The Greek-Macedonian dispute – time to return to the drawing board?

Facilitating a compromise between the respective parties to the name issue requires a better understanding of the multi-layered character of the dispute, the historically conditioned perspectives of the parties, and the main actors and their perceived interests.

By Spyros Sofos

After almost two decades since Macedonia declared its independence, one of the major obstacles to Macedonian aspirations of integration into Europe remains the notorious ‘name dispute’ between Macedonia and Greece. The most frequently rehearsed rendition of this stresses that Greece is concerned about the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ constituting an act of usurpation of its history and a misnomer for irredentist plans to bring about a Greater Macedonia at its expense. On the other hand, Macedonians argue that this is the name in which the majority of the young republic recognize themselves, their language, their land and their ancestors (although how deep they probe in the past remains an issue of contestation). Macedonian governments have repeatedly assured Greece that they have no irredentist designs, and have moved promptly to change the first contested flag of the republic and amend articles of the first constitution that referred to a duty of care for the Macedonian minorities in the region and the Diaspora (though not its preamble that links the current polity to the ideals of the short-lived Krushevo Republic).

The international community has tried to facilitate a compromise between the parties, but the efforts have largely been detached from the pragmatics underlying the dispute and quite often ignored the complex social dynamics at play. While the Ohrid Agreement required considerable energy and international brinkmanship in order to address the grievances of the Albanian minority, the name dispute with Greece was treated as a purely bilateral issue to be resolved within the framework of ongoing UN negotiations. The name issue has been addressed in an unimaginative and highly legalistic way; stripped of its dynamic and continuously evolving nature thus revealing the dearth of conceptual, methodological and practical rigour of our conflict transformation approaches in the region. The fact remains that through our current approaches to the name dispute we are still unable to see the forest for the trees and are thus unable to start thinking about long-term solutions to some of the problems facing the region. A better understanding of the multi-layered character of the dispute, the historically conditioned perspectives of the parties, and the main actors and their perceived interests/objectives is needed in order to build a strong relationship that can withstand future challenges.

Naming it like it is – the history dimension
Of paramount importance in the arguments and actions of the two parties is the past – both Greek and Macedonian national identities have been looking to the past for justifications to their existence and the inviolable character of their rights to a chunk of territory in the Southern Balkans. The two countries have historically attempted to bolster their sense of historical ‘embeddedness’ and legitimacy in the region by cultivating and showcasing work in the areas of archaeology, history and folklore that concurs with the dominant narratives in each nation-state. Greek claims, reinforced by a still dominant classicist tradition in Western thought, have little difficulty in ‘incorporating’ the kingdom of ancient Macedonia into the classical and Hellenistic Greek world from which modern Greeks claim to originate; what is more, the established ideology of the Hellenic-Christian synthesis formulated in the 19th century by circles of historians and folklorists, by ethnicizing the multicultural character of Byzantium, has provided a comforting narrative about the uninterrupted continuity of Hellenism in the region.

Although it would be difficult to deny the origin of contemporary Macedonian language, ecclesiastical traditions and folklore to the Slavic settlement of the region in the sixth century (as indeed the hitherto dominant school of thought accepted), claims for a more organic link to the region’s Hellenistic past have been harder to sustain (given the dominant view within archaeology and history) and have required more intensive efforts in a shorter span of time. A relevant corpus of archaeological and folklore research had to be built since the establishment of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia and the People’s Republic of Macedonia in 1946, over a much shorter period than the two hundred years the Greek state had at its disposal.

More importantly, the standardization of Macedonian language in a way that made it sufficiently distinct from its related Bulgarian, the codification of a national literature and the establishment of a Macedonian educational system have all contributed to the strengthening of a sense of Macedonianness that had emerged over the past 150 years, but lacked the means of its consolidation before the Yugoslav Macedonia was established. In addition to these developments, the existence of a Macedonian national ‘centre’ facilitated and reinforced the consolidation of a sense of kinship or of Macedonian identity among populations in the Pirin region and Greek Macedonia, whose language was closely related to standardized Macedonian and who had previously been oscillating between the Bulgarian, Macedonian or local identification options available to them if, of course, they rejected the possibility of assimilation into Greek society.

Although the success of the enterprise of nation building in both countries is undeniable, it would be fair to say that it has generated tensions in the ways in which modern Greeks and Macedonians perceive themselves. These tensions take many forms, most notably (a) counter-narratives that seek to temper or even challenge the obsession of both peoples with the remote past and look to more recent times to locate the emergence of the current national identities, and (b) what one could call existential anxieties, often coupled with the different forms of societal insecurity that have prevailed in both countries during the politically and economically turbulent past two decades.

