Daniel Hall discusses what ‘Lake Trump’ tells us about the geopolitics of naming in the Balkans.
In the year 2020, it has become almost routine for headlines that could have easily been outlandish satire not so long ago to become reality. “Disputed reservoir on the Serbia-Kosovo border to be named after President Donald Trump” is one that fits this description fairly well. Nevertheless, this is something which appears to have come to pass; despite some confusion over whether the name ‘Lake Trump’ will be officially adopted for the aqueous body which straddles this Balkan border, banners declaring that very name were hung on the Kosovan side after the suggestion by Richard Grenell, an adviser to the US President, was welcomed by the Kosovan Prime Minister.
Examining this episode evokes interesting questions on the geopolitical significance of place names, and the ways in which naming and renaming are used in politics. There are few regions of the world where names are so often as thorny an issue as in the Balkans, as anxious new nation-states attempt to affix their modern identity to a sense of historical timelessness. In this instance, both parties’ attachment to their traditional name for the lake was a point of contention, resulting in this rather eyebrow-raising suggestion of a compromise.
After the 1998-1999 Kosovo war, the former province of Serbia had de-facto independence leading to a full declaration of autonomy in 2008. Serbia has refused to accept its independence, despite 101 countries, including most of the West, doing so. Talks on the relationship between the two parties and the possibility of the normalisation of some relations have been ongoing for more than a decade, but was given renewed impetus with Trump’s appointment of Richard Grenell, then also the US ambassador to Germany, as special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia dialogue, and in early 2020 a major outcome was the restoration of first commercial flights and subsequently rail services between Belgrade and Pristina. However, the issue of the lake which sits on the border remained a sticking point; Kosovo insisted on the Albanian name Lake Ujman, whereas Serbia called it Lake Gazivoda.
Place names are utilised as an expression of identity, a break from the past, or as a tool of diplomacy, and in all cases are intensely political, whether the place in question is a single street or an entire nation-state.
Such an issue may seem trivial in the context of major negotiations over economic and political relationships – does the name of a place really matter that much? In short, yes, especially so when a group feels that it is their identity that is being undermined. Studying place names may seem like stereotypical high-school geography of years gone by, however, the field of critical toponymy has sought to shed light on how place names, and the practice of naming and renaming, are inextricably tied to questions of power and identity. Place names are utilised as an expression of identity, a break from the past, or as a tool of diplomacy, and in all cases are intensely political, whether the place in question is a single street or an entire nation-state.
For example, when Yugoslavia dissolved, one of its former republics that had been referred to as Macedonia after the ancient kingdom of Macedon, which it shared some geographic overlap with, declared independence in 1991 as the Republic of Macedonia as a way to assert and build a new national identity by linking the new state to the ancient past. Their southern neighbour Greece, meanwhile, was infuriated, as its northernmost region was also called Macedonia for its links to the kingdom of Macedon, and claimed that this new republic’s name was effectively an irredentist claim on the northern territory of Greece. This diplomatic dispute was such that the former Yugoslav’s state had to be referred to as ‘Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia’, and Greece blocked their accession to the EU and NATO for almost three decades, until a deal was agreed in 2019 which saw ‘FYROM’ change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Breaking from the past is also a strong motivation for renaming places. Historically, Russia is notable for this, with Saint Petersburg being renamed Petrograd in 1914 in order to remove its German sounds after the onset of the First World War, then Leningrad in honour of Lenin after his death in 1924, before the original name of Saint Petersburg (Sankt-Peterburg in Russian) was returned by public referendum in 1991 as Russia moved into its post-Soviet age. Various postcolonial states also adopted new names for the country as a whole and also places within as a means to both express identity and break with the colonial past, for example Burkina Faso and Botswana.
It is also common for place naming and renaming to be used as a tool of diplomacy or as a show of gratitude. Returning to North Macedonia, for example, the capital city of Skopje has many streets named after nations who came to its aid after a devastating earthquake in 1963, for example, Mexico Street. As such, it is clear that place names have political importance, and this is especially true in the Balkans.
Perhaps the seemingly heightened importance of place names in the Balkan region stems from anxiety surrounding identity in the new nation states of the former Yugoslavia; after all, these states are less than three decades old, and many there are still suspicious and nervous that neighbours want to retake their former territories. For Kosovo, a nation-state only officially independent since 2008 and which has not been able to join the United Nations due to lack of recognition from Serbia and also nations such as Russia and China, this is especially true. Historical symbolism is thus very important, as seen in the case of North Macedonia, as new nation-states attempt to solidify their identity by reinforcing it with a sense of historical timelessness.
Indeed, in many areas of the region, borders have shifted and changed hands between ethnic groups many times over the last few centuries, and so in some cases, towns will have several different names given by different groups in languages and dialects such as Albanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, and Slavic. Lake Ujman/Gazivoda is a prime example of this, with one location having two very distinct names, split along ethnic lines.
So why then, has the name ‘Lake Trump’ emerged as a potential compromise? According to Grenell himself, he suggested the name in jest, perhaps in exasperation that negotiations were sticking on such a seemingly superficial point. However, to the confusion of many, including Kosovan officials, Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti took to Twitter on Thursday 24th September to welcome Grenell’s suggestion in honour of the US President’s “role in reaching a historic economic normalization agreement” between Kosovo and Serbia. Signs later appeared on the Kosovan side of the reservoir bearing the name ‘Lake Trump’ and banners thanking the President were hung from the bridge above the lake. Serbia has not yet authorised this name change, and so it remains to be seen if it comes into force. Perhaps both sides are keen to move past the issue without appearing to concede on symbolic points, and so any compromise is welcome.
Of course, the issue with names is that they are very much a social construct. Places and things take on names that are given to them by people, and they only retain that name if those people use it. Some locals have already reacted to the new name with derision and have insisted they will continue to use the traditional name of their side. Politically-charged naming and renaming is very rarely as simple as replacing signage or signing off a new label, and it is questionable at best as to whether the population of the area surrounding ‘Lake Trump’ will relinquish the words of their own language in favour of an arbitrarily imposed term honouring a controversial President of the United States.
Nevertheless, the issue of this lake demonstrates the importance of place names in geopolitics and diplomacy. While they are often taken-for-granted, names are frequently contested and moulded by the political forces of the day for various means, and often are imbued with strong meanings and feelings of identity, which is particularly pertinent in the context of Kosovo and Serbia who, like many others in the Balkans are, as Grenell remarked, in a conflict over “symbolism and adjectives, and verbs, and nouns”.