Macedonia Dispute is Not About a NameΑπρ 4th, 2008 | Τάκης Μίχας| Κατηγορία: Τάκης Μίχας | Email This Post | Print This Post |
Even if the two countries agree on a compromise title for the former Yugoslav republic, their disputes will not be solved.
There is little doubt that a large part of the Greek population, especially in northern Greece, feels sincerely threatened by what it perceives as “irredentism” on the part of the Skopje government. Recent actions, such as the decision to rename the airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great, or the circulation in public of maps of “Greater Macedonia”, confirm the fears of many Greeks that the “expansionist” ideology of their neighbour poses a threat to Greece’s territorial integrity.
While some foreign observers concede that Greek fears are well founded, the majority sees them as ludicrous. Yet, one question is rarely posed: Even if one accepts that Greek fears are justified, how will changing the country’s name remove the grounds upon which those fears are based?
If that is the case, Greece’s policy over the last 20 years, focusing on forcing Skopje to change the country’s constitutional name, makes little sense.
Let us assume the government in Skopje succumbs to international pressure and accepts the name “Upper Macedonia”. The Greek government, so the story goes, will then welcome “Upper Macedonia” into NATO with open arms. The question, however, is why? Why should the adoption of a composite name like “Upper Macedonia” make Greeks feel less threatened by their neighbour’s so-called “irredentism”? Irrespective of which name is adopted, the respective historical discourses on which the two countries base their national identities will not only continue to diverge but will also continue to come into conflict with one another. And it is those discourses – not the name itself – that lie at the heart of the dispute.
Today, Greece claims that the country is “an artificial creation” of the former Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito. Macedonian historians on the other hand see the creation of a republic within Yugoslavia as the outcome of long historical processes. Greece does not recognize the existence of even traces of a “Macedonian” ethnic consciousness among the Slav-speaking population of the region during the 18th and 19th centuries. To the north, the exact opposite view is held. Greece refuses to recognize that the everyday means of communication in its neighbour is a “language”, terming it in all official documents a “spoken idiom” or “dialect”. Finally, Greece denies any “right of return” to the Slav-speaking Macedonians who fled Greece after the Second World War, claiming they were traitors who forfeited their claims to citizenship.
Whether this situation will change if the country adopts the name “Upper Macedonia” is doubtful. The Slav Macedonians who left Greece after the War will not suddenly get a welcome mat in Greece. Nor will Greece recognize that the speech people use in Skopje constitutes a “language” rather than an “idiom” because it is now called the “Upper Macedonian language”. Nor should one expect official Greek historiography to suddenly accept that once upon a time groups of people living in Greece developed a “Macedonian” (or should we say “Upper Macedonian”?) ethnic consciousness.
Put bluntly, all the serious points of contention between the two countries, all the claims and counter-claims, will persist, irrespective as to whether the name of the country changes or not – because the problem between the two countries is not a “name dispute” but a general dispute concerning competing national mythologies, symbols and historical points of reference.
In other words, it is a conflict that concerns all the items over which people in the Balkans have been happily butchering one another in the distant and the not-so-distant past and will probably continue to do so in the future if the opportunity presents itself and if European Union funds dry up. If this is correct, both Athens and Skopje have committed a tremendous blunder by focusing exclusively on the name issue. Had the two countries engaged in serious bilateral or multilateral talks during the past ten years on all issues and points of contention, and not simply on the “name”, perhaps they would not find themselves in their current absurd situation – a situation that only confirms international suspicions that the Balkans are after all – the Balkans!
Takis Michas is a Greek journalist and author of the book “Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia” (Texas A & M University Press 2002). Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.