Call Me by Your Name: An Overview of the Macedonian Question

As negotiations in the long running dispute over the name “Macedonia” resume between the Greek and Macedonian governments, we take a look at the intricacies of a regional history that is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic dilemmas.

By Augustine Zenakos


Negotiations are ongoing between Greece and Macedonia over the naming dispute that has haunted bilateral relations for almost three decades.[1]

Greece’s main contention in the dispute is that “Macedonia”[2] is a name associated with Greek history, to which the Modern Greek state is custodian, as a rightful descendant and heir to all things Greek. Use of the name by its northern neighbour is said to create confusion over nomenclature, as only the inhabitants of the Greek region of Macedonia –which roughly corresponds to the ancient Kingdom of Macedon, at one point in its history– have a right to it. Furthermore, it is claimed, use of the name in and of itself constitutes irredentism that is dangerous to Greece’s sovereignty over its territory. Lastly, Greece holds that there are no such things as a “Macedonian nation” and a “Macedonian language”, but both of these were “constructed” by the policies of Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias arrives at Skopje airport, March 22nd 2018

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias arrives at Skopje airport, March 22nd 2018.

In practice, the Greek position has ranged from an absolute refusal of any mention of the term “Macedonia” in its neighbour’s name to a demand for a “composite name” that would include a geographical designation, such as “Northern” or “Upper Macedonia”. This is currently the official position. Greece moreover has demanded that its neighbour should refrain from appropriating symbols associated with ancient Macedon, such as the Vergina Sun, and should repudiate irredentist claims in its constitution. Lastly, it staunchly disputes the existence of a “Macedonian” nation or language, and it refuses to acknowledge the existence of a “Macedonian” minority in Greece.

The contentions of the Republic of Macedonia have also varied through the years. The main argument of course is that its people are also Macedonians, inhabitants of the historical region, and they have a right to the only name they have had for over a century. Claims of descent from ancient Macedon were not pronounced at the moment of independence, and they tend to flare up and subside, sometimes in response to the hardening of the Greek position. What is more constantly intense is the reference to the expulsion of ethnic Macedonians from their homes in northern Greece, and the Greek refusal to acknowledge the existence of a Macedonian minority in its territory. Although at various times willing to negotiate on several aspects of the dispute, the Republic of Macedonia is naturally refusing to concede the issue of its nationhood or language. It has, however, made major concessions by changing its flag, and amending its constitution.

Ministers Nikos Kotzias and Nikola Dimitrov meet with UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz in Vienna, March 30th 2018.

Official rhetoric in both countries has often been incendiary, pandering to a public opinion that is as recalcitrant as it is extreme. The situation is exacerbated by the activities of diaspora organisations, both Greek and Macedonian, which are at times even more unyielding in their campaigns than the people directly concerned.

Though both parties share responsibility for the repeated failures to reach an understanding, it is the Republic of Macedonia that has suffered the most as a result of the dispute. Its economy and its chances of national development have been impeded, as has its integration into international organisations. Trapped in a peculiar grey area of being not-quite-a-country, it is required to submit its national identity to outside approval, so that it can be allowed to exist as a national state. This fact is not lost on Greece, and there are those who propose that “no solution is the best solution”, thereby virtually incapacitating their northern neighbour indefinitely.

Despite all the indignant rhetoric, however, what is perhaps not as widespread as it should be is a discussion that would illuminate the intricacies of a regional history that is far too complex to be reduced to simplistic dilemmas.

Salade Macedoine

The term for a mixed vegetable or fruit salad originates precisely in the perception of the geographic region of Macedonia in the end of the 19th century: a hodgepodge of identities, in a variety of combinations, that were spread through the region without anyone of them being able to claim that it was in the majority.

Our contemporary understanding of borders, in the sense used by nation-states, has little to do with the concept of administrative boundaries within the empires of the past. The same is true with the outer boundaries of such states, which fluctuated all too often according to dynastic arrangements or military conquest.

In the huge span of time between the ancient Kingdom of Macedon and the 20th century –a timespan that is often reduced to a few snapshots in the service of political rhetoric– the “borders” of the region change countless times, and so do the populations, as well as their overlords. To cite but one most characteristic –and most ironic– example, the Byzantine theme of Macedonia for a time was not in Macedonia at all. It was in Thrace, which was the homeland of the Macedonian dynasty of Byzantine emperors. The most famous among them, Basil II, was nicknamed “the Bulgar-slayer” for defeating the First Bulgarian Empire, which included a large part of what we now think of as the Macedonian region. Incidentally, the overlords of that empire, the Bulgars, were not of Slavic origin, as were the inhabitants of many of the areas they had conquered before their defeat. They were of Turkic origin, but were gradually assimilated into the culture of the people they conquered, as has been the case with many peoples in European history. The local mixed population lived under successive changes of Bulgar –who were increasingly Slavisised– and Byzantine overlordships, until the eventual conquest of the whole region by the Ottoman Empire.

Thessaloniki circa 1860. Photo via National Hungarian Archives.

Macedonia in the 19th century, still a part of the Ottoman Empire, was inhabited by Turkish, Slavic, Greek, Albanian, and Vlach speaking populations, Christian and Muslim, as well as by a large number of Jews, mostly Sephardic. The rise of nationalisms in the Balkans was articulated in the demands made by merchants and intellectuals –the beginnings of the emerging “national” bourgeois elites– for the founding of national states on territories carved out of the weakening empires. As new states emerged in the Balkan peninsula –Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria–, each one strived to codify its “national language”, to construct its “national history”, to found its “national Church”, and to determine its “national claims” on the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

Makedόn Ortodόx

In Stratis Myrivillis’s seminal novel Life in the Tomb, the story is told through letters found in a Greek soldier’s bag. In the letters, the soldier, who was fighting at the Macedonian front during World War I, recounts his thoughts and experiences. One passage reads:

“These here peasants, whose language is perfectly understood by both Bulgarians and Serbs, dislike the former because they took their children for the army. They hate the latter because they mistreat them thinking they are Bulgarians. And they look on with some amiable curiosity to us passing Romans, because we are the authentic spiritual subjects of Patrik, meaning the ‘Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople’. Because his idea still spreads out, wrapped in a dim and very peculiar secretiveness, over this simplistic Christian world. Then, the graves of their old prelates have Greek letters carved on the stones. The same letters that are written on their warped icons and in the old religious books of their churches. But, they don’t want to be neither ‘Bulgár’, nor ‘Srrp’, nor ‘Grrts’. Only ‘Makedόn Ortodόx’.”[3]

Ellis Island records with a Macedonian entry. Photo via Dimitris Lithoxoou.