These counter-narratives are more evident in Macedonia, as over the past half century the need to ‘root’ the country and its people to the past was tempered by other internal and international priorities of Yugoslavia, including its relations with Greece. Although attempts to link contemporary Macedonians to Hellenistic antiquity have been made in the past with limited and indecisive state sponsorship, or largely cultivated in the Macedonian diasporic communities of Australia and North America, the past few years saw a state-sponsored effort under the VMRO-DPMNE-led government to bring such theories to the mainstream. This process of Antikvizacija (Antiquisation) has proved controversial as, according to its critics, it is affecting the fragile modus vivendi between Macedonians and Albanians, and divides ethnic Macedonians into those who accept and those who reject its tenets. Such critics subscribe to a more modern sense of nationhood that does not agonize over the heritage of Philip II and Alexander, but locates the genesis of the Macedonian nation in the modern era or to a more civic sense of identity, but both are increasingly confronting the effects of Antikvizacija that feeds on the frustration over the country’s relative isolation and economic marginalization.

In Greece, similar counter-voices do exist, but have to overcome the considerable inertia of a long period of national consolidation and the memory of the relatively recent incorporation of the province of Macedonia into the national territory and the considerable enthusiasm, energy and sacrifice this required. The end result is the potentially explosive mix of the uneasy coexistence of naturalized, often primordialist, linear genealogies on both sides of the border with an anxiety and need to defend encroachments into one’s history.

Interethnic antagonism and opinion framing
During the early twentieth century, the Ottoman province of Macedonia constituted a highly ambiguous territory. Greek- and Bulgarian-speaking ecclesiastical and cultural elites saw Macedonia as a contested territory, a much coveted prize to fight for. The local Greek- and Slavic- speakers as well as sizeable Vlach, Sephardic and Muslim communities needed to be converted to the competing nationalisms, or otherwise expelled or exterminated. Despite the fact that for the public opinion of Bulgaria and Greece at the time, the annexation of parts of the Ottoman province was perceived as liberation of national territory, Macedonia presented a challenge of immense complexity to Greek and Bulgarian nationalists and eventually their Macedonian counterparts. Over the decade that followed the Balkan wars, population exchange treaties, the departure of the majority of Slav and Ottoman Muslim inhabitants of Greek Macedonia, and the settlement there of the dejected Balkan and Asia Minor refugees changed radically the demographic make-up of the region. Any remaining local populations which may have shown ambivalence with regards to the aspirations of Greek nationalists were subjected to a systematic process of Hellenization. Greek Macedonia was subjected to a systematic attempt of effacing key aspects and markers of the history, life and culture of native populations that were deemed not to partake in the Greek project of nation-building. Place names, church designations, frescoes, cemeteries and personal names were Hellenized where possible and, otherwise, totally changed, depriving the local Slavic population of spatial contexts of practices and resources central to their cultural survival.

During the Greek Civil War of the 1940s, local Slavs made up a substantial part of the communist-led partisans who, following the Comintern line, aimed for a united, autonomous and communist Macedonia within a Balkan Federation. Following the monarchist victory, the remnants of the partisan forces fled, including many Slavs who sought refuge in the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The post-war Greek administrations confiscated their properties, and despite the passing of legislation in the 1980s allowing the return of communist refugees, local Slavs were exempted on the grounds of having ‘renounced’ their citizenship. This uneasy, often latent and fragmented, memory of the liberation of a territory that was marked by ambiguity, of the symbolic and physical violence that guaranteed its incorporation to contemporary Greece, combined with the prevalent perception that the notion of a Macedonian nation has been the product of Titoist territorial designs have contributed to the framing of the Macedonian issue in Greek political discourse and public opinion.

The very same developments have been framed in a different way in the hegemonic political discourse of the Republic of Macedonia. The ambiguity and the multicultural character of the territory of Ottoman Macedonia has been consistently countered or tempered by an emphasis on the indigeneity of the Slavic (Macedonian) population. The fine line between Bulgarian and Macedonian identity which emerged fairly recently in historical terms recedes at the expense of the former. Local forms of identification among Macedonian Slavs are retrospectively ethnicized. The settlement in Greek Macedonia of Ottoman Christian refugees following the population exchange treaties and its profound demographic consequences are remembered as acts of barbaric colonization. The repressive measures that supported the Hellenization of parts of the province and the final eviction of the local Slav partisans at the end of the Civil War are seen as genocidal acts. If one also considers that contemporary Macedonian historiography has been informed by the contribution of several ‘Aegean Macedonian’ historians, it is not difficult to understand the centrality of what is perceived as systematic victimization and injustice perpetrated by Greece in Macedonian identity.

