Writing about the Balkans and Cyprus is a semantic minefield for any reporter covering this region. As journalists, we strive for neutrality. But often here, seemingly innocuous words or phrases are heavily loaded with meaning. In many cases, there are no neutral terms. This is especially true when it comes to the names of places, peoples, and nations.
These are issues that are taken extremely seriously by governments and ordinary people. They may seem like silly disputes, but often they strike at the core of peoples’ identities. It’s easy here to offend with what you say — or don’t say. And in many people’s eyes, not taking their side is no different than being overtly biased.
Here’s a brief guide to three of the biggest linguistic tangles in the neighborhood:
Is Kosovo a country?
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, with the backing of the United States and many other Western powers. But Serbia says that declaration was illegal.
So far, 62 members of the United Nations (out of 191) have recognized Kosovo’s independence. It’s not a member of the United Nations, but it is in the IMF. Even the European Union is divided.
So is it a country? And if not, what is it? A breakaway province? A self-declared republic? And if it’s not a country, what do you call its leaders? Can you be a prime minister if you don’t have a state?
Clearly, declaring independence alone isn’t enough to make you a country. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic declared independence from Azerbaijan, but not even its patron Armenia recognizes it.
Nor is recognition by some states in and of itself enough to qualify. Nearly 50 states and the African Union recognize the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (usually referred to as Western Sahara). But few journalists outside of Africa would refer to it as a country.
Where is Macedonia? And who are Macedonians?
The southernmost bit of the former Yugoslavia refers to itself as the Republic of Macedonia, but it has been in a long dispute with Greece over the use of the term “Macedonia.”
The northern region of Greece is called Macedonia and is home to Pella, the capital of ancient Macedonia. Greeks say they are the true descendants of Alexander the Great’s ancient Macedonian empire and that their Slavic-speaking neighbors are trying to steal their heritage — and perhaps even their land.
In Greece, and in international institutions like the United Nations, the country is referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short. Greeks call the citizens of the country “Skopjans,” after the name of their capital, Skopje.
The government of the Republic of Macedonia/FYROM is in fact trying to lay claim to the ancient heritage of Macedonia (most independent historians would say spuriously). They’ve renamed the Skopje airport after Alexander and plan to erect a giant statue of him in the center of the city.
But moderates point out that their country has no other name for itself or its citizens. If they’re not “Macedonians,” what are they? The also say Greece has no right to interfere with what they call themselves.
A UN mediator has been trying to hammer out a compromise, which would probably include some sort of double-barreled name for the country, perhaps with a geographical qualifier.
But for now, the dispute is more than a mere linguistic squabble. It’s keeping the country out of NATO and threatens plans for European Union expansion into the region.
How to you refer to the Turkish-controlled part of the island of Cyprus?
The government of the region refers to itself as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, but Greek Cypriots refer to it as Turkish-Occupied Cyprus. In Greek Cypriot media, officials from the region are often qualified with “so-called,” as in “the so-called president of Turkish-Occupied Cyprus.”
Most Western journalists have settled on term “Northern Cyprus,” which satisfies neither side. Greek Cypriots in particular dislike the term and say they are the only legitimate government on the island, which was divided by force when the Turkish army invaded in 1974. Turkish Cypriots point out that the invasion occurred in response to a coup backed by Greece’s military junta that toppled the island’s legitimate government.
Greek Cypriots often fight the use of the term “Northern Cyprus.” When the Royal Academy of Arts in the United Kingdom organized an exhibit on Byzantium last year, for example, the Greek Cypriot Byzantine Museum refused to lend any artifacts unless all pieces from the northern part of the island were labeled as coming from “Turkish-Occupied Cyprus.” In the end, museum officials there told me, they could not come to a compromise and did not participate in the show.
Trying to figure out what to call the institutions and leaders of Northern Cyprus is also a linguistic nightmare. When Mehmet Ali Talat meets Dimitris Christofias, can you say two presidents met? And how to you refer to someone in the Northern Cypriot government? The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus does hold democratic elections, but the only country that recognizes it is — not surprisingly — Turkey. Greek Cypriots say that using official titles for Northern Cypriot officials legitimizes an unrecognized state. They have a point, but we journalists have to call them something.
It’s hard enough to write about all this when you have time to consider your words carefully. Pity the poor broadcaster who has to navigate this minefield while live on air.
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