'Northies' Has Crept Into The Macedonian Debate. Will It Ever Go Away?

Changing the signs at Bogorodica on the North Macedonia-Greece border.

Even before Macedonians' decades-old spat with neighboring Greece was finally resolved earlier this year, the new name-calling had begun.

Referendum "boycotters," social-media trolls, and some other critics were already belittling as "Northies" (северџан/severchan) their fellow Macedonians who took part in the process to rename their ​former Yugoslav republic North Macedonia and ease Greek concerns that territorial claims on their region called Macedonia were just a matter of time.

And while the "Northie" name-calling appears to have abated since the implementation of the so-called Prespa Agreement that guided the name change to North Macedonia, its use continues, especially hashtagged on social media but also occasionally in more traditional media.

And the practice is a matter of concern to some.

Mirjana Najcevska calls it a textbook case of "hate speech."

"By using this term, a certain group of people is seeking to dehumanize or, in this case, 'de-identify,'" Najcevska, who specializes in rights and discrimination issues for the Institute for Sociological, Political, and Juridical Research, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

"Some people seek to label others in a way that not only degrades and humiliates but also takes away certain characteristics -- either to limit the rights of those people in a given situation or to create a hostile atmosphere and in future justify violent behavior toward that group of people."

Supporters of a boycott of the name-change referendum in Skopje in September 2018.

Others counter that even if the intention is to insult, the term "Northies" is so matter-of-fact that it doesn't pack the kind of punch that is likely to truly divide Macedonian society.

"It's not hate speech," Angel Mojsovski, a researcher with the Skopje-based European Policy Institute, a think tank, told RFE/RL. "Maybe it's meant to be an insult from those who are saying [it], but it doesn't mean anything. What does 'severchan' mean? Nothing. 'People who are living in North Macedonia.'"

He noted that the "Northie" label was initially being applied by detractors to anyone who was participating in the referendum, including liberals who would go on to back Prespa or nationalists who turned out to oppose the name change, stripping it of much real meaning.

Mojsovski suggested that such insults could melt away with political realignments in Macedonia, leaving a short-sighted term like "Northie" behind.

But such a warning is especially pertinent in the Balkans, where the breakup of Yugoslavia was accompanied by a decade of bitter conflict fueled by nationalism, ethnic rivalries, and strategic ambitions.

NATO, EU Ambitions

Many of those ambitions have since been replaced with hopes of joining NATO and the European Union, as fellow former Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia have done.

Skopje has already signed an accession protocol with NATO that awaits ratification in allied capitals.

But as the European Union drags its feet on expansion and with eager Macedonians already frustrated by a lack of economic opportunities, critics warn that healing the divisions over the Prespa process might be made more difficult.

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev's center-left government negotiated the Prespa Agreement in part on the basis of a referendum in September that equated a solution to the name dispute with EU and NATO membership.

"Are you in favor of European Union and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?" the referendum asked voters in the mountainous country of some 2.1 million people.

Macedonians overwhelmingly approved it, albeit with only about one in three eligible voters casting ballots.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn called the endorsement "very significant."

Many Macedonians saw those and other indications as an assurance that resolution of the name squabble would immediately launch the country into accession talks, a yearslong goal of Skopje's foreign policy.

But North Macedonia was recently shunted along with Albania into EU limbo despite a European Commission recommendation for the start of those negotiations, reportedly in part because of objections by EU members France and the Netherlands.

There are concerns that the seeming contradictory actions by the EU might provide political ammunition against the "Northies."

One "boycotter" last week posted a video of Zaev reading the referendum question from last summer, punctuating the message with a #Northie tag.

So the bout of "Northie" name-calling could well continue, and it could leave a bitter taste in a lot of Macedonians' mouths, particularly if the European Union continues to keep them at arm's length.

But it is unlikely to rile Macedonians too much, or to create any intractable problems in their newly renamed country.

"We mind our own business. We're here eating and drinking and going on with our lives," said Mojsovski. "Most of the divisions that I see,... if you just follow social media, you'll think that all hell is breaking loose. But if you go out among real people, you don't get that feeling, especially in Skopje. It's not like we're killing each other."