The Macedonian question and Greece’s national solitude

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and PM of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) Zoran Zaev attend signing ceremony in the Prespes lake region of Greece, June 17, 2018.Dimitris Tosidis/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In 1992 a
beautiful Greek song, drawing on the Macedonian Question, was written. It was entitled
“Our national solitude” :

In this
land where our years learned to be of blame

And all our neighbours want a

Gamble away and curse them, you
poor man

 With a very Greek vocabulary

Because here, here is the love
we all know

 Here as well the grief that
wants us and we want

Here as well are we, so that we
may always provide company

For our national solitude”[1]

The song
became a hit and Greeks would be merrily singing it over the 90s. Yet, our national solitude has not been cloudless. It has forged a creeping authoritarianism in
dominant political culture, that has led to silence through violence. So that
when the infamous “name issue” arose, it did not just poison Greece’s
relationship with its neighbour, but poisoned Greek democracy itself and freedom
of expression within it. 

In April 2018,
I wrote a book with Kostis Karpozilos titled ‘10+1 Questions & Answers
on the Macedonian Question
’ (Athens, Polis pub.): our small contribution
aiming to deconstruct the dominant myths that have haunted Greek public opinion
on the matter of our neighbouring country’s name.[2]

When the book
was published I called up a colleague at the university with whom I have a
relationship of mutual respect, while disagreeing on the matter, and I asked
him to write a few words about it without holding back his reservations. My
colleague politely told me that he would not write something: “he did not want
to praise, nor could he libel the book.” He could not honestly review the book,
because he did not want to speak publicly regarding its virtues, which he
acknowledged to me in private. He blamed our ‘national solitude’ for it. “Since
no one understands us, it is no good to scratch our myths. Let them be!
” he

What went
wrong and why have Greeks behaved in such a way? Is there, in fact, a dominant political
culture favouring an underdog nationalism in Greece, as dictated by a
contemporary and still dominant version of Balkan orientalism? This thesis is
supported by the theory of cultural dualism, according to which Greece
has always been a stage for competition between two tendencies: national
introversion and a modernising rationalisation project.[3]

Despite the
dualist assumptions, the government’s “modernisation” plan for a “strong Greece”
during the frantic growth of the ‘90s had no serious problem with compromising
over the denial of a people’s name, although the overall “name issue” was not
part of the political culture of Greek modernisers, such as then Prime Minister
K. Simitis (1996-2004). This was incorporated, however, with no difficulty,
because it did not hinder the strategies of economic expansion and political
dominance in the Balkan hinterland. Greek
capitalism could perfectly well assume a hegemonic role in the Balkans after
the end of the cold war despite the name issue. To put it bluntly, it is
exactly Greece’s micro-imperialist arrogance vis-a-vis the “poor Balkan
fellows”, that fed Greek nationalism in the 90s and created the teratogenesis
of the so-called “name issue”.

So cultural
dualism cannot explain why Greece responded in the way it did in 1991, when its
neighbour simply decided to stop calling itself the “Socialist Republic of
Macedonia”, drop the “Socialist” part and keep the rest: “Republic of
Macedonia”. After all, these people were already referred to as Macedonians before
that: long before 1991, even before 1944, the year when their State was

seems unreasonable is not inconceivable: history’s hinterland

Greece’s position seemed inconceivable even to those well disposed towards the
country. People who love Greece and who have stood by its side during difficult
times, such as the years of the current crisis, have given up over the “name
issue”…[4]  “I recall” writes
Douzinas, “that the incomprehensible Greek denial of the name used by
everyone in academic conferences raised eyebrows and ironic comments”. I guess
few Greeks have discussed the Macedonian question in public fora over the last
25 years without being faced with those “raised eyebrows”…. 

Yet, what
seems unreasonable is never inconceivable. Even the most unreasonable things in the behavioural sphere of nations,
make some sort of sense. In our case, seeing the Greek model of state formation
as part of the historical legacy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is
the path to understanding. In the early twentieth century we can
identify the first stirrings of an indigenous national consciousness, of
Macedonianism in the Balkan hinterland, which, with the gradual demise of the
Ottoman Empire fell prey to the young, robust
nationalism of the states: “about nine thousand people arriving at Ellis
Island between 1897 and 1924 declared their ethnicity to be Macedonian”.

Until the
established defeat of the Bulgarian national movement in the region, the idea
that some Slavic-speaking peoples of Macedonia – that were not subjected to the
Bulgarian Exarchate (the Bulgarian national church) – would turn the place-name
“Macedonian” into an ethnic marker was probably convenient to Greek intentions.  In one word, unlike what is commonly believed
in Greece even today, the Macedonian nation was not Tito’s product. 

