Απρίλιος 30, 2008

Balkan Neighbors

Filed under: English texts — Takis Michas @ 9:17 πμ


April 29, 2008


After a recent visit to Skopje, the U.S. envoy to NATO, Victoria Nuland, said that the argument between Greece and Macedonia could be settled «within days or weeks.» If only. Unfortunately, the so-called name dispute is far too complex for easy fixes.

First there is the name: Greece wants its northern neighbor to change its constitutional designation, Republic of Macedonia, to something else, perhaps with «New» or «Upper» prefixed. Unless it does so, Greece will continue to block Macedonia’s entry into NATO, as it did at this month’s Bucharest summit, and presumably the European Union. Athens claims the current name reveals territorial ambitions against its own northern province of Macedonia.

There is also the dispute over the existence of a Macedonian nation. Since the end of World War II, Greece consistently refused to acknowledge such a nation or ethnic group, arguing that it was the «artificial creation» of former Yugoslav strongman Tito. According to this view, the only real Macedonians are ethnic Greeks. Greek officials and most of the media here today refer to Macedonia by the demeaning term «Skopjans.»

Then there is the question of language. Greece denies the existence of a Macedonian language, claiming that this is merely a «local idiom» or «dialect.»

There is, lastly, the issue of Slav Macedonians who fled Greece after World War II. Greece denies these political refugees and their descendants any «right of return,» saying they were traitors who forfeited their claims to citizenship by fighting alongside the Communist-led Democratic Army, which sought the secession of (Greek) Macedonia from Greece. After the defeat of the Communist forces in the Greek Civil War, many of the militants settled in the countries of the former Soviet block, including approximately 30,000 in the neighboring then-Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Their properties in Greece were confiscated by the state and reallocated to the inhabitants of the region. In 1983, then Socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou passed a law allowing for the repatriation of the communist political refugees. However, Slav Macedonians were excluded from this deal since the law applied only to ethnic Greeks.

All four areas of dispute are interrelated. All tend to confirm the fears and stereotypes the inhabitants of both countries have about the other.

For the Greeks – especially in the northern regions – the claims concerning the existence of a «Macedonian» nation, language or country as well as for the return of the refugees are seen as part and parcel of Skopje’s «irredentism.» Recent actions by the Macedonian government, such as the decision to rename the airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great or the circulation in public of maps of «Greater Macedonia» that include parts of Greece, did nothing to allay the fears of many Greeks that the «expansionist» ideology of their neighbor poses a threat to territorial integrity.

On the other side of the border, the picture is inverted. For the Macedonians, Greek attempts to deny them a name, a language, an ethnicity and basic human rights (like «the right to return») are part of the «cultural genocide» of Slav Macedonians that Greece has been waging for the past century. By this view, the ethnic homogenization of northern Greece – which started with the Balkan wars at the beginning of the last century and culminated in the post-World War II settlement in the region – was intended to Hellenize the Slav populations of Northern Greece.

According to this view, in the course of the nation-building of modern Greece, key aspects of history, life and culture that didn’t conform with the official vision of a single, unitary nation that could trace its lineage back to the days of Pericles were erased. Entire towns and villages disappeared from the map as did the names of a host of public spaces, churches, monasteries, mountains, lakes and rivers. Slavic family and individual names were changed into Greek names. The public use of the Slavic Macedonian language was prohibited.

Contrary to received wisdom, the dispute between Greece and Macedonia isn’t over a mere name, but concerns competing national mythologies, symbols and histories. In other words, we have here all the usual Balkan issues over which people in this part of the world and elsewhere have butchered each other in the distant and not-so-distant past. No easy fix is possible, and a compromise over the name won’t put to rest the basic conflict. Unless all the problems are addressed openly and honestly, mutual distrust will persist, ready to erupt again at the first opportunity – or once EU reconstruction funds dry up.

Had Athens and Skopje engaged in serious bilateral or multilateral talks during the past decade on all the points of contention, and not focused simply on the «name,» perhaps they would not find themselves in their current, absurd predicament.

Mr. Michas, a Greek journalist, is author of «Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia» (University of Texas A & M Press, 2002).

