Greece’s Macedonian Touchstone

Protesting the use of the term Macedonia to describe the Republic of Macedonia, the small republic north of Greece’s northern province of Macedonia, in Athens this month. Credit Costas Baltas/Reuters
Protesting the use of the term Macedonia to describe the Republic of Macedonia, the small republic north of Greece’s northern province of Macedonia, in Athens this month. Credit Costas Baltas/Reuters

Huge demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki recently have shaken Greece’s politics and threatened its coalition government. After years of austerity and the humiliation of depending on foreign loans, many Greeks are rejecting the idea of their country sharing the name of its northern province, Macedonia, with a small northern neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia.

This decades-long controversy has undermined the role that Greece, as a member of the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, could play in the Balkans. Even as a new government in the Republic of Macedonia’s capital, Skopje, appears keen on compromise and United Nations-mediated negotiations intensify, the issue could drive Greece’s domestic politics, as it has in the past.

Since 1991, when the Socialist Republic of Macedonia voted to secede from the Yugoslav federation, Greeks have intermittently protested and lobbied vigorously abroad to prevent the new country of two million people from using the name “Macedonia.” The country was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 under the provisional name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the acronym formed by that name, Fyrom, is the safest way for any Greek politician to refer to the country).

More than 25 years of diplomacy have failed to resolve the issue. But even though over 130 countries — including the United States, Russia and China — have recognized the Republic of Macedonia, the government in Skopje must get Athens’s agreement to the name so it can join the European Union and NATO.

In 1992, around a million Greeks attended a protest in Thessaloniki, the capital of the province of Macedonia, declaring that “Macedonia is Greek and only Greek.” This prompted Greece’s political leadership to reject any use of “Macedonia” by its neighbor, even in a compromise such as New Macedonia or Upper Macedonia. This rare show of unanimity left Athens no room to maneuver, and Skopje, too, did not back down.

Greece got its partners in the European Union to support its hard-line position, but the lengthy status quo does not mean things were calm. Greece imposed a 20-month embargo on its landlocked neighbor, lifting it in 1995 when Skopje dropped an ancient Macedonian symbol from its flag. In 2008, Greece said it would not allow its neighbor to join NATO until there was agreement on the name.

In Greece, the issue has remained a touchstone of patriotism, even when it isn’t in the headlines. Any slip by a politician or commentator — saying “Macedonia” instead of “Fyrom,” or suggesting the possibility of a compromise — is met by furious reaction. Recent polls show that as many as 81 percent of Greeks still reject any use of “Macedonia” by their neighbor.

The issue is long and complicated, like so many Balkan stories where national histories and geography overlap, and the past intrudes on the present. In this case, one nation is trying to forge an identity and preserve its territorial integrity, while the other is defending its history, cultural heritage and territory from what it believes are its neighbor’s ambitions.

The historical region of Macedonia was carved up after the Balkan wars early last century, after decades of fighting among Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians. Just over half of the territory became part of Greece, while the rest went mainly to Serbia and Bulgaria.

The ancient Macedonians — of whom Alexander the Great was the most famous — were a Greek tribe. Alexander lived in the fourth century B.C., some 900 years before Slavic tribes settled in the region. In the nationalistic fervor of the 19th and 20th centuries, Slavs who identified themselves as ethnic Macedonians pressed for a separate state, with Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, as its capital. Greek anger at their appropriation of the name, history and symbols of the ancient kingdom and fears of a renewed threat to its territory resurfaced as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s.

These fears may seem absurd, but they are not irrational. From 1941 to 1944, Bulgaria, allied with the Nazis, occupied part of northern Greece, including part of Macedonia. In the civil war that followed World War II, Greek Communists fought for an autonomous Macedonia that would have included the Greek province.

More recently, the previous government in Skopje carried out acts of cultural appropriation, erecting statues of Alexander (but called, coyly, “Equestrian Warrior”) and his father, Philip. In 2006, the capital’s airport was named Alexander the Great — a decision that the present government just decided to rescind officially.

Still, both countries seemed content with the stalemate, as long as Skopje was gaining international recognition and Athens did not have to sell a compromise to voters. But the new government in Skopje is renewing the country’s push to join the European Union and NATO, and both organizations believe that this will help stabilize the western Balkans. A European Union summit meeting in June and a NATO summit meeting in July of next year had been seen in both Skopje and Athens as deadlines for a deal, and last week the United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz was shuttling between the two capitals.

Any notion that quiet diplomacy would lead to a compromise, however, was dispelled by noisy declarations from the junior partner of Greece’s government: Panos Kammenos, the leader of the Independent Greeks, said he would reject any deal that included the name “Macedonia” in any form. He has recently said that while he will not bring down the government, he will not back down on rejecting a compromise — raising the question of whether Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will dare to back a compromise.

The odd coupling of the radical left-wing Syriza party and the nationalist right-wing Independent Greeks was based on their common opposition to the bailout agreements, despite their incompatible views on other issues. Syriza is the heir of a tradition of leftist parties that did not have a problem with recognizing a neighboring “Macedonia.” Mr. Kammenos, though, will lose all legitimacy if he compromised.

Drawing from a similar deep well of populism and suspicion of foreigners’ intentions as the one that brought this coalition government to power, groups opposed to any compromise organized the mass rallies in Thessaloniki on Jan. 21 and in Athens last Sunday. These brought together hard-line nationalists, Orthodox Church faithful and various factions opposed to the current government and its policies.

The main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, hesitated but in the end took a hard line against compromise, and several leading members attended the Athens protest. Accepting a compromise could lead to division within New Democracy and perhaps inspire a new party to form on its right. Consensus also would go against the tradition of political parties doing all they can to exploit one another’s difficulties.

The main speaker in Athens was Mikis Theodorakis, the popular composer who at 92 is a symbol of national pride and leftist resistance for the years he spent in prison and exile under right-wing nationalist governments. After attacking the government for its handling of the issue, he highlighted the nature of the stalemate.

“The only solution, in my opinion, is to leave the people of Skopje believing in their own national myth while we remain faithful and unyielding with regard to the Greek nature of Macedonia,” he said. “As long as we Greeks decline to harm ourselves in order to have the approval of the United States, NATO and Europe, we can continue with our lives as we have been doing for so many years. But this means we will reject any other concession.” He added, “We will not, to the extent that we can, agree to their joining Europe and NATO.”

The Macedonia issue combines a sense of victimhood with evidence of a real threat. However minor that threat may be, it confirms fears that others wish to usurp Greece’s history, which we Greeks equate with our identity, and lay a claim to lands that have been fought over for centuries. In the Balkans, the past is never past. It drives the present.

Nikos Konstandaras is a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini and a contributing opinion writer.

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