The politics of the name dispute
At the time of the slow disintegration of Yugoslavia, as former republics were proclaiming their independence, Macedonia’s route to independent statehood did not come as much of a surprise. The particular character of the state was another matter altogether. Whereas calls for independence were first aired in 1991 in the context of civic resistance towards the use of conscripts from the republic in the Croatian war, the link between such calls and a Macedonian nationalist agenda was not automatic. The political universe of discourse on the eve of independence was polyphonic, encompassing nationalist and moderate voices from both major communities of the country as well as the various other minorities. In some ways, the constitution of the republic represented a complex and imperfect compromise, confirming the ‘Macedonianness’ of the state but also tempering this with references to the rights of the Albanian and other minorities. In addition, a number of symbolic moves such as the country’s first flag which depicted a star similar to the one featured in an ancient royal Macedonian sarcophagus in Vergina, Greece, certain articles in the constitution that gave the state responsibility for the well-being of the Macedonian minorities in the region and the Diaspora, and a 1998 special coin to commemorate the 50 years of the exodus of Aegean Macedonians from Greece were intended to neutralize the radical nationalist circles within the country’s biggest party – VMRO-DPMNE – and the Diaspora.

As Macedonia’s independence was not welcomed by most of its neighbours and the fledgling state entered a collision course with Greece over its name, constitution, flag and other symbols and subsequently subjected to an embargo, the prominence of Macedonian nationalist ideology in mainstream politics continued unabated as VMRO-DPMNE became a powerful actor dominating national politics, either as government or as opposition. Its recent strategy of reaffirming Macedonian national identity through the appropriation of the region’s Hellenistic past, an ambitious attempt to rename significant landmarks, the symbolic saturation of the capital’s and the country’s public spaces with various markers of Macedonian nationhood, or to raise the issue of Macedonian minorities in Greece and Bulgaria at a sensitive phase of the name dispute, indicates that the party considers nationalism a valuable political resource despite its potentially destabilizing effects in the fragile political environment of Macedonia.

Indeed, the climate of adversity characterizing Greek-Macedonian relations has produced a unique opportunity structure in Macedonian politics for VMRO-DPMNE as well as refugee and Diaspora organizations that enables them to determine the political agenda and gain in popularity and political strength – Greece’s blocking of Macedonia’s NATO accession in April 2008 attests to that, as it contributed to the return of VMRO-DPMNE to office with an absolute majority in the Sobranje. Riding this wave of popular frustration and disappointment with Greek intransigence has worked well so far and is likely to work for as long as it is not countered by the frustration generated from the country’s exclusion from the Euro-Atlantic structures. Mr Gruevski’s team believe that they can effectively manage the chain of crises this impasse generates and convert them into political capital for their party and leadership. They also seem to believe that they can generate goodwill from European and US leaders and isolate Greece diplomatically. However, although the current Greek government, facing a disabling economic crisis, seems to have been considerably weakened, it is not about to make an about turn and pay the considerable political cost such a move would entail, especially at the time it had to take painful measures in the economy. The VMRO-DPMNE’s strategy of flirting with forces that subscribe to an irredentist agenda, and its attempt to rewrite Macedonia’s history entails considerable risks as it cannot be certain to control the latter in the longer term, or to simply translate the energy generated by popular frustration to electoral successes. It also cannot rely on the patience of its Macedonian Albanian interlocutors and allies as their own political survival and hegemony within the Albanian community relies in translating this patience in the tangible benefits brought by the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration.

The current Greek government is entrapped in the complex web that was spun back in 1992 by a loose alliance often represented by the former foreign minister (and current leader of the opposition party of Nea Dimokratia), Antonis Samaras, and nationalist circles in the government, opposition and clergy at the time. Samaras, sensing the profound societal insecurity caused by the destabilization of the Balkan order and the mismanagement of the Greek economy by subsequent governments, realised that the issue of Macedonian independence could become a significant resource for the acquisition of political capital. Giving broader popular anxieties a specific focus, an unlikely and disparate coalition of nationalist and opportunist politicians set the scene for one of the most persistent and intractable contemporary disputes in the region and demarcated the boundaries of Greek foreign policy for almost two decades. Despite the different positions subsequent governments may have had on the relationship between Greece and Macedonia, these were still expressed in the idiom of national threat that the mobilizations of 1992 institutionalized which left very little room for manoeuvring.

In fact, despite the obvious differences between the Greek mobilization around the issue of the name (and symbols) that focused on antiquity in the 1990s and the current attempt by the Macedonian leadership to promote the antiquisation of Macedonian society, both share the same blueprint – the intention to hijack the frustration and insecurities of the respective populations.