It is very difficult to determine when people started calling themselves “Macedonians” in an ethnic sense. But there is evidence that at least by the last decade of the 19th century some did. The records of Ellis Island, where throngs of immigrants to the United States arrived at the time, show that in 1897 there appeared people who stated their ethnicity as Macedonian – as opposed to Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek or Turkish. Of course, things are not as straightforward as all that. Identities at the moment of nationalist conception are fluid: there were those, for example, that bear unmistakably Slavic names, but declare themselves Greek. Moreover, the American authorities often corrected the entries, and sometimes gave instructions to officers to change “Macedonian” to an ethnicity of a known country of the time. One could also argue that ethnic self-understanding was still “regional”, not “national”. But all this does not change the fact that about nine thousand people arriving at Ellis Island between 1897 and 1924 declared their ethnicity to be Macedonian.[4]

What is more, after they emigrated, they also organised themselves in immigrant communities and pressure groups. And these groups started to advocate for their countrymen, denouncing Ottoman oppression and arguing for American intervention. “American interference,” they said “is the only effective measure against the present slaughter and the only means of producing peace, order, and good government”.[5] They did not succeed in persuading the American administration, but public opinion was sympathetic.

The Miss Stone Affair

In 1893, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, or VMRO, was founded in Thessaloniki. Most of the founding members self-identified as Bulgarians, though they were hardly in agreement among themselves regarding the appropriate policy towards Bulgaria. From the beginning, there was tension in VMRO ranks between those who were direct agents of Bulgarian nationalism, those who wanted autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, those who supported the independence of Macedonia in a political as opposed to an ethnic sense, and those who truly envisaged a “Macedonia for Macedonians”.[6]

VMRO wanted to wage guerrilla attacks against the Ottomans, but its members realised that this took money. A number of them contemplated kidnapping wealthy Turks and Greeks, and extorting ransom. Then, financial concerns were paired with the goal to sway American sentiment into intervention. And a bold plan was hatched. They would kidnap an American, posing as plain bandits, and demand ransom from the US. Apart from the funds the scheme would secure, it would also enrage the American government against Ottoman misrule in Macedonia.

The organisers of the abduction, Yane Sandanski (middle), Krastyo Asenov (standing), Hristo Chernopeev (right), Sava Mihaylov (left).

They targeted an American Protestant Mission and managed to kidnap several people, but only held on to two women: an American, Ellen Stone, and a local co-worker, Katerina Tsilka. The Head of the Mission then received a ransom note saying that unless the bandits were paid 25.000 Turkish liras in twenty days, the two women would be shot.

Things turned out a little differently. Initially, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the supervising body of the Protestant Mission, resolved to pay the ransom. But it met with strong resistance from its field-workers in the region, who believed that this would only encourage further kidnappings. The Board, in turn, appealed to the new administration of Theodore Roosevelt –just after William McKinley’s assassination– which managed to learn through its embassy in Istanbul that the kidnappers were not Turkish bandits after all, but members of some “Bulgarian Committee”.[7] There was fear that if Ottoman forces continued to pursue them, the result might be the death of the two missionaries. The US requested that the Ottoman troops be pulled back, and so they were.

In the end, Miss Stone’s family and friends managed to raise over half the ransom money, which was delivered in a complicated operation to the kidnappers. The two women were released, finally, about six months after they had been taken.

It turned out that in that time, the kidnappers had also helped Katerina Tsilka give birth to a baby. She had been five months pregnant when they took her. So, they were roaming the mountains for six months, not only minding their hostages and evading the Ottoman troops, but also taking care of an infant.

Ellen Stone, Katerina Tsilka, and the baby, shortly after their release.

For the US, the whole episode was an early brush with what later would be called “international terrorism”. It was massively and sensationally covered in the Press. Still, when it was all over, there appeared to be sympathy for the men that had taken Miss Stone. “It is entirely a political matter,” said Spencer Eddy, the First Secretary of the US Legation at Constantinople at the time, who had participated in the negotiations, “and all the people in Macedonia are at sympathy with the kidnapping, for they believe it is a step toward freeing Macedonia from Turkish rule, the same as Bulgaria has been, and the money they demanded […] was intended for the Macedonian cause. […] If we had been dealing with the professional brigands who wanted money, Miss Stone would have been released long ago. It is very likely that this capture was deliberated upon for a long time, and the victims selected were considered best to serve the cause, when compared with those of other nationalities. […] They desired to attract the attention of the world to their case, and, incidentally, to get some much-needed money. I have every reason to believe they have given Miss Stone and companion in captivity the very best of treatment. When Mme. Tsilka’s baby was born she received the kindest of treatment, from all we can learn. I have five letters from Miss Stone, written in the Bulgarian language, so her captors could read them, and they were masterpieces in cleverness and diplomacy. Miss Stone is a very courageous woman. […] Turkey will have a problem on her hands is she [attempts to punish the ringleaders of the kidnapping], for the Macedonians have risen as one man in their determination to be freed from Turkey, and this kidnapping of the two American [sic] missionaries may be called chapter one in their plans for liberty.”[8]

Miss Stone had described her captors –with some fascination, it seems– as “bearded, fierce of face, wild of dress …all athletic and heavily armed”.[9] After the end of her adventure, she contributed a lengthy account of her captivity to McClure’s Magazine. “We were captured,” she wrote, “in Macedonia, a province of Turkey; the bandits were unquestionably Turkish subjects; they held us in Turkey; the ransom was paid there; and we were released in Turkey. These are the bare facts in the case. Had Turkey ever fulfilled her promise, made twenty-four years ago in the Treaty of Berlin, to introduce reforms for the betterment of the various Christian nations ruled over by her, Macedonia might not be overrun and terrorized as now it is by brigands, and this strange spectacle of women kidnapped by them and held in the heart of the Balkan peninsula for an exorbitant ransom might never have been written upon the opening pages of the first and second years of the twentieth century”.[10]

Miss Stone’s insistence on the fact that her captors were “Turkish subjects” seems a little strange at first glance for someone so familiar with the area and its tribulations. William Eleroy Curtis, a journalist who interviewed her at the time, believed that “to those who are familiar with the facts and the situation in Macedonia, Miss Stone’s narrative in McClure’s Magazine is more remarkable for what she omits than for what she tells”. This was his impression: “She is intensely sympathetic with the Macedonian cause, notwithstanding her sufferings at the hands of its advocates, and she is evidently under pledges to her captors not to do, or say anything that might interfere with their peace of mind or pursuit of happiness, for she has declined, or at least neglected, to furnish the department of state any information concerning them.”[11]

Elijah’s Day

The funds from the Miss Stone kidnapping were used to finance the guerrilla war, which culminated in the Ilinden Uprising. The Ilinden (meaning “Prophet Elijah’s Day”) Uprising was concentrated in the Monastir Vilayet (today in the Republic of Macedonia), but points of conflict expanded from Skopje to Kleisoura, near Kastoria (today in the Greek province of Western Macedonia).

The rebel band of Hristo Chernopeev, who was also one of the Miss Stone kidnappers, in 1903.

