The road to normalization of relations with Greece is opened!

by: Mirjana Maleska

[dropcap font="arial" fontsize="45"]A[/dropcap] moment of coinciding of the interests of the great powers to secure peace and stability on the Balkans, in which they previously invested much, and to secure their presence in the region, as opposed to the power of Russia, has happily coincided with the strategic interests of our country to become a member of NATO and the EU. As our old acquaintance from 2001, former NATO Secretary General, George Robertson said: “Stars align for Macedonia”.

During preparations for this debate, I reread two conversations that I had published 10 years ago on the Macedonian-Greek dispute as an editor in “New Balkan Politics”. They are still on the website of this international magazine even today. I will briefly refer to them so that our public can understand, how far we were from a compromise back then, and what a big and important step we are making today.

One of the conversations is with the then president of the Helsinki Committee of Greece, who was accused of national treason, Panayote Dimitras, famous activist against nationalism and xenophobia, and the second one with one of the most prominent Greek writers, with liberal views, Nikos Dimou.

I asked Dimou for an interview after he had published on his blog the text entitled “Nationalism threatens democracy in Greece”, which, nonetheless, with slight changes, can also refer to the Macedonian nationalism.

“From my childhood onward, the Greek history resembled a (cheap) western movie, where the Greeks are always and inevitably the Good Guys. The bad guys always changed. There was a threat from the north, then from the east, then again from the North and back from the East. When I was a child, the word Bulgarian was a bigger curse that Turk. It was forbidden for the Greeks from northern Greece to call themselves Macedonians. The Albanian, back then, had a neutral tone, and today has become a threat”.

Panayote Dimitras, in terms of the question what is the dispute between the two countries all about, replied:

“Greece refuses to accept that there could be a Macedonian ethnic identity anywhere, but most important within the framework of its territory, where ethnic minorities are not recognized, regardless of whether they are Macedonians or Turks…The Greeks can accept Northern Macedonia as a name of the country, if both sides agree, but it will be very difficult to admit that there is a Macedonian identity and language, hence it would not be likely to expect that reason would prevail”

These days I read that the organization of the Macedonians from Greece “Vinozito” (Rainbow), is requesting from the Government the introducing of the Macedonian language in state schools and recognizing the Macedonian minority. The Prespa Agreement has given another encouragement to their fight for minority rights, but that is their fight, it is not ours…

I have been following the name from its formal beginning, when Macedonia became independent in 1991, after the bloody fall of the Yugoslavian Federation and when it sought international recognition. We immediately had to face the reality of the international policy, that unions are formed in order to protect the interests of their members. The doors were closed for us where Greece was a member, and this being all the major and significant international organizations, such as the United Nations or the European Community. The greatest shock for the nation, in the first three years of its independence, came from Lisbon. In the Declaration from June 1992, the EC members, busy with their problems and without much knowledge about us, expressed preparedness to recognize us if our name did not contain the word Macedonia in it! We overcame this difficult blow to the national dignity, for later, through the mediation and support of the British diplomacy, to have the compromising proposal prepared, Republic of Macedonia (Skopje), which entered parliamentary procedure. Neither we, nor the Greeks endured in the process to the end, and after a certain confusion in the country’s foreign policy and the discord between its then creators, Macedonia was accepted in the UN under the temporary reference fYROM.

I was in New York at the time with tears of joy, while on the other hand, I had a lump in my throat because of the uncertainty: how will the bilateral relations between Macedonia and Greece continue, because Greek nationalists fiercely protested in front of the UN building. In 1995, when the Interim Accord was being signed, I was still in New York and was content when, for the first time, representatives of Macedonia and Greece extended a hand. All of us who at that moment were there and were part of the event, photographed ourselves with the smiling UN Secretary General.

Hence, I know first-hand that the dispute was longstanding, complex and deeply emotional, but in those first years, it was still not an identity one, and probably if we had been consistent, the demand for a compromise would have been solved earlier. However, the politics at home went into another direction. Although formally it was being negotiated, not a single politician – absolutely no one – regardless of which party they belonged to, did have the intention of being accused of national treason and selling of national interests, because, this is how you surely lose elections, and maybe even your head. The entire atmosphere was brought to a boiling point, and letters of threats to those who led the country and the foreign policy, were not rare. In fact, the assassination of President Kiro Gligorov in October 1995 is a testimony to the political climate in the country.

