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Macedonia’s name: back to the drawing board

15 June 2018


BRUSSELS — My previous  “ray of sunshine” article of 13 June about Skopje finally getting a real name for its territory was way too optimistic. The deal was shot down the next day by a no-confidence vote against Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and by a sudden reversal of support for the idea by Macedonian President Zoran Zaev.

Not only does the return by each side to its 26-year intransigence underscore the farce of the official reason for these “negotiations”, but it keeps “FYROM” — the Former Yugloslav Republic of Macedonia — in a state of perpetual suspended animation vis-à-vis its place in Europe and its institutions. Nevermind the impact on stability north of Greece whose prospects are kept prisoner to the same nervous ambiguity.  It’s a game with some risks, given that stability in the Balkans, as history amply shows, is a commodity that can easily evaporate.

Greece is doing a big and disingenuous disservice to both NATO and the EU by refusing to end this circus.  Frankly, FYROM should be allowed to call itself Macedonia.  Is any traveller really going to worry about mistakenly booking a flight to Greece’s northeastern Macedonian region when he really wanted to go to the country itself due to confusion over a similarity in name?  How many tour operators confuse North Carolina with South?  Or South Sudan with Sudan?  Or North Yemen with its southern counterpart? (Granted, there are not many tours on offer to South Yemen these days, but you get the point.)

So what lies behind Athens’ refusal to settle on what is, after all, just a name? There are several explanations. Some plausible, most not.

For example, Greek “pride” is one argument. Others are: “It’s our name and always has been!” and “Alexander the Great was a Greek!” and so on, things we hear over and over.

While Greek pride is certainly a formidable factor, I don’t buy into these historical arguments.  For one, at its height ancient Macedonia spread across, controlled or influenced all of the territory of Greece, lower Albania, present-day FYROM and a huge chunk of Bulgaria.  Why should Athens’ historical claim be any stronger than that of the others?

As for Athens’ loud protests about “owning” the legacy of Alexander and therefore Macedonia – “It’s our ancient heritage!” – this is fantasy.  Prior to the rise of Philip II, Alexander’s father, he and his kingdom around present-day Thessaloniki were arrogantly dismissed by Athenians as crude tribesmen from a wild region worthy of nothing more than contempt.

Demosthenes’ famous Philippics, after all, aimed at nothing less than to rubbish Philip’s reputation, calumnifying him as a barbarian tyrant and his people as cultureless peasants.  Not surprisingly, Philip took his revenge and crushed the city-states of Greece. It was centuries before Athens forgave the Macedonians. For present-day Greeks to lovingly embrace Macedonia as a timeless and integral part of “their” self-identity is bit rich to swallow.

So what gives?  Why the name-game that never ends? Well, there is one historical explanation and its economic aspects, of far more recent vintage than Ancient Greece, that help make sense of today’s quagmire between the two countries.

It arises from the Second World War and Greece’s subsequent vicious civil war of 1946-‘49. Among other things, that conflict fired a burning sense of revenge in many “southern” Greeks against the country’s ethnic Macedonian ones who were seen as sympathisers, real or imagined, of Marshall Tito, leader of adjacent Yugoslavia at the time. Admittedly, Tito had territorial ambitions regarding Greece and Albania. The civil war saw many thousands of Macedonian Greeks forced to flee north into Yugoslavia’s southern sub-republic of Macedonia.  Their houses and lands back in the birthplace of democracy were expropriated by “real” Greeks without a wisp of compensation.

As one knowledgeable Greek academic told me many years ago in the strictest confidence: “That’s the big skeleton that no one in Greece wants to pull out of the closet. It would open the door to thousands of claims of retribution and recognition by the descendants of those who lost their farms and livelihood in Greece.”

So therein lies a feasible explanation for the stasis in talks. Not surprisingly, it boils down to the more predictable, if prosaic, elements of money and guilt, which few in Philip’s ancient southern region want to countenance. ##


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