2 Σχόλια »

  1. There are some more data points: see Florinsky on San Stefano and
    Woodhouse on the population transfers. I have friends and relatives
    from Phillipoupolis/Plovdiv. Relatives of mine (Grammos) changed their
    names because their old Slav neighbors (in the 1850s) coudn’t
    pronounce them. Serbia was upset Greece sent all Slavs to Bulgarian
    during the population transfers. The «Macedonia» issue goes back to
    the foiled Ignatief treaty of San Stefano but also to the Bulgarian
    and Serb attempts to be «Third Rome» (Adopted by Russia after
    Byzantium fell). The idea of a San Stefano Greater Bulgaria as
    «Macedonia» was what spawned VRMO. Maybe the Macedonians were Greek
    hybrids but by the time of Alexander’s father they had become fully
    Hellenised and were never Slavs. Ultimately the FYROM problem comes
    from panSlavism’s attempt to swallow Greece and make it (all)
    Slav. The problem with the Skopyans is that they want to be free of
    both Serbia and Bulgaria. Under Royal Yugoslavia, they were Vardarska.
    I admit the Greek extremists muddy the validity of the Greek position
    and when they say there were never any Slavs in Greece or that Ancient
    Macedon was ALL Greek, they make problems worse. I think the valid
    Greek fear is that allowing the name would allow future panSlavs a
    pretext for taking Thessaloniki. In that context the silly name issue
    makes sence.

    Σχόλιο από Vasos Panagiotopoulos — Απρίλιος 30, 2008 @ 7:59 μμ | Απάντηση

  2. Dear Mr. Michas, I have a few comments on your article.

    ##demeaning term «Skopjans»##

    The semantics of the use of the term «Skopjans» in Greece is not demeaning. It is an incorrect term, similar to calling all Greeks «Athenians», but it is used temporarily, until compromise is achieved.

    You use the term «Slav Macedonians» which is much more correct by any means, but given the nationalistic hysteria that predominates in the FYROM, it is a term that is considered pejorative by Greece’s northern neighbors, in the sense that the so-called «Macedonians» consider themselves not to be Slavs, but the direct descendants of ancient Macedonians.

    ##Greece denies the existence of a Macedonian language, claiming that this is merely a «local idiom» or «dialect»##

    Greece does not deny the fact that the Slavic citizens of the FYROM are a distinct Slavic nation with a distinct history than that of their neighbors.

    Of course, Greece cannot recognize the FYROM Slavs’ language as «Macedonian», nor will Greece ever condone the FYROM version of history that goes as far as to suggest that Cleopatra of Egypt was speaking a Slavic language, because Slavic peoples originated from geographical Macedonia and migrated throughout the world with Macedonia as their starting point.

    FYROM Slavs decided to become a different Slavic people sometime around the mid-1940s.
    Nation-building is not necessarily something that starts way back in history. By 1944, when Tito was declaring the creation of the Federated Socialist Republic of Macedonia, there was no Israel, which only came into being as a country 4 years later.

    It is Bulgaria that claims that the FYROM is inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians who are speaking a Bulgarian dialect.

    The truth is that many FYROM Slavs consider themselves to be BOTH «Macedonian» and Bulgarian, just like most citizens of Brittany consider themselves to be BOTH Bretons and French.

    Overlapping or secondary ethnic identities are not unheard of in Europe, or elsewhere in the world, for that matter. In Greece, the «Arvanites» are the descendants of people who migrated from what is now Albania in the 15th century. The Arvanites enjoy their cultural particularities while they are at the same time very happy to be defined as Greeks.


    I think that this term is not correct. «Irredentism» implies that there exists in Greece a large Slavic population longing to be «redempted» by the FYROM.
    This is not true.
    Election results and popular support makes it clear that among the 2.5 million people living in Greek Macedonia, there only exist 5-10,000 people who consider themselves «ethnic Macedonians». Many Slavophones consider themselves to be ethnic Greek.
    A more correct term would be plain good old «imperialism».

    ##»in the course of the nation-building of modern Greece, key aspects of history, life and culture that didn’t conform with the official vision of a single, unitary nation that could trace its lineage back to the days of Pericles were erased»##

    The above statement is absolutely correct.
    But «nation-building» did not affect just the non-Greek elements in Greece.

    The country of Greece was founded by the Great Powers who wished to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, on the justification that it signifies the «rebirth», the «resuscitation» of ancient Greece.

    Ever since, the Greek authorities, the Greek nationalists and the Greek educational system, strive to reflect the image projected upon Greece by the Europeans.

    All traces of classical glory are being promoted ad nauseam, while everything else, including the achievements of the Middle Ages Byzantine Greeks are neglected.