What is more, they both constitute reminders of the mutually-reinforcing character of such enterprises. Greek rigidity and intransigence has generated not only frustration among ordinary Macedonians, but also eventually reinforced the hegemony of the VMRO-DPMNE and strengthened the position of diasporic Macedonian and Aegean Macedonian refugee groups, as well as of the Church, in the universe of political discourse. Conversely, Macedonian moves to raise the issue of the Macedonian minority in Greece and the policy of antiquisation that is in earnest during a very sensitive moment in the current dispute strengthens the hand of nationalist circles in Greek politics and further restricts the ability of the current PASOK government to take the necessary decisions for the resolution of the conflict. In this context, the Greek government seems to be adopting a two-faceted policy; its strong rhetoric is complemented by bilateral and multilateral initiatives that can create channels of communication and exchange between the parties. The latter constitute circum-negotiation strategies intended to foster a culture of mutual trust and engagement.

Thinking creatively about the dispute
The dispute about the name of the Republic of Macedonia constitutes just one dimension of a broader conflict.

The Republic of Macedonia (and the overwhelming majority of ordinary Macedonians) see this dispute as a fundamental challenge to the right of the Macedonian people to self-determination. Indeed, insisting on a name change erga omnes, as Greece demands, constitutes a demand for the Macedonian government, but also Macedonian society, to forfeit its right to identify itself in a manner that makes sense to the majority of the population. Such a conclusion to the dispute would require an intervention in the very core of the social fabric of Macedonian society, altering birth certificates, public documents and quite possibly, school books and other official, or semi-official, quotidian markers of identity. Greece’s claim to virtual ownership of the name is seen, not without reason, as irrational, as for many Macedonians, their Macedonianness relates to the rootedness of their society in the region of Macedonia over several centuries and is non-negotiable. In this light, the Greek stance negates the very right of Macedonians to determine and articulate their own identity as well as to attain their own statehood.

To particular social actors within Macedonian politics and society whose legitimacy and status is perceived to depend on the perpetuation of the current deadlock, the name dispute constitutes a source of political capital as it galvanizes resistance against Greek demands and, for the time being, de-legitimizes competitors who might be ready to improve communication channels and engage with the Greek side. It could be argued that the current dispute is seen by circles within the VMRO-DPMNE, but also in civil society such as refugee and diasporic activists, as providing a unique opportunity structure for the achievement of political hegemony. If one adds to this the existing grievances that many Macedonians with origins in Greece have about their flight from Greece at the end of the Greek civil war in 1949, the expropriation of their lands, and the human rights violations of those left behind, it is not difficult to recognize that the name dispute is simply one of a multitude of issues that affect the relationship between the two countries.

The Albanian community leadership has treaded carefully between subtle criticism of the government and the display of remarkable patience, expecting that the Euro-Atlantic integration process will soon move forward. A possible challenge by other forces within the Albanian community, or popular resentment of the breakdown of the fragile social and political contract that followed the Ohrid Agreement, might force a rethink of the adopted stance.

Under the current government which has adopted a more confrontational approach to the name dispute, Macedonia’s best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) is to continue insisting on the application of the interim agreement with Greece which obliges the latter to accept the former’s Euro-Atlantic integration under its provisional internationally recognized name (FYROM), pursue its complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against the alleged unlawful exercise of veto by Greece in the NATO Bucharest Summit in April 2008 and persevere in its effort to create its widespread recognition under its constitutional name a fait accompli. Given that the ICJ process may be a lengthy one and that, in the meantime, Greece can continue blocking Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession, the Macedonian government needs to weigh its BATNA against the possibility of further popular frustration and internal destabilization.

The dispute is framed in quite different terms in Greece. The Greek governments of the past two decades have considered the use of the name Macedonia provocative as they take it to constitute an attempt to appropriate Greek history and to conceal further, territorial, demands. The Greek educational system, and dominant Greek historiography have, over a period of over two hundred years contributed to the seamless integration of the Macedonian and Hellenistic past in Greek history to the point that any attempt to challenge such views, or even to merely use the term ‘Macedonian’ to designate a different country or nation, is seen as disingenuous and suspect. The Greek authorities, as well as various social and political actors, cite irredentist references in school textbooks, political statements by nationalist politicians as well as the recent antiquisation policy as evidence of Macedonian designs against Greece.

Public debate on the name issue is rife with misinformation and misunderstandings; opinion leaders often conflate the positions of the Macedonian authorities with the views and actions of other actors such as diasporic activists or Aegean Macedonian refugee campaigners and therefore tend to develop perceptions and representations of the dispute that homogenize and, occasionally, demonise the other side. What is more, they invariably refuse to recognize the expulsion of the bulk of the local Slavic population from Northern Greece and the right of those expelled as well as those remaining to designate themselves ‘Macedonians’.