In 1903, the rebels established a revolutionary government in Kruševo, in the Monastir Vilayet. The revolutionary council included Albanian, Vlach and Slavic speakers who were loyal to the Greek Patriarch, and Macedonian Bulgarians who were loyal to the Bulgarian Exarchate. It rejected minority nationalisms and envisaged a Balkan federation, where even “ordinary” Muslims would take up arms against the Sultanate, although there were conflicts between these “federation-minded” rebels and those who were more loyal to Bulgarian interests. The revolutionary government of Kruševo, subsequently known as The Kruševo Republic, was crushed by the Ottomans after about ten days. But it stands to reason that it occupies a legendary position in the Macedonian nationalist narrative.

Nikola Karev, president of the short-lived Kruševo Republic during the Ilinden Uprising.

Macedonian nationalism emerges in opposition to the Greek and Bulgarian nationalisms. In practice, of course, events are convoluted and contradictory. There are all sorts of conflicting aims and loyalties within the Macedonian national movement. There are divisions between those loyal to Bulgaria and those that support independence. There are Slavic-speakers –often highly mythologised in Greek historiography– who side with Greek interests. Alongside more properly nationalist aims, there is, as we already mentioned, a singular brand of Balkan “liberal federalism” –a bit reminiscent of Rigas Feraios, the great political thinker of the Modern Greek Enlightenment, who lived a century earlier– that speaks of a Macedonia for all Macedonians. In the climate generated by the Young Turk Revolution, which involved a promise of liberalisation in subject territories of the Ottoman Empire, there develops a movement for a republican, multi-ethnic Macedonia, with some participants inspired by socialist and anarchist ideas.

That the turmoil would eventually end with some division of the disputed territories was evident to contemporary observers. There was a kind of “battle of statistics”, where the national centres concerned tried to prove that their respective ethnic populations were in the majority within a particular area. In fact, what they managed to establish was that no particular ethnicity was evidently in the majority in any one particular area.

The Partition

The terms along which the region of Macedonia was finally partitioned and the way its populations were distributed in its different areas were forged in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the First World War, and the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. The First Balkan War saw the Balkan League, an alliance of Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, attack a weakened Ottoman Empire and achieve to carve off a sizeable piece of territory, almost all its European possessions.

Serbian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian, and Greek occupation zones, April 1913.

Unhappy with its share of the spoils and feeling –rather justifiably– cheated by Greece and Serbia over the partition of Macedonia, Bulgaria turned against its former allies in the Second Balkan War, until forced to ask for an armistice by the intervention of the Ottoman Empire and Romania. The Ottoman Empire regained Eastern Thrace, Romania got its share, and the region of Macedonia was partitioned between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, roughly along the lines that each country’s army could hold.

All sides committed atrocities, which would almost certainly qualify as war crimes today. Armies moved in and out of different areas, and would torch villages and kill inhabitants according to perceived affiliation. The local population suffered the most, and its suffering did not end when the borders were settled. Serbia in particular inflicted great misery on the inhabitants of its share of Macedonia.

King George I of Greece and Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria at Thessaloniki, December 1912.

The outcome of the First World War, where the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers, consolidated the gains of Greece and Serbia, who fought with Entente. The Greek expedition in Asia Minor, which followed soon after, and the resulting Greco-Turkish War were a catastrophe for Greece. It was forced to abandon all aspirations in Asia Minor and struggled to hold on to some of its World War I gains, while Turkey snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, and managed to establish a modern state.

The population exchange decided in the Lausanne Convention of 1923 and effected soon after by the Lausanne Treaty might look today like mutually agreed ethnic cleansing, at the time though it was seen as a reasonable and stabilising move. Greece expelled around 500.000 Muslims, mainly from the northern par of the country, and Turkey expelled over one million Orthodox Christians. A large number of these refugees, Anatolian Greeks for the most part, was settled by the Greek authorities in the Greek segment of the region of Macedonia. Together with the expulsion of Muslims, this completely altered the composition of the local population.

A Severed Hand

During the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, VMRO had turned more decisively to the support of Bulgarian interests. The movement for autonomy subsided further after the First World War, crushed under the extreme nationalist politics fomented by what were seen as gross injustices in the peace treaties. VMRO’s left wing was increasingly marginalised.

Bulgaria was forced by the terms of the Treaty of Neuilly to cede more of its Macedonian territory to the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and Western Thrace to the Entente, who gave it over to Greece. A population exchange between Bulgaria and Greece also followed. VMRO sought to provoke a change of the agreed borders, and it launched a series of minor attacks, however its established tactics of limited guerrilla warfare were becoming less popular with its younger members, particularly in its right-wing, who favoured kidnappings and political assassinations.

Alexander Stamboliyski in Paris, 1921. Photo via Bulgarian Archives State Agency.

Its activities in the 1920s peaked in 1923 with the capture, torture and murder of Aleksandar Stamboliyski, the Bulgarian Prime Minister who had just been ousted in a coup, organised with the participation of VMRO’s right-wing. Stamboliyski had just signed the Treaty of Niš, which obliged Bulgaria to supress VMRO. His captors cut off the hand that had signed the treaty before killing him.

The left-wing of the organisation split off in 1925. It founded a new organisation in Vienna known as VMRO (United), but it had no significant activity in the Macedonian region, and it enjoyed no popular support.

In the following years, VMRO established links with the Croatian fascist, anti-Serb organisation Ustaše. After King Alexander I, a Serb from the Karađorđević family, had imposed a personal dictatorship in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which he renamed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the two organisations collaborated in his assassination in 1934. The shooting, carried out by a VMRO agent, took place in Marseille, during Alexander’s state visit to France, and also claimed the life of French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou.

VMRO’s campaign of political assassinations had already made it unpopular and there was already talk in the Bulgarian army that it needed to be supressed. The Marseille murders, which were captured on film and seen around the world, further diminished the popularity of VMRO. The Bulgarian army disbanded it in the same year.


Despite the wars, a significant number of Slavic-speakers remained on what was now Greek territory. Numbers vary quite a lot, between 80.000 given by Greek sources and 200.000 given by Yugoslav ones. A study that takes into account both the unreliability of available records and the political limitations of national historiographies gives a number of 160.000 Slavic-speakers in Greek Macedonia, about 11% of the total population, in 1930.[12] This is irrespective of affiliation – whether, that is, the Greek state at the time considered them Greek or not.[13]

Greece was bound by the peace treaties to see to the welfare of this population, but there was naturally no general agreement as to what these people were. Bulgaria considered them Bulgarians and Serbia considered them Serbs. In reaction to these claims, Greece acknowledged in the 1920s the existence of a distinct “Slavic-Macedonian” identity, with its own distinct language.

Abecedar first edition, 1925.

