Macedonia Irredenta? Hardly!

An Editorial by John Psaropoulos,
Editor of
Athens News

When empires collapse, they unleash a Pandora's box of ethnic tensions and irredentism, as the supranational bindings of imperial federalism are undone. The Macedonia issue has been twice federalised--once by the Ottoman empire, and almost withoiut interruption by Yugoslavia.

The unraveling of the federal south slav republic in 1991 finally brought an independent state calling itself Macedonia on the Greek border.

From the outset, the Greeks reacted defensively. The church, encouraged mass demonstrations. A nationalist foreign minister, Antonis Samaras, rode the wave of disatisfaction for personal gain--even though it was his signature that represented Greece on a December 1991 European Union decision to recognise Croatia and Slovenia as independent republics, helping to spur the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Not until the comeback of Andreas Papandreou did the Greeks make their peace with the political entity headquartered in Skopje. In the interim accord of 1995, Greece recognised Skopje as The Former Yugloslav Republic of Macedonia, which subsequently took its kplace in the United Nations General Assembley between Tajikistan and Trinidad and Tobago. In return, FYROM agreed to remove from its constitution territorial claims against the northern Greek territory of Macedonia.

The danger to Greece was never military, however, but cultural. Skopje adopted a 16-pointed star on its flag copied from a gold funeral chest unearthed in a royal Macedonian tomb on Greek soil in 1975. It claimed Macedonian ethnicity, implying that the people who inhabit FYROM are the descendants of Alexander the Great. Some of the republic's printing presses rolled out maps of a greater Macedonia, which included Greek territory.

Despite some years of propagandising, however, Skopje never changed the world's school textbooks. Alexander remains a pivotal figure of Greek history. Alexander's father, Philip, is remembered as the man who first united the city states compising what is now Greece. The men who conquered Asia under Alexander were recruited from among Greeks. The language of the Macedonian court ws Greek (the Athenian playwright Europides spent his last years writing for the court, until he was torn apart by unleashed hunting dogs.) The culture Alexander spread across the known world was Greek--it is he who, almost single-handedly, gave rise to what is known as the Hellenistic Age. Archaeological remains place the heart of the Macedonian kingdom firmly on modern Greek soil.

Skopje is not presenting an entirely fictional account of history. Before setting out across Asia, Alexander shored up his kingdom's northern defences by charging Sherman-like through a swatch of the Balkans as far as the northern bak of tehr Danube in what is now Romania, and as far west as Illyria (today's Albania). Any part of that territory, administered for some decades from the Macedonian capital Pella, might potentially call itself Macedonia.

But there should be no argument about a Macedonian ethnicity: the slavs who make up the majority of FYROM's populatiojn came to the Balkans after 500AD, and have nothing to do with the Macedonian kingdom of almost nine centuries earlier.

None of these historical arguments seem to make a difference in the realpolitik of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however. The fact is that the Teutonic powers of central Europoe have been bent on a centuries-old policy of attracting western Balkan fiefs into their sphere of influence. When Germany pushed Europe into recognition of Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, it was with complete disregard for the fate of the Serbs, Albanians and other groups within the former Yugoslavia. The war that followed was one Greece had warned against, but that Europe did nothing to stop until NATO stepped in following the capture by Serbs of UN peacekeepers i9n 1995.

Nor did Europe or the US care for Greece's historical arguments after the Kosovo Liberation Army, formed as part of a backlash against Milosevic's ethnic cleansing of Albanians in 1998, began to threaten the stability of the government in Skopje.

The FYROM government was able to argue convincingly in 2001 that it had spent its entire political capital appeasing ethnic concerns of its armed Albanian minority in the Ochrid Agreement, and had no credibility left to divest itself of its name--one of the state's few unifying attributes--to appease the Greeks.

In the mass hysteria that gripped Greece in 1992, a compromise with Skopje over a name that was a multiple of the M-word was rejected. Today, with 65 countries recognising the Republic of Macedonia, it is Skopje that rejects any qualification of the term.

The story has a resonance with two other Greek foreign policy shipwrecks. For over 30 years, Greece and Cyprus have held out for ever-more unfavorable constitutions and reunification plans for the bicommunal society of Cyprus, because the Greek side underestimated the strength of other powers' interests in Cyprus. And Greece lost a bid to host the centenary 1996 Olympics because it approached its bid as a matter of historical right, without telling the International Olympic Committee how it would build the necessary venues and infrastructure.

Here is a hard lesson for an ancient race with an enviable wealth of culture and past glory, but little power in the modern world: diplomacy makes history, not the other way around.

2000 © Hellenic Communication Service, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.