SKOPJE -- In searching for the perfect ancient hero to arouse a sense of national identity in their modern-day citizens, Macedonian officials have settled on a provocative spokesperson -- Alexander the Great.
The image of the ancient Greek king and warrior, who at the time of his death in 323 BC had conquered most of the known world, beams intently down on residents from billboards with the message "You are Macedonia."
A lengthy television ad depicts him on the eve of a crucial battle, calling on his fighters -- in the fluent South Slavic strains of contemporary Macedonian -- to be decisive and unafraid of the challenges ahead.
Even Skopje's tiny international airport is in on the act. Until recently, the hub of national carrier Macedonian Airlines' two-plane fleet was called Petrovec Airport. Now it is the Alexander the Great Airport.
Travelers at the airport walking past a massive bust of the ancient conqueror appear indifferent to the encroaching hellenization. But the rebranding frenzy is raising tempers in Greece. 'Expression Of Our Identity'
Athens has spent the past 17 years in a standoff with its northern neighbor over the right to claim the king -- and the name Macedonia -- as its own. Greece has blocked Skopje's NATO entry over the bitter row, and has threatened to scupper its EU bid, as well.
Greek sculptures inside a government building in Skopje
But Sefik Duraki, a Macedonian government spokesperson, appears unrepentant.
"We see this [revival of our ancient Greek past] as an expression of our identity, a kind of nation-building exercise, and a confirmation of our statehood," Duraki says. "It’s not our intention to be provocative."
Officials in Athens might disagree. Buildings, roads, and squares in Macedonia are renamed on an increasingly frequent basis to honor the ancient king and his forebears.
Duraki himself this month announced at least two such rechristenings. A major north-south trans-European highway was to be renamed Alexander of Macedon highway. And a Skopje football stadium will now be called the Philip II football arena -- in honor of Alexander’s father.
Alexander the Great was born in Pella, the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. That heritage, Skopje says, gives it the right to claim the warrior's image as its own. But Pella is located in what is now Greek Macedonia, and Athens argues that the only country with the right to Alexander's legacy is Greece.Powerful Lever
The issue has divided the two countries since the early 1990s, when the Socialist Republic of Macedonia split from Yugoslavia and constitutionally anointed itself the Republic of Macedonia.
By focusing the public’s attention on the glories of the past, [the government has] found the perfect way to provide an escape from reality.
Greece objected, and insists on using the provisional reference of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in its official dealings with Skopje.
It has also exercised a far more powerful lever in blocking Macedonia's NATO and EU bids unless Skopje adopts a name that is acceptable to the Greek leadership.
Officials in Macedonia announced in November it would take Greece to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for blocking the NATO invite, which it says contravenes a 1995 interim accord between the two countries.
In the meantime, Skopje continues to keep its ties with the military alliance warm, with the commander of NATO's allied joint force command, Admiral Mark Fitzgerald, arriving in Macedonia on January 30 for a two-day visit.
Many Macedonians say they are tired of their government's grandstanding, which has only grown more pronounced as the country approaches presidential and local elections on March 22.
Biljana Vankovska, a political science professor at Skopje University, says she worries the dispute with Greece is doing their country irreparable harm by blocking the path toward Western integration.
"By focusing the public’s attention on the glories of the past, [the government has] found the perfect way to provide an escape from reality,” Vankovska says.
The unremitting dispute between Macedonia and Greece has also proved a mounting source of irritation to the international community.
The United Nations has appointed a special mediator in the quarrel, and is urging Skopje to accept the "Republic of Northern Macedonia" for international purposes -- and pressing Athens to drop its veto threats at NATO and the EU if Skopje does.
The EU, which is struggling to slowly herd the Balkan countries onto a membership track, has appeared almost exasperated with the dispute, and signaled particular frustration after Skopje's decision on the Alexander of Macedon highway. Hellenization Campaign
The International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank this month issued a report warning the name dispute may undermine efforts to stabilize the western Balkans, and called on both Athens and Skopje to take steps toward repairing the relationship.
The ICG called on Macedonian officials to accept the UN's name proposal, and to reverse its hellenization campaign and restore the original names to the Skopje airport and other buildings and roads rechristened in recent years.
It also urged other NATO and EU members to "actively encourage" Greece to drop its NATO and EU objections and to "respond positively" to any concessions by Skopje on the name issue.
Some Macedonians say they would welcome an opportunity to strip their country of some of the government's overreaching attempts to co-opt Alexander the Great.
After all, says Todor Cepreganov, the director of the National History Institute at Skopje's Saints Cyril and Methodius University, there is more to Macedonian history than ancient history.
“I don’t agree that in our search for identity Macedonia should only look back to ancient times," he says. "Yes, we have our roots in ancient times, but we shouldn’t abandon our Slavic roots, either."