As part of their efforts to convince the League of Nations that they were abiding by the treaties’ provisions, in 1925 the Greek authorities published Abecedar, a schoolbook for the Slavic-speakers of Greek Macedonia. It was written in the Slavic idiom of the Florina and Monastir regions, using the Latin alphabet. The Greeks argued that the Latin alphabet, as opposed to the Cyrillic, would facilitate learning. But it was clear –and so argued some officials in the League of Nations– that the choice of alphabet was aiming to curtail the influence of neighbouring Slavic states on the “Slavomacedonians”, as the Greeks now called them. Bulgaria was infuriated and so were the Serbs. Greece then found itself arguing in the League of Nations that “Slavomacedonian” was a language in its own right, distinct from either Serbian or Bulgarian.

The local population in Greek Macedonia strongly resisted efforts to put Abecedar into use. Protests were staged and books were burned and destroyed. Despite public pronouncements that it would proceed as planned, the Greek government quietly dropped the issue, and the policy of acknowledging a distinct “Slavomacedonian” identity was also dropped.[14]

It was around this time that the Communist Party of Greece, or KKE, first emerged as a supporter of the rights of “Slavomacedonians”. Initially, the Comintern had advocated for an independent Macedonia within a Balkan Federation. This “anti-nationalist” policy was gradually rendered unrealistic, and KKE abandoned it in the 1930s, accepting that the movements and changes in the distribution of the population in the region only allowed for the support of minority rights. Still, KKE’s support of the rights of “Slavomacedonians” was widely considered to be against Greece’s national interests, an issue which would re-emerge a couple of decades later.

Federalists and Bulgarophiles

A variety of unredeemed demands for self-determination came to the fore once again in the Second World War. In some cases, the occupation authorities of Nazi Germany sought to exploit the demands of ethnic minorities, in order to gain support in the occupied areas. But mostly, resistance movements also involved a development of democratic ideas and demands.

In the closing stages of the war, the old actors of right-wing VMRO and VMRO (United), the left-wing organisation that had been established in Vienna in 1925, resurfaced in Yugoslavia. Nazi Germany tried to establish an “independent” Macedonian state in Yugoslav Macedonia with the help of the former leaders of the VMRO right wing. They had been in Zagreb, serving as advisers to the Croatian fascist puppet state, and pursuing a project to create contingents of VMRO volunteers under SS command in Greek Macedonia. There were furious negotiations between VMRO right-wing leaders and Nazi-allied Bulgaria, but there was no time.

Partisans of the Goce Delčev Brigade marching through the center of liberated Skopje in November 1944.

Bulgaria had occupied both the Greek and the Yugoslav segments of the Macedonian region, but in the end of the war it withdrew from its alliance with Nazi Germany and opted for neutrality. Bulgarian troops withdrew initially, but when the new pro-Soviet government came to power, Bulgarian troops re-entered Yugoslav Macedonia to fight on the side of the communist-led resistance.

VMRO right-wing leaders declared independence, but there was no more support to be given by Nazi troops, who were withdrawing from the Balkans. Their only support were so-called “Macedonian Committees”, bands of former VMRO activists, which they attempted to use as police. Yugoslav antifascist forces, Macedonian Partisans (The People’s Liberation Army of Macedonia), and pro-Soviet Bulgarian troops took control of the region.

The first page of the ASNOM Manifesto.

The VMRO right-wing leaders of Nazi-sponsored “independence” never actually managed to govern. This function was taken up by the Anti-fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Macedonia, or ASNOM, which had already organised an underground session on August 2nd 1944, the anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising, and issued a Manifesto. The Manifesto was a socially progressive document, true to the spirit of the Partisans. The Assembly proclaimed an independent Macedonia, where the Macedonian language, as well as the civil rights of all citizens, no matter what their ethnicity or religion, would be protected. As an independent state, Macedonia would also aspire, according to the ASNOM Manifesto, to unify all of Macedonia – meaning the whole geographical region.

A multi-sided struggle ensued. The initial ASNOM leadership included many former left-wing VMRO leaders, who supported an independent Macedonian nation-state. This brought it in conflict with the project of a federal Yugoslavia, which was being pursued by Josip Tito and the main leadership of the Jugoslav Partisans. The pro-Yugoslav element gradually took control of the Assembly, and accused the pro-independence side as pro-Bulgarian. This was not altogether unfounded. For many old left-wingers, however, opposition to Yugoslav federalism had less to do with any pro-Bulgarian sentiment and more with a genuine desire for independence. In any case, the pro-Bulgarian position had always been sufficiently complicated. Some of these attachments were not the same as those that had inspired the inter-war right-wing VMRO nationalists, but were forged in the communist movement, especially for the left-wing VMRO people, who had been in contact with Bulgarian and Greek communists. These complications became the reason but also often the pretext for a widespread political “house-clearing” after the war, where accusations of “Bulgarophilia” were leveled against the just and the unjust alike. Matters were further aggravated after the split with the Soviet Union, in 1948. The number of victims of the purge, during which many were transported to the infamous Goli otok island prison and labour camp, remains controversial.

Despite this true-to-form communist infighting, the main leadership of the Yugoslav communist movement saw the federal system, which would allow a degree of autonomy to the various ethnicities, as a solution to the problem of nationalist strife that had plagued the pre-war kingdoms. During the half or so century of its existence, the Yugoslav federal government attempted to hold a balance between respecting and even cultivating ethnic rights, and clamping down on nationalism, which it always saw as a threat to the existence of socialist Yugoslavia.

A language is a dialect with an army and navy

There are those in Greece, in Bulgaria and in Serbia that to this day insist that the national consciousness of Macedonians was “invented” by Tito’s Yugoslavia. It is clear, however, as we have seen already, that this is not the case. Federal Yugoslavia’s policy in the region was an acknowledgement of a nationalism that already existed for at least five decades. What actually happens within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is that this pre-existing nationalism finds a way to express itself relatively free of persecution. For the first time, there is a sovereign entity that devolves the power of self-determination, expressed through the uninhibited pursuit of the national narrative and the codification of the national language.

Some of the delegates on the First Assembly of ASNOM. Photo via The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia.

To say that Macedonian nationalism is “constructed” is a moot point. Every national narrative is, in the final analysis, constructed. A nationalism is primarily the foundational ideology of a nation-state – whether existing or emerging. It is essentially a narrative that encompasses a series of “continuities” (ethnic, religious, cultural, linguistic, historical), which, through a process of alternating accentuations and mystifications, are appropriated as homogenising traits of populations in a particular area. The status of a language is a similar affair. As the well-known quip puts it, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”. The borders between dialect and language are a lot fuzzier than the denialists of the Macedonian language would have us believe. The “decision” between one or the other is never a purely historical or linguistic matter, but predominantly a political one.

