salience of cleavages at the current moment. If the majority of the populace supports the Syriza approach to austerity, ANEL has no incentive to accentuate its more nationalistic/cultural policy. Politics in the wake of the FYROM protests, however, may indicate a shift in salience. As the Greek economy slowly begins to recover—with the bailout program set to end this August—the problem of unmanageable refugee inflows only worsens. We can thus expect the focus to gradually move from economic turmoil to exogenous social shocks, including the migrant crisis and extensive brain drain. This movement of focus inherently signifies a change in cleavage salience as well.  In other words, as the debt program ends and Brussels becomes less of a nuisance, problems can be increasingly framed as a result of the refugees and ethnic minorities.

Syriza’s multicultural platform is unequipped to deal with such a shift in salience, which will likely lead to salience congruence issues as demonstrated by Traber.  ANEL (and right-leaning opposition parties) stands to gain voter support, and increasing authority given to the junior partner is already worrisome for Syriza. In the days surrounding the FYROM protests, the prime minister has already begun to seek out new groups with which to form a coalition. Even if PM Tsipras does manage to forge a new government, he will have to contend with a majority populace that is shifting to more hardline views on migration and national prestige (by late 2017, a majority of Greeks favored banning immigration from Muslim-majority countries).

The magnitude of the recent protests over the name of Macedonia signal that such a movement is imminent. Groups from nearly every opposition party made their nationalist stances clear, criticizing the Syriza government for its willingness to comprise, pulling together a broad spectrum that could challenge the government on its quality of representation. The populist coalition will soon fall apart due to the growing relative importance of ideological issues. Whether this means that traditional parties will have an easier time collecting votes by appealing to traditional policy divides or that the Greek party system will create space for a substantial right-wing populist movement is yet to be seen.


Photo from AP.


  1. Aaron Riggins

    February 17, 2018 at 2:47 am

    The current situation in the Greek legislature is very interesting, it’s easy to see why you chose to discuss. Your point on the ungrounded nature of the ideology behind populism plays out very clearly with the interaction between the two parties in the coalition government. It’s an interesting dynamic to consider; that the stance against globalist economic organizations like the IMF is shared between the two ideologies, and fosters cooperation when faced with a common ‘enemy’ as a scapegoat for Greece’s financial woes. I imagine it’s rare to see populism’s characteristic anti-globalization rhetoric working alongside humanitarian leftists open to mass-immigration. Although, nationalism is a tried and true method of uniting an ethnically homogenous population. The political leaders of the ruling parties in the Hellenic parliament have no doubt realized this, and seem to be making effective use of the trivial matter of Macedonia’s moniker. If the coalition is considered a singular, populist entity with leftist leanings and a conservative minority, the nationalist resentment towards their northern neighbor and frustration over stipulations accompanying bailout loans, as you said, still isn’t enough to solidify their union. This is a perfect example of why populism is so difficult to categorize politically; it’s tailored to national identity rather than manufactured in universal ideology. It would seem that the Greek parliament is following the trend of polarization that is all too familiar for Europe’s legislatures. Perhaps, in this case, populism can continue to actually promote cooperation rather than division. Though if the increasingly salient issues of immigration and economic mishandling are not addressed by the current government, it’s much more likely that polarization will break the populist coalition.

    1. Jacob Hirsch

      February 17, 2018 at 11:07 pm

      To your point on nationalism, I agree that it is particularly adept at unifying homogenous populations, but as we see throughout history (and with certain movements now in the US), it is also constructed to be domestically exclusionary. The ‘us vs. them’ is replicated on the local scale, to the extent that nationalist resentment toward Macedonia could soon manifest itself in (increased) resentment of ethnic Albanians, Slavic speakers, and Vlaxoi that reside throughout Greece. Recent tensions with Turkey could also be translated into rhetoric against the Turkish minority in Thraki. And when it comes to this, which I’m sure many in the Independent Greeks would enjoy, the coalition will most certainly break down. I doubt that populism will continue to encourage cooperation, especially in light of issues of immigration and religion (secularism is something Syriza is particularly passionate about), but that won’t spell the end of populism in Greece; the balance of power within the populist parties is going to shift rightward, and Tsipras is going to need to find some new partners (potentially with To Potami?). Unless this shift is drastic, I imagine Syriza will maintain power, as the opposition is far too few and too fractured.

  2. Jacob Farris

    May 8, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Your argument of connecting the name “Macedonia” to a rise of populism in Greece is interesting. It can certainly be understood how the name dispute has given rise as a unifying agent across different political parties, but I feel identity politics and scapegoating play a major role in the “Macedonian Problem,” as it is referred to by most new sources. The EU has greatly tied up the name dispute in any possible accession discussion and is forcing Greece and FYROM to come up with a solution themselves. This only adds fuel to the fire and causes more tension between the nations. FYROM could open and close nearly all the 35 Chapters of the acquis, but Greece will never vote them into the EU because of the name dispute. Where it gets interesting when tied to populism, is that both nations issue statements saying they are taking “positive steps forward” towards reaching a solution, when in reality the talks constantly fall apart and restart like clock-work. FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said, “Perhaps the final solution will be tied to the vote of Macedonia, as citizens,” clearly playing up vox populi, the voice of the people, as many populist leaders do. Grecian Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras plays up this rhetoric too, but as you mentioned in your post, it is fracturing the coalition and harming Syriza. The EU: Western Balkans forum is coming up in Sofia, Bulgaria (scheduled for 17 May 2018). These two Prime Ministers are scheduled to meet during that time. We can only hope that the 20-year name dispute comes to a resolution, which can help begin to backtrack populist rhetoric being used by party leaders of both nations.

  3. Kennen Sparks

    February 28, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    I agree with you on the salience of identity influenced by national myths and symbols and how constant usage of said myths can cause a rise in nationalist sentiment. I would argue that your post shows just how powerful of a social construct nationalism is regardless of political affiliation. Nationalism can be so pervasive that it is an easy tool for people to use to sway the general opinion—just as you mention that a majority of Greeks favor banning immigration from Muslim-majority states. This is further proved when you state that one of the parties has been unable to evolve with the shift, while the other party stands to gain greatly from it.

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