    As many as 100 Byzantine era buildings were demolished in Athens when the Bavarian King Otto decided to transfer the capital of the Greek state on the site of the ancient city, because the new capital had to look as «classical» as possible.

    Three splendid neo-classical apartment buildings, one of which is a rare example of Greek art deco, are being demolished as we speak in central Athens, because the «obstruct» the full view of the Acropolis from the new Acropolis Museum.

    This cultural dictatorship of Classical Athens is at the root of the New Greek Nationalism, a form of nationalism that has gone largely undetected by most of the Greek intellectuals, because -well- most Greek intellectuals feed off it.

    Actually, a very well known Greek author and blogger wrote about the art deco apartment building that is to be demolished: «Let them tear it down, after all, what foreigner comes to Athens to see art deco buildings? They all come for the Acropolis».

    This incredible provincialism indicates that Greece is only good as a reflection of what others want to see in it. And, in order to paraphrase the above author: «Who wants to see a mosque in Greece?»

    So, erasing traces of non-classical antiquities is something more general than simply eliminating traces of Slavs in Greek Macedonia.

    However, it is important to note that the existence of a Slavic placename in Greece does not necessarily denote that that place was inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians or «ethnic Macedonians».

    The 7th century was marked by the descent of the Slavs to the Greek peninsula. The Slavs came to what is now Greece and settled as far south as the Peloponnese. Gradually, most of them were absorbed by the ethnic Greek majority, but they enriched Greek culture with their Slavic culture.

    Metsovo in Epirus and Zagora in Thessaly as well as Stemnitsa in the Peloponnese are towns with a Slavic placename whose inhabitants never spoke a Slavic language, at least not for many centuries.

    This is the case in Greek Macedonia as well. Villages in Northern Halkidiki used to have Slavic names (eg Izvoro, Novoselo), without their inhabitants recalling whether their ancestors ever spoke any other language but Greek.

    Please, do not confound historical names with the actual ethnic breakdown of their populations. This is just as wrong as claiming that Marseilles, France or Naples, Italy or Alexandria, Egypt are «ethnically Greek cities under foreign occupation».

    ##Slavic family and individual names were changed into Greek names##

    This is true and was widespread in the early 20th century. The reason this was happening was in order for the authorities to weaken the Bulgarian influence in Greek Macedonians.

    Please respect history. Do not forget to mention that until mid-20th century, most ethnic Slavs in Greek Macedonia and the FYROM were identifying themselves as Bulgarians, not «Macedonian».

    Also, keep things in perspective. Similar practices were being carried out against ethnic Greeks in Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

    It is not fair to judge historical events without giving a proper historical context for them.

    ##competing national mythologies, symbols and histories##

    This is always the case, competing national mythologies.

    But beyond national mythologies there also exists SCIENCE! One cannot and should not bypass scientific methods of looking at the Macedonian issue, unless we are to ban rationalism from our discussions.

    Archeology has proven that the ancient Macedonians were ethnic Greeks. It is a fact.

    History has recorded that anti-Ottoman uprisings such as «Ilinden» were not conducted by people defining themselves as «ethnic Macedonians» but by Bulgarians. Banners and inscriptions related to the Ilinden Uprising are all Bulgarian.

    Please respect science.

    The so called «Macedonian» national mythology as they present it to the world is not based on any scientific evidence, it is plain science-fiction. They could as well claim to be extra-terrestrials!

    ##all the usual Balkan issues over which people in this part of the world and elsewhere have butchered each other in the distant and not-so-distant past##

    This was unnecessary fear-mongering.
    Why are you perpetuating the negative stereotypes about the Balkans?

    Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Franco, Mao tse Tung, Pol Pot, Ataturk, to name just a few of history’s mass murderers, were NOT from the Balkans.

    Compared to the blood that has been shed all over the world, the Balkans are a relative haven of peace.

    ##Athens claims the current name reveals territorial ambitions against its own northern province of Macedonia##

    Last but not least, this phrase is unacceptable. Greek Macedonia belongs to Greece, not Athens. This phrase demonstrates the paternalistic and neocolonial attitude the Athenian elite and the Greek governments in Athens often display toward the rest of the country.

    And this seems to be a problem for us Greek Macedonians, as big, or even bigger, than the name of our northern neighbor.

    Σχόλιο από Stergios Kaprinis — Μαΐου 6, 2008 @ 1:32 μμ | Απάντηση

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