Irredentism is a part of every nationalism, particularly in its infancy, as a national centre tries to unify around its core all the populations that it claims. In the case of Macedonian nationalism, it was present from the beginning, mirroring the equivalent processes in the Greek, the Serbian and the Bulgarian national narratives. What can perhaps be said about it is that it was politically weak while the getting was good. By the time the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was a reality, its irredentism was alternatively fuelled and muted according to the expediencies of Yugoslav foreign policy. The idea of a national centre in “Vardar Macedonia” (meaning the Republic of Macedonia) that would liberate Pirin Macedonia (meaning the Bulgarian part) and Aegean Macedonia (meaning the Greek part) is hardly surprising in the context of a national narrative. But it was by this point way past its moment of opportunity.

This is, in the end, the contradiction inherent in nationalism: it is a construction, a “false consciousness”, it fosters an inflated sense of pride, and it broods distrust and hostility to other nations; it is structurally irredentist. But these characteristics do not make it simply an erroneous idea. Nationalism is not just a superstition or a prejudice, though it is full of both. While nation-states are around, nationalism is a lived condition, which forms the sovereign consciousness of people occupying a political territory. It cannot be removed. It cannot be disowned. It can be transformed; it can be relieved of aggressive or chauvinistic excesses; it can be associated with democratic and even internationalist demands; but it can’t be extinguished.

In terms of its historical manifestation, Macedonian nationalism was plagued by two main problems: one was its timing; the other was its extra-determination, the degree to which it was forged through a reaction to those who were trying to wipe it out. But there is no doubt that through a protracted, incongruous, and self-contradictory process –as these processes invariably are– what emerged in the 20th century was a Macedonian nation.

A communist teacher

Meanwhile, in Greece, after the mid-1920s attempt to cultivate the identity of the “Slavomacedonian” minority, in order to make it less susceptible to Bulgarian and Serbian influence, there was a shift to a policy of brutal suppression. The persecution intensified during the dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas, a period known as the 4th of August Regime, which lasted from 1936 to 1941. So it is hardly surprising that during the Nazi occupation, the “Slavomacedonians” flocked to the ranks of the National Liberation Front, or EAM, the communist-led but popularly supported resistance movement, and its military arm, the Greek Popular Liberation Army, or ELAS. Quite a large number of them, between fifteen and twenty thousand according to some sources,[15] continued the fight, on the side of the communist Democratic Army of Greece, in the Greek Civil War that followed liberation. The first woman that the National Army –the British and US-backed military of the Athens post-occupation government– executed during the Civil War was a communist teacher named Irene Gini, or Mirka Ginova, a “Slavomacedonian” who had fought the Nazis in the resistance.

Irene Gini or Mirka Ginova.

It is true that among the “Slavomacedonian” fighters there were many who supported a “unified” Macedonia that would include at least a part of the Greek region. To an extent, this was a view inherited from the Comintern policy of the 1920s, but it was also rekindled in the collaboration with Yugoslav Partisans. The conflict between Tito and Stalin, in 1948, triggered an intensification of irredentist propaganda in the Republic of Macedonia. As the Civil War in Greece was still raging, particularly in the northern regions, the Greek Communist Party, or KKE, for reasons that included both principle and tactics, took the position that after a Democratic Army victory, the Macedonian people in Greece should be able to determine their national destiny by themselves. KKE abandoned this position soon enough, but this did not stop it being constantly used against its members, during the long period of persecution, torture, sham trials, and executions that followed the end of the war.

When the Democratic army was defeated in 1949, great numbers of “Slavomacedonians” crossed the border and fled to Yugoslavia. Whether they had taken up arms or not, they were deprived of citizenship and property. Their rights or those of their descendants have never been reinstated. When, in the 1980s, there were laws passed that allowed political refugees to return and to claim their property, their provisions excluded those who were not of the “Greek nation”.

A group of soldiers of the Democratic Army. Photo via ASKI Archives.

The post-war period in Greece was defined by the balance of the Cold War. The Greek governments maintained a good relationship with Yugoslavia, as did most countries of the Western Bloc. The existence of a Republic of Macedonia was not considered a major problem, particularly as those who had fled had been “de-nationalised”. At the same time, the “Slavomacedonians” that remained in Greece faced ever-tightening suppression and discrimination. They were under police surveillance, and their language was forbidden. Even their songs were banned, and for years in the village feasts they were played as instrumentals, without the lyrics. The decision to halt any statistical recording of this population –since the state considered the minority “non-existent”– means that there is hardly any data on its scale or its evolution through the years.

“Macedonia Is Greek!”

The federalist project did not prove adequate to hold the Yugoslav Republics together after the death of Tito. A combination of increasing tolerance for nationalisms after the 1970s –encouraged by the West– and mounting economic problems in the 1980s, exploded first into localised hostilities and then into all-out war. The mechanism of conflict hinged, predictably, on the very Balkan fact that the distribution of ethnic populations did not conform to the borders of the Republics.

The Socialist Republic of Macedonia dropped the “socialist” part from its name, and after a massive referendum, it declared its independence in 1991. Perhaps strangely, in view of its history, it was spared the loss of life and destruction, and seceded from Yugoslavia without war. But it faced a different, pretty singular problem.

Kiro Gligorov, first President of the Republic of Macedonia, speaks on September 8th 1991, day of the Macedonian independence referendum.

After the adoption of the new constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, the Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on the former Yugoslavia determined that the new state fulfilled the conditions for international recognition. Greece moved to block any such process in the European Community, stating its grievances over its neighbour’s name, its flag (which depicted the Vergina Sun, a symbol associated with ancient Macedon), and its constitution (which contained “irredentist” references). The Greek government of New Democracy persuaded the European Community to adopt a common declaration, which included the following statement: “The Community and its Member States also require a Yugoslav Republic to commit itself, prior to recognition, to adopt constitutional and political guarantees ensuring that it has no territorial claims towards a neighbouring Community State and that it will conduct no hostile propaganda activities versus a neighbouring Community State, including the use of a denomination which implies territorial claims.”[16] In April 1992, a Council of Political Leaders in Greece, which included the heads of all political parties, decided on a “national policy”: Greece would not accept any use of the term “Macedonia” in its neighbour’s name. One year later, the Republic of Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations under the provisional name “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. It was not permitted to raise its flag.

Although international organisations, such as the UN, use the provisional name, over one hundred UN member-states have individually recognised the country as the “Republic of Macedonia”.

Macedonia’s declaration of independence threw the Greek political system into disarray. The “name” became the sublime symbolic reference of a rekindled Greek nationalism, which permeated both big political parties, despite the fact that their leaderships were totally aware of the realistic limits of diplomatic intervention. At the same time, the nationalist current was very much a social reality. On the one hand, it functioned as a sort of retrospective anti-communism. On the other, it was rechanneling a generalised anti-imperialist feeling into conflict with a weak adversary that Greece had the power to take on.