When, later,
the borders were established after the Second Balkan War (1913) and Greece had
to compose its own national narrative as a single dominant state, the existence
of a Macedonian minority became a structural problem for the Greek unitary
national idea. In Greece, as in France for example, state vocabulary has no
room for national minorities. This is not because it is racist and violent, but
because it is deeply unitarian. In principle, national minorities are unimaginable, inconceivable. Like French or Turkish
citizens, Greek citizens cannot but be nationally Greek. There is no space for
something else. This is not because it is racist
and violent, but because it is deeply unitarian. In principle, national
minorities are unimaginable, inconceivable.

The French
revolutionary model of “one state, one nation, one language” is complemented by
one more demand that does not exist in France: One religion. Those who
are Greek Orthodox Christians cannot be anything but Greek. Even the name of
the religion, in twentieth century terms, indicates national belonging. The
result is that if someone is Greek Orthodox,[5] then
(s)he must be Greek.

Macedonians were therefore, from the very beginning, the ideal exception that
breathed life into the unitary rule. They believed in the Patriarchate, whereas
they did not belong to the Greek nation. Some years later, the enlisting of
most of the Slav-Macedonian minority in the Communist Party during the Greek
Civil War (1946-1949) was the decisive act of their national “unworthiness”.

With the end of
the civil war and their expulsion from the territory, Greece denied their
existence by refusing that such an identity even existed. The
language was simply banned. Persecution of the remaining Slav-Macedonians
in the post-war period until the end of the Cold War (with a gradual relaxation
during the 80s due to the Socialist Party in power) was part of a daily agenda.
It is only in 2000 that the first history book was issued in Greece documenting
this situation![6]

So, just when Greece had almost completed its project of forceful
assimilation of the Macedonian minority within its borders, in 1991 a real
bombshell went off: a “Republic of Macedonia” next door! Now, a sovereign state
has the name that Greece had done everything it could to erase for the biggest
part of the twentieth century. Greece had succeeded
within its own territory, but the battle couldn’t be fought beyond it.

Ever since the
creation of Yugoslav Macedonia in 1944, Greece has been burying its head in the
sand. It wouldn’t see, because it could not stand to face it. This strategy was
also convenient because the Cold War “Athens-Belgrade” axis had to be preserved
at all costs, particularly for NATO plans. The
Macedonian Question remained a thorn in Greece’s side, however, that caused a
pain Greece was prepared to tolerate due to other more important needs, both
regarding itself and the entire West.

In conclusion,
Greece’s reaction to the use of the
name “Macedonia” by the former Yugoslav Republic seems unreasonable: but it is
not, after all. On a first level, it obeys the norm of a classic authoritarian
assimilatory state model, but along the way it was derailed by its own
ostrich-like denialism, and then entered into the sphere of the “inconceivable”.

Questions on Macedonian irredentism
and the ‘name’ issue.
it all possibly be in the Greek imaginary?

  • Are Greek fears regarding Macedonian irredentism well-founded?

One might assume
that the smaller or poorer entity (whether a State or an economy) could not
possibly threaten the bigger or richer one motivated by irredentist claims. We
won’t agree with this. The small(er) Greece had historically irredentist claims
vis-a-vis big(er) Turkey, for example. The fact that the Republic of Macedonia
is smaller and poorer in relation to Greece does not suffice to quell possible
Greek concerns. If there is irredentism north of the Greek borders, and a
minority in Greece that is negatively disposed towards belonging to the country
territorially, then it is of little importance if Greece has 500 aeroplanes and
its neighbour one. The goal is not to go to war so as to measure our power
against each other. 

irredentism is a marginal political ideology and concerns a small portion of
Macedonian nationalists. It is not absent, but it is marginal. That portion has
no capacity for political leadership in future plans in the region. On the
contrary, as is usually the case, the further they find themselves, the more
nostalgia may be poisoned by the toxic gases of irredentism. Large portions of both the Greek and
Macedonian diaspora have taken an aggressive lead in the conflict regarding the
name in the safety of their new nationality. Macedonian irredentism, therefore,
is much easier to find in Melbourne or Toronto than in Skopje itself.

  • If we assume that part of these fears is indeed well-founded, did the
    Greek policy of refusing to use the name “Macedonia” to this day allay or
    intensify those fears?