The initial overwhelming popular mobilizations (1992-4) against the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the former Yugoslav republic, and the tireless lobbying of nationalist circles in parliament and civil society, have entrenched the issue in the political agenda and have generated considerable inertia that still serve as powerful constraints in the development of a forward looking Greek foreign policy. In this context, referring to the ‘Republic of Macedonia’ in public discourse is not widely acceptable – the internationally recognized ‘FYROM’ or the name of the capital (Skopje) is preferable and often expected to be used, while the country is often referred to as statelet in order to convey a sense of diminished international personality.

It is clear that behind the Greek stance on the name issue there is a complex array of aims, desires and objectives of multiple actors. Greek foreign policy has fluctuated over the past two decades between the urge to impose a solution and to find a compromise. It is difficult to overlook the aggressive rhetoric and the imposition of a crippling embargo that cannot but be described as a highly hostile act. But since the signing of the 1995 Interim Agreement, overall, its primary aims have not included challenging Macedonia’s statehood despite the lack of consistence by indecisive governments over the best part of the past ten years. At the same time, the insistence on terms that are unlikely to be accepted by the Macedonian government and public, the past embargo and current frustration of the country’s Euro-Atlantic prospects has the potential of radicalizing segments of the population – Macedonian and Albanian alike – and of undermining the young republic. Other political parties and organizations do not see such a prospect with concern as they have not as yet reconciled themselves with the reality of Macedonian statehood and nationhood, or because they derive considerable political capital out of their intransigent position.

Although the current government realises that Greece has nothing to gain by undermining or abstaining from the negotiation process, many proponents of a harder stance towards the Republic of Macedonia suggest that Greece’s BATNA is to walk away from the UN sponsored talks and simply stall all future accession of Macedonia to international organizations. It is argued that this should be done in tandem with an information and consultation campaign with Greece’s international partners and, in cases where this avenue does not bear fruit, through the exercise of its veto right, where this is applicable. It is quite clear that this does not constitute a viable long-term alternative as such an obstructive approach is likely to affect the interests of some of Greece’s key partners and might contribute to destabilizing Macedonian and regional politics.

The depth of the dispute
At the centre of the dispute, we can locate a complex identity conflict. Both parties appear to be considering their positions on the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ difficult to reconcile. This sense of intractability is also affected by a number of misconceptions fostered by the two parties – Macedonian identity and statehood, however recent in historical terms and socially constructed as it may be, is in no way ‘artificial’ in the terms that it has been represented in Greek public debate. Several generations of Macedonians have imagined themselves as such and are not likely to stop doing so because of an international agreement. Several thousands of refugees from Greek Macedonia have been denied the right of return precisely because they have imagined themselves as Macedonians even at times of extreme adversity during the Greek civil war.

Similarly, the fixation of Greek public opinion on the issue of the name of the neighbouring country and the strength of feeling displayed in public mobilizations but also in quotidian contexts is in no way ‘artificial’ or ‘capricious’ as it is often represented in Macedonian public debate. As pointed out earlier, the apparently seamless and effortless integration of the Macedonian and Hellenistic past in Greek history has been achieved over a period of several hundred years not only by Greeks but also by European classicists. The Balkan wars which lead to the annexation of Greek Macedonia have remained in popular memory as liberation wars from the Ottoman yoke and Bulgarian designs. In such recollections, the issue of a heteroglot Slav minority in the region, also given the oscillation of individuals, families and villages between Greek and the local Slavic language) has traditionally been considered as a product of the longstanding Bulgarian attempts to extend their influence to the region.

Overcoming the obstacles imposed by such certainties through the conclusion of a formal negotiation process is hardly possible. As a matter of fact, it seems very difficult to imagine a win-win outcome out of such a process unless an adequate conflict transformation intervention is initiated.

The breadth of the dispute
At the same time, the recognition that the dispute is broader than the name issue needs to be factored into any attempt to normalize the relationship between the two parties. From the Macedonian point of view, the current crisis reflects Macedonian anxieties about the future of their country and society, the grievances of the Macedonians displaced and dispossessed as a result of the Greek civil war, and of a long tradition of repression in Greek Macedonia and concerns over the fate of the Macedonian minority in Greece. From the Greek point of view, the crisis reflects anxieties over the potential of Macedonia to raise territorial issues and, perhaps more importantly, demands for financial compensation or restitution on behalf of Macedonian citizens originating in Greece. Even more significant looms Greece’s fear of having to deal with a Macedonian minority, despite the fact that the latter is for all intents and purposes already visible nationally and internationally and hard to ignore. This fear is perhaps exaggerated because it undermines the post-1924 strategy of national homogenization whose impact on contemporary Greek self-identification cannot be ignored. It is clear that these issues are not going to go away even if the two parties bring the name dispute to some sort of negotiated conclusion.

