Behind the Greek-Macedonian conflict

FEBRUARY 2014: Evangelos Venizelos, Greek Vice-President and minister of foreign affairs visited Skopje, where he met with the Prime-Minister of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia), Nikola Gruevski. The meeting was part of the long-term negotiation between the two countries attempting to come up with a solution about the political controversy about the name Macedonia.

In 1991 “the Socialist Republic of Macedonia” declared its independence under the name “Republic of Macedonia” and asked the international community for recognition. Greece opposed the use of the term Macedonia by the neighboring country and denied its recognition under this name.

The Macedonian question only captured my attention in September 2013, when I moved to Denmark for my Master together with 104 other students from 43 different nationalities. While I was checking names and countries in the long list of participants, my attention was captured by a Slavic name. My finger followed the line and reached the nationality: Macedonia. An uncertain smile appeared on my face; that could be interesting.

My knowledge about the dispute was really scarce, as over the last years news about the Macedonian dispute – or the “the Skopian case” as it is very common to be addressed belittling by Greek media – does not seem to influence the Greek foreign policy. I wonder whether the same is happening on the other side of the border.

A few days later, my opportunity to approach my classmate arose. I asked him where was he from. “I’m from Macedonia”, he answered in a defending tone. “You know I’m from Greece?” I replied. Silence. I continued: “Is there any problem with that?” His answer came as a slap in the face. “Don’t start this discussion”. He turned his back and left. Why was he so rude? Isn’t this supposed to be an outdated dispute?  He must be just another nationalist so I will not bother any more, I concluded quickly.

Macedonia 2As the days passed we kept ignoring each other until we meet again at a party, where I mentioned my love for Balkan music. My classmate looked surprised and we started chatting. By the end of the night we had spent hours analysing this amazing band and that terrific festival and that concert where I had the time of my life. We came to the conclusion that there were more factors connecting than separating us. It was the beginning of a revealing friendship that exposed us both to the other side of the coin.

Parallel Realities
The long-standing dispute between Greece and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia) or “Republic of Macedonia” (depending on the side one stands) is not new: the Macedonian issue has divided the Balkan area since the second half of the 19th century. When the Ottoman Empire was fading, Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria were struggling to establish their newly formed states and foster a national identity.

The current Macedonian name dispute is a diplomatic controversy that arose between Greece and the newly independent Republic of Macedonia. The conflict is concerned mainly about the use of historical symbols during the aftermath of the break up of Yugoslavia and the declaration of independence by the Social Republic of Macedonia.

The Greek government claims that allowing its neighbour to call itself the “Republic of Macedonia” would leave Greece open to territorial disputes between Skopje and a region of the area also called Macedonia. According to this view, Macedonian history is an integral part of Greece’s history – hence the label ‘Macedonia’ could only refer to the northern Greek province by the same name. Greece suggests the use of a compound name with a geographical qualifier such as “Northern Macedonia” that will not leave place for territorial claims.

According to FYR Macedonia’s official viewpoint however, geographical Macedonia is the national homeland of the Macedonian nation. An agreement in 1913 signed by Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia is considered as a disaster that divided the ‘true’ Macedonia into different states.

GreeceRise of nationalism
During the 1990s the controversy hijacked the Greek domestic and foreign policy agenda. Conspiracy theories saying that FYR Macedonia and Turkey had formed a secret coalition, which could result in a war, were dominating the press. Demonstrations were organised in the bigger cities in Greece; “Macedonia is Greek”, was the message.

In 1992, Dinos Kosmopoulos, mayor of the biggest city in the Greek region of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, spoke at a mass rally. His speech captured the general spirit:  “For us, whose history is counted in millennia, the past is sacred. […] Today the leaders of Skopje try to rob us of this past. But they have no history. People without history have no future. That is why we roar today: The Macedonians are us.”

The neighbouring state’s choice of name was presented by the mainstream media not only as an assault against the existing region, but even more as an assault on history. Greece adopted a hardline policy toward its new neighbour state, which caused the refusal of Macedonia’s accession to the European Union and NATO, leaving the newly formed state isolated from the international community. The accession of the country is still pending.

Despite the fact that Greece and FYR Macedonia/the Republic of Macedonia eventually formalised their relations in 1995 and both countries committed to continuing negotiations on the naming issue under UN auspices, the name dispute continues without adding any new substance to it.

The main consequence of the revival of the controversy was the rise of nationalism in both countries. The Greek population felt that its history, national narrative and territory were threatened.  FYR Macedonia had just separated from the Yugoslav Federation and was attempting to build up its national identity while forming the foundations of its community. The isolation imposed by the most powerful country in the Balkan area resulted in a provocative attitude towards Greece. The building of a statue of Alexander the Great in the centre of Skopje, the use of the symbol of Vergina Sun, or the use of a map of  unified “Great Macedonia”, have all been interpreted by Greece as irredentist claims trying to recover alleged historical territory.

The interpretation of history lies at the heart of the Macedonian controversy. Both sides have resorted to national myths and other symbolic elements to construct and maintain people’s sense of belonging to a united community with solid cultural background and social solidarity. Specific historical events have been highlighted exclusively whereas others have been tacitly buried. Simply mentioning an independent Macedonian state is still considered an insult by a large part of the Greek population and whoever supports it is seen as an anti-Greek, a danger and a betrayer of the country.

Brothers in crime
Macedonia 3September 2013: Almost 20 years after the revival of the controversy-  Radmila Šekerinska, vice president of the opposition Social Democratic Union of FYR Macedonia, managed to capture with simplicity and clarity the real core of the problem. She claimed that “the current Macedonian and Greek governments are brothers in crime in the way that they are taking the two countries as their hostages and trying to politically manipulate the issue rather than improving the bilateral relations.”

In the dawn of the day the ones who lose are the citizens of both nations, who are surrounded by breeding hatred guided by extreme national feelings. Taking this deep hate into consideration, it seems hard to imagine that I would speak to my classmate on a daily basis. In our ignorance we thought that we had nothing in common; that we were the most different ones among all 100 yet, at the end of the day we turned out to be the most similar all along. If two people can get over the ignorance and distrust, see the other side of the coin and move on regardless national barriers, so can everybody else.

With special thanks to Ivo Bosilkov.

By Dimitra Drakaki

Pictures: Robert Thomson (Sign along the road) Andres M. Arjona (Macedonia’s Polog); Aster-oid (Greece Independence Day); Nicolas Raymond (Macedonian Grunge Flag); Hannes E. (A view towards Greece and Albania)

2 responses to “Behind the Greek-Macedonian conflict

  1. Comparing the actions of the governments of FYROM and Greece and somehow attributing equal blame is nothing short of laughable, Greece has every right to be wary of the expansionism and provocation of FYROM, you only have to go back 15 years to know that Yugo-Balkan nations act on their warped senses of nationalism. FYROM is a threat to Greece and that wont change until FYROM rightfully changes its name so that it doesnt imply a threat to Greece’s cultural heritage and history and a territorial threat to Greece.

    The current loons running FYROM continue to provoke therefore Greece will continue to defend itself


    • Dimitra Drakaki

      A country of almost 2 million people, with low ethnic cohesion, a bad ecnonomy and lack of any strong international allies on its side seems quite unlikely to become a threat for the state of Greece,

      Another interesting fact that can answer your comment about how the name implies threat to Greece is that the country existed under the name Socialist Republist of Macedonia while it was part of the Yugoslavian federation although Greek governments or Greek people didn’t show any interest back then in the use of the term Macedonia.


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