If the answer
to the first question had relatively complicated historical and political
shades to it, we can be certain that the answer here is much simpler. Greece’s political stubbornness regarding the
name “Macedonia” did everything it could to intensify the insecure reflexes of
a nationalism whose identity was questioned so intensely by the majority of its
neighbours. The territory of the country is questioned by Albanian
separatists, the nation is considered “Bulgarian” by the Bulgarians, and the
state was anything other than “Macedonia” for Greeks.

The wound is
not easy to heal. The worst part is that this policy intensified the
self-victimisation of Macedonian nationalism, resulting in every ill fate that
has befallen the country being attributed with ease to foreigners. Resorting to
conspiracy theories that drastically poison discussion, unfortunately, is an
established political behaviour in Macedonia. To this day, as people are unable
to explain Greek denial, they attribute it to a plan to dismember their
homeland. They cannot conceive of anything else. And yet, in strictly
geopolitical terms, the existence of this state is a godsend for Greece, as it
stands in the way of the nationalism of all neighbours (Albania, Serbia, and
Bulgaria). As a Greek International Law expert said, “even if it did not exist,
we would have to invent it”. 

  • To the degree to which irredentism fears are valid, would the use of
    the name “Macedonia” be a condition for the possible success of their threats?

The only case
of a state that changed its name because other states wished it to do so, was that
of Austria in the twentieth century.[7] However,
the renaming was the result of a war and the enforcement of an international
alliance. The answer to the question of whether the choice to change Austria’s
name was just, was found in the result: the change of the constitutional name
did not stop the country from jumping onto the Nazi bandwagon a few years later.

Since 1991, no
matter where Greek diplomats have found themselves, they have been crying: “Irredentism
exists through the name itself. If the name is removed, the weapon aiming at
the populations that identify through that name will also be removed.
” If
the term “Macedonia” is removed, the problem disappears. Through the use of
this name,  geopolitical instability and
claims on the historical right to “Macedonianism” start to be nurtured. If the
name, magically, disappears, then the quiver of irredentism is empty. However,
as the Austrian experience of the Inter-war shows, this view is subterfuge. If there is a problem, it is not in the name,
but in the geopolitical matters at stake, which may remain in hibernation,
regardless of whether the name “Macedonia” is used. If, for example, they wanted
to change the borders to include the “irredentist Macedonians”, they
would continue to do so, even if they had been forced to called themselves something

This makes the
Greek policy regarding the ‘name issue’ futile, among other things. Even in the most heartlessly cynical terms of
political expediency, nothing guarantees the fact that forbidding the use of a name
disarms the irredentist intentions of a nation, should they be present.
In conclusion, the Greek position on the infamous ‘name issue’ is not that
incomprehensible after all. However it has been proven both unfair and
politically pointless. That is why the Prespes Agreement is a great step
forward. One less problem for such a region is of major importance for all!

[1]   Music
by Marios Tokas, lyrics by Philippos Grapsas and sung by a really great singer,
Dimitris Mitropanos, on
the record by the same name. Neither of the two was ever considered a Greek
nationalist. Mitropanos himself was in fact a communist. The song’s lyrics are
still considered absolutely mainstream.

[2]   The book is now available
online, free
of charge in English, Greek and Macedonian.

[3]    Cf. Cultural Dualism and Political
Change in Postauthoritarian Greece,
Nikiforos Diamandouros, Athens,
Alexandria Pub. 2000.

[4]   Only the European extreme right
justify Greece’s position, firstly, because it applauds when the strong impose
a name to the weak, and secondly, because they see a racial conflict here
between “Greeks” and “Slavs”, in which they can easily take the side of the
descendants of ancient Greek glory.  With
the exception of the Far Right, the Prespa Agreement was welcomed almost
unanimously, with the well known exception of Russia, exclusively related to
geopolitical reasons. 

[5]      Meaning, subject to the Patriarchate
of Constantinople.

[6]      T. Kostopoulos, The forbidden
Athens, Mavri Lista, 2000.

[7]      In 1918, after the defeat of
Austro-hungary in WWI, the Austrian parliament declared a new state with the
name “German Austria” (Deutschösterreich). The Allies reacted, saying that the
new state would bear the name “Republic of Austria” (République d’Autriche).
The name Deutschösterreich implied territorial claims on areas in Central
Europe (mainly Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia), which were inhabited by
German-speaking former subjects of Austrohungary and it supported intentions of
a future Austro-German union, which was reasonably seen as a threat. In the
end, with the international Treaty of St. Germain, the name imposed was
“Republic of Austria”. Thus, the Austrian Constitution changed, by assigning
the new name for all use within the country (erga omnes) and by removing from
the constitution any references to a future union with Germany.

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