The key actors
Finally, any attempt to engage with the dispute should not underestimate the fact that the protracted character of the dispute constitutes a vehicle for the achievement of the political goals of particular forces. It is important to identify relevant incentives to either engage such actors in the process of dispute resolution or empower the actors that can play a constructive role in it.

In short, an attempt to overcome the current impasse requires going back to the drawing table and reformulating the problem.

Starting from the level of the actors involved, it is important to identify the relevant stakeholders and engage them directly or indirectly in the process. This might be difficult in some cases – the Macedonian diasporic organizations might perceive themselves to be more detached from the immediate practical issues that others, say, refugee organizations, confront on a daily basis and thus may be more reluctant to refrain from particular symbolic actions that could undermine the process. Similarly, many advocates of a more intransigent stance in Greece have not a lot to loose and, perhaps, could have a lot to gain from a deadlock in the process. But the identification of common interests such as the need for regional stability, the prospect of regional prosperity and cooperation might provide the impetus for some convergences. It is important to shift away from the framing of a dispute as a resource to some to a way of thinking that emphasizes the shortcomings of a protracted lack of resolution. Local as well as national politics can provide the arena for such interventions and the latter can be coupled with local or regional projects identified below.

Where mutual interests are not evident, these can be discovered and formulated while minor problems need to be transformed into assets or, at least neutralized. Here processes of circum-negotiation will be invaluable – identifying common cross-border problems related to regional trade, tourism, or natural resource management and devising practical solutions and other regional integration activities are indispensable tools in such a process. Initiatives such as the meeting of the prime ministers of Albania, Greece and Macedonia in the Prespa lakes border region to discuss cross-border environmental cooperation in November 2009 hosted by Greece need to become more frequent and also be complemented by similar, lower level, track II and grassroots meetings with specific foci. Such encounters and processes of circum-negotiation such as activities that channel energies that have traditionally been expended in conflict towards shared goal-seeking projects are crucial in reducing mutual suspicion and building confidence and understanding.

A more sensitive area of transformative practice involves the encouragement of projects that facilitate different types of relationships with the past (e.g. the past as a regional resource, the study of shared spheres of cultural, political and economic interaction – Byzantium, the Ottoman empire) involving schools, researchers, museums or civil society organizations and bring home the complexity of the interactions between the societies that eventually transformed themselves into contemporary Greece and Macedonia, instead of the binary divisions the logic of nationalism imposes. In this context, the issue of the Macedonian refugees from Greece will need to be addressed in a sensitive and constructive way that involves a reconciliation process as well as explores restitution/compensation avenues.

Recognizing the perspectives of both parties, in particular the ones relating to fundamental identity and self-determination issues is of paramount importance despite the practical difficulties of such an endeavour. Instead of the conclusion of a name treaty that does not address other aspects of the broader issues the two countries will need to eventually grapple with, a framework comprising gestures of mutual recognition and respect that reassure both parties of their shared commitment to regional stability and neighbourly relations. Given the current political and economic instability experienced by both societies, it is important to ensure that any progress in the dispute resolution process enjoys considerable legitimacy by the constituencies that will be affected by it. This effectively means that a longer, incremental process with tangible benefits in its different stages should be devised.

The process should ideally include two inter-related areas of engagement:

The first could be described as a process of circum-negotiation and should comprise as targets:

  • a reaffirmation of the mutual respect of current borders and of the need to maintain good neighbourly relations;
  • a clear assurance that none of the parties considers the region of historical Macedonia their exclusive national homeland and a recognition that the two societies are sharing a region with a rich and diverse heritage, which peoples with diverse faiths, languages and identities have been calling ‘home’ throughout its long history;
  • an acknowledgment that this multicultural heritage constitutes a resource and not a matter of ownership;
  • a commitment on the part of Greece to support Macedonia’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures;
  • the recognition that current borders should be seen as zones of contact and exchange, facilitating encounters, bonds, and solidarities between populations on both sides.

This identification of common ground should be complemented by a series of initiatives, such as:

  • the identification of common interest/trans-border/environmental/infrastructure projects;
  • a package of goodwill gestures that may involve the array of official as well as track II and grassroots diplomacy examined earlier;
  • a package of common educational and cultural projects and exchanges.

While sufficient progress is achieved, a round of negotiations around the ‘name’ dispute should be under way aiming towards a conclusion that will respect

  • the recognition of the Macedonian people’s affinity to the region and the name of ‘Macedonia’;
  • a recognition of Greece’s sovereignty over the Greek region of Macedonia and of Macedonia’s sovereignty over its territory;
  • the affirmation of both parties’ commitment to the protection of minority rights within their territories.