The Interim Accord with Greece from September 13, 1995, brought some ease, but since we are already accusing the Greeks for not adhering to the accord, we should be virtuous and say that our side also did not stick to its obligations to seek a compromising solution, but rather through its diplomatic network, increased the number of countries that recognize us under the constitutional name, with the intention of pressuring the Greeks. This policy did not solve the problems, especially the country’s EU and NATO membership., but only deepened the mutual distrust. The conflict with Greece escalated with VMRO-DPMNE coming to power and transformed from a name issue into a sensitive identity dispute, because a new generation of young people grew up and committed to the myth that we are all direct descenders of Alexander the Great.

Why did we enter in a confrontation with Greece, while setting the foundations of our identity on, so to speak, foreign and hostile territory? Emphasizing symbols, such as the flag of Vergina, the monuments of Alexander the Great, naming streets, schools, highways, sports halls and other buildings after ancient kings like Alexander, Philip and Aminta, for instance, for whom we had no idea existed, nor did we care, was made with the intention to show our Ancient-Hellenistic origin, and thus our claims over the territory of Aegean Macedonia, which for Greece was extremely unacceptable.

Behind this Greatmacedonian pretentious policy, all those who had personal motives gathered to support it. For example, one of the advisors of the president of the state and a colleague of mine said: “We will swap with the Greeks – we will give them back their antiquity, when the time comes, and they will give us back the name of the state”. It didn’t turn out that way. Another colleague, also an official in the previous government, laughed because with the antiquization we would attract tourists and would be making money out of that. He was prejudice towards the Albanians and believed that some kind of union between the Macedonians and Greeks would help to free ourselves from the Albanians, who according to him, had been “a milestone around our necks”, and that, by the way, we the professors – which would be nice- would be teaching in Thessaloniki! Superficial and dangerous. A third colleague, close to the government, was convincing me that we need to escape the immediate historic past, in which we have much in common with the Bulgarians, and through appropriate social engineering – to unify as a nation around a powerful myth – Alexander! Wrong, because let me refer to the words of Dionysios Solomos, a Greek poet from the 19 century, the nation must learn to consider as national everything true. And it is true that we are separate southern Slavic people that speak their own language that belongs to the group of Slavic languages!

Hence, none of the mentioned intellectuals and professors thought about the price that has to be paid for such a dangerous and superficial policy. They were with the government, the state treasury was at their disposal, they received ambassadorial positions and other privileges as a reward, why would they be thinking?

What are the consequences of this nationalistic policy?

We all know them, more or less. Therefore, very briefly: confusion was created in terms of the identity, what it means to be a Macedonia. Society was divided into patriots and – traitors. The Albanians were extremely dissatisfied with the government that used insulting rhetoric against them, and was not providing them a European future. Radical demands emerged from that discontent and the internal division, of the pro-Western forces that in the name of the future are prepared for a compromise with the Greeks for the name, and those who were fighting for a status-quo and have the support of Russia, became worse, to the point of conflict. The country was remained outside of NATO for too long, bringing its security in question, in moments when on the Balkans there still are policies contemplating border changes. We came to a situation to see ourselves, and to have others see us as a country without a future, on the verge of a conflict from which all those who can leave…

With a senior Greek diplomat, we spoke on this topic. He was our guest at home, and in a friendly atmosphere he said that Greece has no problem with moderate and reasonable people. “We want to disclose your extreme nationalism and irredentism”.

They didn’t have to, they just needed to wait because it disclosed itself. Along with primitive-anti-communism, which brought into question our basic identity: that we are a young nation, having been formed in a process of liberation movements, led primarily by the historical VMRO, and then by the Communist Party, which together with the other anti-fascist forces in World War II, created the Macedonian state. I think that no one understands better the danger of anti-communism for the national identity, than the writer and our friend, Kole Čašule. I will quote his words from “Sick Tribe” (2000):

“In this anti-communism everything was mixed up: volunteerism in interpreting history, anti-euphoria, ignorance and, above all, enormous thirst for power channelized as an urge for revenge…A serious threat presented itself that the survival of the state would be questioned with the rejection of communism, and that the nation would be disputed again. Hence, the inevitable statement that the main enemy of the anti-Macedonian conspiracy, primarily and above all, are the uprising, the National Liberation War, the fighters for affirmation of the Macedonian nation, language and culture, and not their (good or bad) communism!”.