This social climate brought to the fore a flock of ultra-nationalist, extreme-right circles, “expert” pundits, “macedonologists”, sympathisers of the Colonel’s Junta, and other marginal figures, who were now legitimised in the public arena. The issue monopolised the political discussion. The Greek media took to referring to the Republic of Macedonia as “Skopje”, substituting the name of the capital city for the whole country. Huge rallies were organised, first in Thessaloniki, then in other cities, supported by all the political parties, except KKE. The slogan was “Macedonia is Greek”. The Greek Church stepped up to safeguard a nation in danger. So did Golden Dawn, Greece’s infamous neo-Nazi party, which at this time enjoyed its first major breakthrough in terms of public appeal. The “Macedonia is Greek” slogan appeared everywhere, from buildings to public buses. All sorts of things “Macedonian” suddenly appeared. Interestingly, a new marketing approach emerged: products started brandishing logos with a small Greek flag, and the caption: “Greek product, made in Macedonia.”

Rally in Thessaloniki, 1992.

The nationalist hold on public discourse was absolute. Mention of the country’s common international name, Macedonia, was so severely frowned upon as to be practically prohibited. Difference of opinion was ostracised, even in academia. The authorities clamped down on the few dissenting voices that came almost exclusively from the extra-parliamentary Left. Small leftist organisations that opposed nationalist hysteria, as well as what they saw as Greek bullying of a small state, were arrested for putting up posters and distributing flyers. Some of their members were initially convicted for “endangering state relations with a foreign country” and “spreading false news”, despite the fact that a number of intellectuals appeared in court to protest what amounted to censorship of political speech.[17]

These first years generated a contradiction that has haunted the Greek political system ever since: although the outlines of a diplomatic solution to the naming dispute have been known from the beginning, any hint at a compromise would tarnish a political power with the accusation of “national capitulation”. Greek governments have been both unable and unwilling to break this deadlock for decades.

Relations between the two countries were somewhat normalised with the so-called Interim Accord of 1995.[18] The Accord was a result of considerable pressure imposed by Greece, including a trade embargo that wreaked havoc on the Macedonian economy. Its provisions consolidated the use of the provisional name in an international context, obliged fYROM to commit that it would respect border integrity, lifted the Greek embargo, and outlined a framework for negotiations. Besides, after the initial shock, Greek business started to view their neighbour as an opportunity, and applied pressure to get access to its market.

“This is fascism”

The Republic of Macedonia, for its part, found itself facing abrupt limits to its vision of nationhood. The reason was not only the realisation that independence would not be easily translated into economic development and prosperity, but also the problems it faced with regard to its own internal cohesion. The fact that it had not participated in the Yugoslav wars did not mean that it did not face ethnic issues similar to the other Republics. The sizable minority of Albanians constituted a barrier to the political supremacy of Slavic Macedonians. The two communities clashed repeatedly, and conflict was only ended with the Ohrid Framework Agreement of 2001, which aimed to “promote the peaceful and harmonious development of civil society while respecting the ethnic identity and the interests of all Macedonian citizens”.[19] The Agreement essentially provided for the disarmament and disbandment of ethnic Albanian militant groups, and committed the Macedonian state to providing the Albanian minority with full civil rights and to raising the Albanian language to official status, alongside Macedonian.

Implementation of the Agreement required a process of constitutional amendment, which also wound up including modifications to most of the parts that Greece considered irredentist (though of course Greece continued to regard the use of the name irredentist in itself).[20] Specifically, the Constitution of The Republic of Macedonia now explicitly states that it has “no territorial pretensions towards any neighboring state”, and with regard to the right of Macedonians in other countries that it “will not interfere in the sovereign rights of other states or in their internal affairs”.[21]

Subsequently, however, a different project was pursued, mainly by the political party VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, named in homage to the historical VMRO, but with no organic connection to it), and its leader Nikola Gruevski, who was in power between 2006 and 2016. This was a nationalist resurgence organised around a government program of “antiquization”. Its central claim was that contemporary ethnic Macedonians are descendants of ancient Macedonians, who therefore were not Greek. The program included extensive renaming of locations and public buildings, the use of neoclassical architecture, creation of statues of ancient Macedonian figures, and a revision of school history.

Statue of Alexander the Great, officially “Warrior on Horseback”, Skopje.

This was a totally different narrative to the irredentism of historical Macedonian nationalism. In effect, it not only promoted an irredentist ideology, but it considered the Greeks to be usurpers of Macedonian history. Unsurprisingly, relations between the two countries at this time reached their lowest point since the early 1990s.

Not everyone in the Republic of Macedonia, however, was enthusiastic about the antiquization program. On the contrary, it met with considerable resistance. As historian Athena Skoulariki points out, there was a movement against “the nationalism, the authoritarianism, the corruption, and the undemocratic practices of the Gruevski regime, and this is what led to the collapse of his government. […] In the 2015 protests, they were throwing paint on the archaistic monuments and statues. Under the mounted Alexander the Great statue, they wrote: ‘This is fascism’”.[22]

Zoran Zaev, the leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or SDSM, the main opposition party at the time, accused the government in February 2015 that it had illegally wiretapped 20.000 Macedonian officials and citizens. There already was widespread and intense public resentment against the authoritarian policies of the Gruevski government, which escalated into dynamic protests in May 2015. The protesters, which included members of SDSM, demanded the resignation of the government.

The crisis was resolved with European Union mediation, which led to the Pržino Agreement. According to its terms, Nikola Gruevski would resign, and a new, interim government would be formed to appoint a prosecutor to investigate the scandal, and to organise an early general election in April 2016.[23] The election was twice postponed, and was finally held in December. No party won an absolute majority of votes. After months of instability, SDSM formed a coalition government with the Democratic Union for Integration, or BDI, the largest Albanian party, and Alliance of Albanians. Zoran Zaev was confirmed as the new Macedonian Prime Minister in May 2017.

Why now?

If the outcome of the negotiations, which are taking place under UN mediation, as well as US and EU encouragement, is positive and a consensus is reached, then it will also become possible for Macedonia to be considered for admission into NATO, during the forthcoming summit of the alliance next summer. US diplomats have made it clear that in their view this is highly desirable. Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, who has been touring the Balkans, said on March 13th that the US supports Macedonia in its Euro-Atlantic integration path and the door to NATO membership remains open. The remarks, which were made in a Press conference in Skopje alongside Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, also included a pledge by the US to help in the negotiation process. “The United States supports Macedonia and Greece’s efforts to find a joint resolution to the name dispute,” said Mr Mitchell. “The only durable solution will be a joint solution. Macedonia has taken tremendous steps forward to engage in the negotiations with its Greek interlocutors and there is tremendous opportunity, greater than we have ever had.” Mr Zaev, in turn, said that “when you are having a hard time, you call your friends”. And he reaffirmed his government’s determination to continue the negotiations, adding that “if there’s a problem, again we expect our friends to help in a principled way”.

Wess Mitchell and Zoran Zaev in Skopje.

NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, however, in his visit to Skopje last January, was more clear in that Macedonia’s admission into the alliance should be viewed as conditional upon a solution to the naming dispute. “Agreement on this issue is crucial for your country to join NATO,” he said. This explicit link between a solution to the dispute and Macedonia’s admission to NATO seems to favour the Greek position on the issue, as shaped during the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. Mr Michell seemed to also support the same position, albeit in a more understated way, by saying that “the US stands by the Bucharest Summit pledge of 2008”.

In 2008, the Greek government –New Democracy was in power at the time– had blocked Macedonia’s prospects of admission to NATO, demanding that the naming dispute be resolved first. fYROM appealed to The Hague International Court of Justice contesting Greece’s move. In 2011, the Court found in favour of fYROM and ruled that Greece was in violation of the 1995 Interim Accord, which stipulated that the Republic of Macedonia could be admitted to international organisations under its provisional name.[24]

The decision at The Hague had little practical impact on Greek or NATO policy. However, Greece’s move signalled a shift from its previous position of dismissing any mention of the term “Macedonia” in its neighbour’s name. After Bucharest, this was replaced by a willingness to consider a so-called “composite name”, where the term “Macedonia” would be combined with some sort of geographic designation. The new “composite name”, according to Greece’s demands, would have to be used erga omnes, that is both domestically and in all the country’s international relations.

The main drive behind the US interest in NATO admitting Macedonia is of course the perceived urgency to consolidate the Balkans’ Euro-Atlantic orientation, in the face of Russian policy and Chinese economic expansion. This is echoed by the European pledge to focus on Balkan integration until 2025.

Alexander Grushko, the deputy Foreign Minister of Russia –which maintained good relations with the Gruevski governments– recently told the Macedonian Ambassador that “plans to pull the Republic of Macedonia into NATO might have negative consequences for regional security and bilateral relations”.

Zoran Zaev responded in a Press Conference, saying that “our integration into NATO does not mean opposing the promotion of cooperation with the Russian Federation, because Macedonia in its strategic goals intends to strengthen and promote cooperation with the Russian Federation, primarily in economics, culture, education, and in all other respects,” adding: “I would like to point out that as early as 1993 with a joint declaration in Parliament, Macedonia has established its strategic priorities, among which is NATO integration. Indeed, it is an expression of the vast majority – over 75% of our citizens are for integration into NATO. Integration into NATO is very important for the stability and security of Macedonia, but also for the entire region.”

A few days later, Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak made the threat explicit: “With its military doctrine, NATO and its leader, the United States declared the Russian Federation a rival. So how can we welcome the Republic of Macedonia’s efforts to get into NATO? And for it to become a base for possible wars of this aggressive alliance? The Republic of Macedonia will become part of this military machine and part of the aggression against Russia with its inclusion. With that, you will become the target of retaliation from Russia.”

What Is to Be Done?

The “composite name” solution to the dispute formed the substance of the UN mediator’s proposals, when the negotiations were reopened between the Athens and Skopje governments. The proposals put forth by UN mediator Mathew Nimetz included the names Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia), Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia), Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia), Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardar Macedonia), and Republika Makedonija (Skopje) [Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)].

According to unconfirmed Press reports, Greek Foreign Ministry sources have indicated that “Gorna Makedonija” is in all probability the name included in a Greek draft agreement that was submitted for discussion. However, the major sticking point with regard to “Gorna Makedonija” seems to be Greece’s idea that it be always used in an untranslated form, so as to stress –one assumes– the Slavic heritage of the country. Quite reasonably, the Albanian minority strongly objects. Greece’s insistence, also, that the name should be written as one word, “Gornamakedonija”, is considered too much of a blow to Macedonia’s national dignity.

The possibility of a compromise between Greece and Macedonia has sparked a range of reactions in both countries. Massive protests have been organised in Athens and Thessaloniki, as well as in Skopje, demanding that no concessions whatsoever be made to the other party. Diaspora organisations, both Greek and Macedonian, have stepped up their campaigns. However, it has to be said that at least in Greece the scale of the protests is much smaller than in the 1990s. Furthermore, a relatively free discussion in Parliament and the Press shows that –extreme rhetoric notwithstanding– the climate today is much more favourable to a solution.

Zoran Zaev (left) and Alexis Tsipras in the World Economic Summit in Davos, January 2018.

In political terms, there are also a number of factors that seem conducive to an agreement. Firstly, the Zaev government in Macedonia seems determined to rectify the situation with the Albanian Macedonian minority. That forms a social bond between the natural enemies of majority ultra-nationalists, who habitually strive to become despots in their own country first, and progressive Slavic Macedonians. According to Athena Skoulariki, the political discourse of the Zaev government was shaped “through political and ideological opposition to Gruevski’s extreme nationalism”. Up to now, the Zaev government has demonstrated nothing if not a conciliatory attitude, and has made a series of good-will gestures, such as scrapping place-names associated with ancient Macedonia. Despite the opposition he faces from the extreme nationalists in his own country, Mr Zaev knows that recent international developments make Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration a more reachable goal than it has ever been. Provided he shows good faith, he can expect to achieve it even if Greece decides to backtrack.

Secondly, the SYRIZA government in Greece is also aware that international tolerance for the present situation is running out. It is true that for the moment, both the EU and NATO are aligned with the Greek position, and require the naming dispute to be resolved before Macedonia’s admission to either organisation is considered. But if the Macedonian government shows to be conciliatory and compromising only to be met by Greek recalcitrance, then it becomes very possible that developments will bypass Greece. In addition, the current Greek government has proved to be an excellent player with regard to US policy, as is primarily evident in its strategy in the southern Mediterranean and the collaboration between Israel, Athens, Cyprus and Egypt. There is no reason why it would not want to mirror that strategy in its northern border. The US resumption of Greece as its direct client, after years of “subletting” it to Berlin, is clearly an indication of changing expediencies, but the Greek government obviously thinks it makes sound geopolitical sense to go along, especially in the face of recent Turkish aggression.

Thirdly, as far as Greece is concerned, it is only a left-wing party that can handle the pressure of compromising on an issue that is considered a matter of national pride. The reason is that it is not all that vulnerable in terms of the strictly nationalist vote. SYRIZA’s positions are well known, with a number of its key officials, including Finace Minister Euclid Tsakalotos, having made statements in the past to the effect that Macedonia should be recognised by its constitutional name. Which is pretty much the opposite to what can be said about New Democracy, the main opposition, whose MPs are afraid of loosing their seats in the next election if they support a solution – which, incidentally, is discussed along the lines that New Democracy made into official policy in 2008. So afraid is New Democracy, ostensibly the “responsible pro-Western power”, of implosion triggered by the Macedonian issue that it prefers to signal an intention to change pro-European and pro-US policy when it assumes government duties, rather than maintain its previous moderate position.