Although devising such a package is an indispensable part of moving forward towards full and unequivocal mutual recognition and a viable resolution, not only of the dispute but also of the broader latent conflict in the region, it should be stressed that the key to the success of any agreement lies in the existence of the appropriate political will to ‘go against the grain’ of nationalism and to work towards a change of the political cultures of both societies that will allow them to look forward rather than backwards. Examples of forward looking initiatives in societies marred by similar conflicts exist and therefore the excuse that nationalism is so deeply entrenched in Greece and Macedonia that it cannot be challenged, is precisely just that – an excuse.

Spyros A. Sofos is a Senior Research Fellow in International Politics at the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Conflict and Mass Violence of Kingston University, London. Editor of the ‘Journal of Contemporary European Studies’ and of ‘Southeastern Europe: Charting an Emerging European region’, his publications include ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’ (with Brian Jenkins – 1997), ‘Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey’ (with Umut Özkırımlı -2007) and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks’ (with Roza Tsagarousianou, 2010). He has been director of Kingston’s MSc in International Conflict Programme and is currently teaching Conflict Management and Resolution.



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  2. George

    I’m following this ‘dispute’ for quite a while and I’ve not observed anything, any sign, that Macedonia (the Republic of) would be against the process as suggested by the author. On the contrary, the other party (i.e. Greece) is stubbornly acting against the process suggested. This process could take even shorter once Greece recognizes a separate ethnic Macedonian identity. Unfortunately, Greece is putting pressure onto the issue making it more difficult to solve. The question is ‘why’, what are Greece’s interests to act like this?

  3. Georgie

    The reality is Macedonia is a region,covered by 3 countries,Greece,Bulgaria and FYROM. There are more Greek Macedonians than Slav Macedonians and Greece controls 51% of the Macedonian region. The Ancient Macedonians spoke Greek not the Bulgarian dialect they speak in FYROM.

    FYROM will slowly be intergrated within Albania and Bulgaria.The Albanians will overpopulate them and seek to join Albania and the remainder of the Slavs will join up with mother Bulgaria. Joining up with Albania and Bulgaria is not a bad thing Bulgaria is a NATO and EU member and Albania will one day join the EU.

    Greece has offered a geographic qualifier such as Northern Macedonia, Upper Macedonia etc but the Slavs wont budge this is why there will not be a name solution to the problem. Demographically the Slavs in FYROM are in trouble.

  4. Spyros Sofos

    There is evidence of intransigence on both sides. While the Republic of Macedonia claims it is not provoking Greece and that it sticks to its bilateral agreement it its current government encourages/funds/orchestrates the process of antiquization in a variety of ways. On the other hand, Greece still insists on its right to determine what the Macedonian speaking citizens of the Republic should call themselves. So I am not clear how someone “following this ‘dispute’ for quite a while [has not] not observed anything, any sign, that Macedonia (the Republic of) would be against the process as suggested by the author”. We need honesty and clarity in this situation.

    When one advances arguments of the sort “FYROM will slowly be intergrated within Albania and Bulgaria.The Albanians will overpopulate them and seek to join Albania and the remainder of the Slavs will join up with mother Bulgaria. Joining up with Albania and Bulgaria is not a bad thing Bulgaria is a NATO and EU member and Albania will one day join the EU.” how can Macedonians not use them as opportunities to demonstrate Greek intransigence and its potentially aggressive character?

  5. viktor


  6. Paul

    You are Bulgarian! Your made up “Macedonian” identity and language was brain washed into your small minds by Tito back in 1944. There is only one Macedonia, which is in Northern Greece! Go educate yourselves you Slavic serpents!!!

  7. Zarko

    No. I am Macedonian, like 1,5 mil. people in Republic of Macedonia and couple of mil. in the diaspora. I don’t know what is your nationality – Turkish or Arabic. For sure I am not going to “teach you” what you are and who you are. So, I can’t allow anybody to tell me who I am, because all my ancestors new and my children and my grandchildren will now. Macedonians survived in the history under different occupations (almost 500 years under Ottoman and few years under Bulgarian and Italian fascists). The blackmail is always worthless. Nobody could and nobody will assimilate Macedonians.

  8. Pingback : Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans | TransConflict | Transform, Transcend, Translate - TransConflict Serbia

  9. Ken

    Once again, as seen in Colonial Africa, and the collapse of the USSR, it is just not practical to have a new country every 500 miles based on forced borders or a slight ethnic or linguist change.
    Nationalistic pride aside how can Abkhazia, South Sudan, Quebec or Macedonia hope to be a fully functioning independent country?
    Resources and infrastructure are necessary – not just flag waving.
    Perhaps a Greater Macedonia and a Greater Bulgaria is the answer but I feel that in the future we will see a world model based loosely on the Autonomous Republics of the Soviet Union – this time based not on directions from Vienna or Moscow, but on organisations that can take the regional views in hand – in peace.