Today, after 27 years, we are returning to what our friends from the US and the EU advised us from the very start, to reach a compromise with Greece. Now, the Prespa Agreement is here, and with great relief I watched it enter parliamentary procedure. As to the question of whether we are losing our identity with this agreement, with greatest conviction of a person with experience and professor, I say that we are not losing it, but rather strengthening it! It doesn’t suit Greece for us to get too near to Bulgaria, and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kodzias openly said that in front of his public. Tsipras and Syriza have extended us a hand, as much from conviction as from the international pressure.

“You are Macedonians, as you claim, with your own state that we have agreed to be called Northern Macedonia, you have your own history, culture and heritage, which are particularly different from the Hellenic civilization, history and culture of the region Macedonia in Greece from ancient times to now, and your official language is Macedonian, which belongs to the group of South Slavic languages and is not related, like the other features, with the Hellenic civilization, history, culture and heritage of the northern region of Greece. Under the terms Macedonia and Macedonian, you and we understand a different historical context – this we recognize and accept. From now on, we will be your friends, we shall help you in everything and we will support you…”.

I deliberately tried to paraphrase the solution of the Agreement, regarding the identity, in the style of the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides, where the forces of the Athenians and the right of the Melians clash, because part of the public in our country considers that only we are disadvantaged and that only we were pressured to give in.

It’s not even close like that. When bilateral disputes, like this one, threaten to destabilize the state and to produce conflict that later will not be able to be controlled and presents potential danger to the regional peace and security, the intervention of the great and powerful states like the US and others, should be looked at with understanding. Let’s not forget the lessons from history that in Rwanda, for example, in 1995, in just several days 500.000 people were killed and no one came to help those people. UN diplomats came and went to work like every ordinary day. A second sobering example is NATO’s intervention in the civil war in Bosnia, which was also late, especially for 7000 Muslims who were killed in Srebrenica.

When the great forces, as a third side, enter like mediators in a dispute between two countries, they, nevertheless, pressure both sides, but usually add their force to the weaker side in the dispute, in order to force the stronger one, in our case – Greece, to a compromise. That force was added to us, as a state, and it is no coincidence that the Greek opposition, and especially the Greek nationalists, are shouting loudly that national treason has been made by allowing us to keep the name – Macedonia, Macedonians – for the nation and the Macedonian language. This could not have been imagined until yesterday. A moment of coinciding of the interests of the great powers to secure peace and stability on the Balkans, in which they previously invested much, and to secure their presence in the region, as opposed to the power of Russia, has happily coincided with the strategic interests of our country to become a member of NATO and the EU. As our old acquaintance from 2001, former NATO Secretary General, George Robertson said: “Stars align for Macedonia”.

I am not idealizing the situation resulting from the agreement. With the debate opening for changes in the Constitution, there are always new justified, and more often unjustified demands, and even blackmail from internal political actors or from the neighboring countries, which can further destabilize this fragile country. However, the Prespa Agreement does have strong sponsors, the US and the EU, therefore I hope that we will bring the process of constitutional changes to the end, while still standing on our feet. It would be easier, when there is a storm, for us to be united, and from the opposition, signals are not coming that it is ready for cooperation. The debate with the Greeks in relation to the pragmatic issue of the Agreement will probably be long and unpleasant, but the road to normalizing the relations between the two countries – not to look at each other as a threat – is opening.

I will finish my presentation with several words of Nikos Dimou from his essay “The agony and the ecstasy of being Greek“, published in “The Guardian”, that may also apply to us.

“Greece is a small country with an immense ego. Its people are burdened with history and myths. Always at the top of the polls measuring national pride in Europe (97 per cent)... We view ourselves as the chosen people… This clash between our inflated, mythical ego and the harsh everyday reality is a constant source of depression. We feel that we should receive special recognition and treatment and when we don’t get it, we feel disappointed… We start believing in conspiracy theories and feel threatened… Our national rights become a source of irritation…Foreign policy is approached in an entirely emotional manner (they love us - or no? Are they philhellenes? Antihellenes?). We thirst for recognition, acceptance and admiration… Those who maintain that it was simply the Greek soul that lay at the root of victory are unrealistic. The soul was always there in the past - but we had permanently devastating scores… Nothing happens as a result of soul alone. But if it is combined with rationalism, Greeks can go very far indeed”.


The article is part of the project “Identity Loss or …?” implemented by CIVIL in cooperation with the Heirich Böll Foundation.

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