Pella, Greece – Tens of thousands of Greeks took to the streets across the country on Wednesday to protest against a reportedly imminent deal between Athens and its northern neighbour that would share Macedonian identity between the two peoples.
Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have been in talks since January to establish full diplomatic relations for the first time since the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Key to normalisation is finding a name for the country whose government resides in Skopje that Athens can live with.
The message in 24 rallies across Greece was a simple one: the use of the name Macedonia by Skopje is unacceptable. Speakers demanded a referendum.
“We don’t wish to be responsible for baptising the country next door,” said Mihalis Patsikas, an olive farmer and former gymnastics trainer, who helped organise 15 rallies across the northern Greek province of Macedonia.
“But they’re claiming our name, Macedonia, and any name containing that term is unacceptable. Is someone threatening us? Let our government tell us. We the people will face that threat. We won’t give in. Greeks have always fought back.”
We the people will face that threat. We won't give in. Greeks have always fought back
History versus politics
About 2,000 people attended the rally in Pella, where archaeologists have begun to unearth the sprawling, 400-hectare metropolis that was the ancient Macedonian capital. The palace of King Philip and his son, Alexander the Great, alone covers about six hectares.
The consensus among classicists and archaeologists is that Skopje has no historic claim to the term Macedonia.
“In antiquity, Macedonia was the area that is now the northern province of Greece,” said Stephen Miller, professor of archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There is a geographical, geological distinction: the range of mountains that divides that from the area of Skopje. The area where Skopje is in ancient times was called Peonia. It was a kingdom. We don’t know a lot about it.
“We know that Philip, father of Alexander, defeated the king of Peonia and incorporated it into his kingdom. Alexander had as one of his allies the next king of Peonia, who contributed forces in Alexander’s invasion of Persia. But it was a distinct area. It wasn’t Macedonia – it was Peonia.”
Miller pointed out the ancient Macedonians took part in the Olympic Games, which were open only to Greeks. And the language of the ancient Macedonians was Greek, whereas the people of Skopje speak a Slavic language.
“This notion of the area of Skopje being Macedonia was created in 1944 by Tito, and it had a specific goal in mind to annex Thessaloniki so that he would have access to the Aegean Sea. That goal still remains,” said Miller.
Lysandros Amitzoglou, a local newspaper publisher, said there is little support for a composite name.
“I think sharing this name will be the biggest forgery in history. Macedonia is this soil where we stand. The stones say it, history says it… I don’t think there’s a single person who supports a composite name,” said Amitzoglou.
I think sharing this name will be the biggest forgery in history
US mediator Matthew Nimetz proposed five possible composite names containing the word Macedonia when talks began in January: Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia), Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia), Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia), Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardarska Macedonia) and Republika Makedonija (Skopje).
The Greek government has in principle committed to using one of them. Recent opinion polls show just 22 percent of Greeks agreeing to use of the term Macedonia, but that rises to 57 percent if the country’s name is in its native Slavic and if Skopje removes any suggestion from its constitution that it may one day claim Greek territory.
The constitution’s preamble invokes “the Macedonian people and their struggle over centuries for national and social freedom”.
It speaks of the “legality of the Krushevo Republic” of 1903, a revolution whose ambition it was to unite the Ottoman Empire’s administrative province of Macedonia – which would include present-day Greek and Bulgarian territory – in a breakaway independence movement.
Ottoman forces crushed the uprising after 10 days.
The preamble also references the “historic decisions of the Anti-Fascist Assembly of the People’s Liberation of Macedonia” (1944), a communist partisan committee that lasted for a few months at the end of World War II. It called on “ethnic Macedonians” in Bulgaria and Greece to rise up against their oppressors. The latter inaugurated Marshal Tito’s aspirational policy of a Macedonian state at the expense of Greek territory as a way of uniting the southern tip of the Republic of South Slavs (Yugoslavia).
The then Greek Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras quoted from the committee in a letter to his European colleagues on January 17, 1992, to demonstrate the irredentist implications of the constitution.
“Let the struggle of the Macedonian piedmont inspire you … This alone leads to liberation and the unification of all Macedonians … Allow the artificial borders that separate brother from brother … to crumble.”
There are other sources of Greek concern. Article 3 of the constitution leaves open the possibility that “the borders of the Republic of Macedonia may be changed”.
Article 49 states “the Republic cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighbouring countries”.
Greece is concerned this creates a pretext for meddling in its internal affairs, as well as forming a basis for irredentist territorial claims. In response to Greek concerns, Skopje added a statement that “The Republic of Macedonia has no territorial pretensions towards any neighbouring state,” but the offending paragraphs remain.
The European Union and NATO have given renewed impetus to decades-long efforts to induct the western Balkans, including former Yugoslav Macedonia. Greece, too, has begun to think regionally.
Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has spoken of the need for Greece to start cultivating its neighbourhood as a bloc vote in future European Union debates.
But Greek interests in settling the issue contain sticks as well as carrots.
“As the country emerges from its economic crisis,” Kotzias recently said, “it shapes an area in which it can act and with which it can grow. This is because it frees up strength to deal with its real geopolitical, geostrategic problems. These are not former Yugoslav Macedonia or Albania. They come from the east,” he said, a reference to rising tensions with Turkey over the Aegean.