  10. Macedonia is Macedonia, not Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania. Macedonia always existed in its regions(even more further), but its people has been discriminated by all the surrounding people, which were greedy, and they spread their propaganda all over the Macedonia region. The problem why you think Macedonia is part of Bulgaria…is because it has been under occupation from Ottoman empire for more than 500 years. The problem why there are so little evidence of Macedonian culture, language etc. is because Ottomans didn’t let Macedonians to evolve, there wasn’t schools on Macedonian language then, people had to learn Macedonian by themselves, from the very few books left. They were forced to go to Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Albanian, Turkish schools and weren’t learning the Macedonian language there. Even the few people that managed to write books, where facing a new challenge, to print them and distribute it to the people of Macedonia without the Ottomans, Greeks, Bulgarians and Albanians to find out and destroy them. To print the books they must go to other cities like Sofia etc. Even if they managed to print it without getting anyone’s attention they had to give it to the people of Macedonia. If anyone got caught, the books were burnt/destroyed, and the man was killed, that decreased printing books. Also there were a lot of resistance fights popping out.
    This is my view, and I know I’m Macedonian!

    Sorry for bad english.

  11. Demetri

    @Spyros Sofos

    Your argument makes no logical sense. Greece objected to name because it claimed in 1991 that the name implied territorial aspirations towards Greece (based on Tito and IMRO Balkan war name games). At the time the FYROM government assured everyone they weren’t claiming to be related to ancient macedonians. Now the FYROM has changed ethnic narratives (becoming ancient Macedonians right before everyone’s eyes) and is displayed territorial aspirations towards Greece yet again (exactly as Greeks said they would but were patronizingly dismissed)… rather than acknowledge Greeks were right all along, you accuse Greece of “intransigence”?

    Unless you can admit you were plainly wrong to call FYROM “Macedonia” Spiro (it blatantly obviously presents a security threat to Greece today), no Greek can take any Greek like you remotely seriously.

    During the communist civil war their were legions of far leftist anti-Hellenist extreme anti-nationalists that sounded just like you.. who inch-by-inch eventually ended up supporting irredentist IMRO communist terrorists. We will not make the same mistake twice.

    “This (US) Government considers talk of Macedonian “nation”, Macedonian “Fatherland”, or Macedonia “national consciousness” to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic nor political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece” – US State Department Dec, 1944 (Foreign Relations Vol. VIII Washington D.C. Circular Airgram – 868.014/26)

  12. Demetri

    @Oxygen MKD

    You are lying (or in denial). The vast majority of the population of FYROM used to freely self-identify as ethnic Bulgarians in the late 19th and early 20th century (backed up by census records. foreigner eyewitness accounts and even your own national heros)

    IMRO was a Bulgarian organization (originally named BMARC) but in a conscious attempt at politically trickery, attempted to frame itself as a “Macedonian” organization.(see memories of IMRO leaders Hadzhinikolov and Tatarchev where they clearly state this) At the time the still philhellenic great powers easily saw through the ruse.

    Unfortunately Tito breathed new life into IMRO name games when he renamed Vardar Yugoslavia “People Republic of Macedonia”. It was a brilliant tactical move in some respects. He ensured that Bulgarians couldn’t threaten Yugoslavia (turning former Bulgarian IMRO organzation against Bulgarians) and threatening Greece in one slick move.

    At the time the US government (and UK) claimed quite unambiguously there was no such thing as an “ethnic Macedonian”. The fact that this important part of history is hidden by FYROM (and its apologists – see anti-Hellenic NY Times editorial board) is one of the key reasons why most Greeks can’t take any of their arguments seriously.

    I take criticisms against Greece’s handling of its fiances seriously (shameful) but when it comes to the name dispute FYROM (and FYROM apologists) should be ashamed of themselves. FYROM nationalist do not have a human right to take someone else’s identity. It is not Greece’s fault the communists oppressed the ethnic Bulgarian context of their identity. Or that the current extremist FYROM government continues to play these dangerous name games.

    ‘We are not related to the northern Greeks who produced leaders like Philip and Alexander the Great. We are a Slav people and our language is closely related to Bulgarian.’ – FYROM´s Ambassador to Canada Gyordan Veselinov, Ottawa Citizen Newspaper, February 24 1999

    “The creation of the Macedonian nation, for almost half of a century, was done in a condition of single-party dictatorship. In those times, there was no difference between science and ideology, so the “Macedonian” historiography, unopposed by anybody, comfortably performed a selection of the historic material from which the “Macedonian” identity was created. There is nothing atypical here for the process of the creation of any modern nation, except when falsification from the type of substitution of the word “Bulgarian” with the word “Macedonian” were made.” -former FYROM foreign minister Denko Maleski

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