Lastly, there is something to be said about the Greek Foreign Ministry’s analysis of the situation. It clearly does not buy into what has been the collective wisdom of Greek foreign policy in the preceding decades, namely that the naming dispute with Macedonia has geostrategic and security implications for Greece – excluding the necessity to engage with US plans of course. It has hitherto refused to view the Republic of Macedonia as a military threat –which is reasonable, considering it has 20% of the population of Greece and virtually no military forces–, and has downplayed the possibility that Macedonia’s designs include territorial expansion. It seems to have adopted a strategy that this is a cultural, historical disagreement, and all matters can be resolved on the basis of good, neighbourly relations. These will presumably include a compromise on a composite name, and some sort of economic collaboration. One wishes –though on this point the Greek government is silent– that good neighbourly relations might also include the recognition of the ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece and its civil rights, as well as restitution for the Macedonian political refugees that fled at the end of the Civil War, and their descendants.

The fact that favourable conditions exist, however, does not mean that a solution is necessarily forthcoming, or that it will be reached in time for the NATO summit. Both governments face protests at home, and they have reasons to fear that any agreement would not gather the required votes in their Parliaments. On that front, Macedonia’s predicament is more understandable: it is the Macedonians who are asked to make the greatest concessions. Greece, on the other hand, continues to insist on demands that are or have become illegitimate: there are no “irredentist” claims in the Macedonian Constitution anymore; use of the name “Gornamakedonija” as one untranslated word is humiliating; and the Macedonians cannot back down on the issues of their nationhood and national language. Nevertheless, despite reports in the Greek Media -that seem intent to spin their stories so as to warn of imminent collapse in the negotiations-, statements by the Greek and Macedonian Foreign Ministers, as well as by the UN Mediator, seem to indicate that progress is being made.

A new and final agreement would of course be very beneficial to the Republic of Macedonia. It would also be instrumental in a process of reconciling two neighbouring countries that have argued over the region’s history for twenty-six years, and would end a dispute that most people outside the Balkans are still struggling to comprehend.

[1] This article is adapted from a Greek version co-authored with Panagiotis Sotiris and published in Unfollow magazine (issue 74, February 2018). It has been significantly revised to include both contemporary and historical information that non-Greek readers, who are not that familiar with the complexities of the issue, might find helpful. It has also been updated to include more recent developments.

[2] In this article, the constitutional name “Republic of Macedonia”, the established common international name “Macedonia”, and the provisional name “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” are used according to context, with preference given to the first two. Where an adjective is required, the term “Macedonian” is used, as any other solution would be impractical, unreasonable and would also risk being offensive. Context is sufficient for the reader to be able to discern when the adjective refers to a citizen of the Republic of Macedonia, an ethnic Macedonian of historical times, a member of the minority of ethnic Macedonians in Greece, or an inhabitant of the Greek region of Macedonia. In reality, no one is ever confused by the nomenclature, unless they want to be. The term “Skopje” is occasionally used as a figure of speech to refer to the seat of government, as is common also with “Athens” and other capital cities. Using “Skopje” to refer to the country or its people, although common practice in Greece, is unacceptable and it is avoided here.

[3] I was reminded of this by reading an exquisite article by Pantelis Boukalas, which includes much more information about the novel and its various versions. It is available (in Greek) here. The –hopefully just adequate– translation of the excerpt is mine.

[4] Dimitris Lithoxoou, “Immigrant Ethnic Macedonians in America Between the Years 1897-1924”, available (in Greek) here.

[5] Randall B. Woods, “The Miss Stone Affair”, American Heritage, Volume 32, Issue 6, October/November 1981, available online here.

[6] VMRO began as an organization also looking to liberate the Adrianople region (modern day Edirne, in Turkey) in Thrace. The Thracian segment split off in the 1920s. It was one of several similar, interconnected, and oftentimes competing organisations that operated in the region and oscillated between visions of independence and service of Bulgarian interests, though VMRO was arguably, for a time, the most independence-oriented of all of them.

[7] Randall B. Woods, ibid.

[8] “Miss Stone Is at Liberty”, The Salt Lake Herald, February 24th 1902, available online here.

[9] Randall B. Woods, ibid.

[10] Ellen M. Stone, “Six Months Among Brigands”, McClure’s Magazine, May 1902, available online here.

[11] William Eleroy Curtis, The Turk and His Lost Provinces, “Chapter XI: The Kidnapping of Miss Stone”, Fleming Revell Co., Chicago, 1903, available online here.

[12] Iakovos D. Michailidis, “The Struggle of Statistical Calculation of Macedonian Populations” (in Greek), available here.

[13] A major problem with some censuses of the 1920s seems to be that the Greek state often counted as Slavic-speakers, or “Bulgaresque” as some sources call them, only those that it considered former (that is during the Ottoman period and the subsequent wars) supporters of the Bulgarian Exarchate. The ones that supported the Patriarch of Constantinople it considers Greek, irrespectively of their language. The fact that progressively this population would naturally have become bilingual confuses the issue even further. For a detailed discussion, ibid.

[14] The Macedonian Information Center in Perth, Australia, republished Abecedar in 1993. “Rainbow”, the political party of the Macedonian Minority in Greece, has also published a version of Abecedar, in 2006, which includes the original text along with translations in Greek and English and additional material.

[15] Nikos Marantzidis, Democratic Army of Greece, Alexandria Publications, 2010 (in Greek).

[16] The text of the Declaration on Yugoslavia is available here.

[17] These convictions were overturned on appeal much later, in some cases because the laws on which they had been based were abolished. See Kostas Papadakis, “Trials of Political Persecution of Anti-Nationalist Speech 1992-1993”, available (in Greek) here.

[18] The 1995 Interim Accord is a very strange and unique document. The wording had to overcome a number of hurdles, chief among which the difficulty of drafting an agreement where one of the parties could not be mentioned by name. There is no mention of the countries involved at any point in the body of the text. The full text is available here.

[19] The text of the Ohrid Framework Agreement is available here.

[20] The text of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia, with its amendments, is available (in an English translation) here.

[21] An interesting argument in Greece is one where the reference made to ASNOM in the Preamble of the Constitution is taken to be irredentist. While it is true that the ASNOM manifesto included the aim of liberation of the whole of geographical Macedonia, its mention without further qualification must be taken to be a reference to a foundational moment of the state in a purely historical sense.

[22] Quoted in K. Bali, “The Zaev Government and the Obstacles”, I Avgi, January 28th 2018, available online (in Greek) here.

[23] “Statement by Commissioner Hahn and MEPs Vajgl, Howitt and Kukan: Agreement in Skopje to overcome political crisis”, European Commission Press Release, July 15th 2015, available here.

[24] The text of the decision is available here.

2 replies »

  1. “I have seen another evil tinder the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil (6:1-2).”

  2. Thank you Sir. I thought that aside from a handful of Croatian and Serb journalists I will never see anyone in the Balkans dare dispute the nationalist mythology with facts and through principles.

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