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Evangelos Kofos

Greece' s Macedonian Adventure: The Controversy over FYROM’s Independence and Recognition

This is a revised version of an essay appearing in the newly-published book by Macmillan Press Ltd (UK, USA 1999), edited by James Pettifer.

Greek Concerns over Yugoslav Macedonia’s Future Status

It should be noted that prior to the mid-1980s, with the exception of occasional flare ups in the press, there was little serious debate in Greece about the various aspects of the Macedonian issue. Any discussion that did occur was limited to a confined number of academics, journalists, and politicians, centred mainly in Thessalonica (5). By 1990, however, the picture had changed drastically. New “experts” on the Macedonian question emerged to take control and monopolize the media—particularly the radio and TV stations in Thessalonica—seeking to enlighten the public on a rather complicated issue. A number of them chose, however, to sensationalize the discussion by projecting their own twists on of the “Macedonian question”, with an assortment of distorted historical facts and half truths.

Gradually, a unique consensus emerged, linking the traditional bastions of Greek nationalism—such as the strongly anticommunist part of the right (which continued to hold the KKE dosilogos (accused) for its wartime and Civil War Macedonian policy), the Army, and the Church—with the adherents of the socialist and “patriotic” PASOK and followers of the leftist party “Synaspismos”. It is true however, that many academics did offer their contributions to a sober and scholarly analysis of the issues at hand. Others, however, chose to join the bandwagon of nationalist fundamentalism. Their theories about the Macedonian question and, subsequently, their perception of what Greece’s policy should be in light of developments in the Balkans influenced the formulation and the conduct of official Greek policy on the issue to a considerable degree. In this respect, it is worth reviewing briefly their views.

Departing from the generally accepted premise that the Ancient Macedonians constituted part of the Hellenic world and that the territory of the Macedonian Kingdom in King Philip’s times coincided, more or less, with the present Greek province of Macedonia, they coined the slogan, “I Makedonia einai elliniki” ( i.e. “Macedonia is Greek”). It was a slogan, however, that raised not a few eyebrows in Europe where for years people had been associating the name of Macedonia with the Yugoslav province of the “Socialist Republic of Macedonia”. Given the utter confusion reigning in Western media at the time of the Yugoslav disintegration, it was no surprise that certain commentators chose to interpret the slogan and the huge public demonstrations that followed in Thessalonica and other Greek cities, as a nationalist Greek move seeking to profit from the chaotic situation in the north in order to advance territorial claims on the neighbouring former Yugoslav republic. Certainly, observers with even rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Balkan history and politics could easily detect the misunderstanding over terms. Nevertheless, as the slogan became the battle cry of the Greeks demonstrating all over the world against the recognition of the new state bearing the name of Macedonia, the government in Skopje and its supporters abroad chose to make propaganda capital of an inaccurate slogan to discredit the Greek motives in opposing recognition of FYROM(6).

The debate over that slogan sheds some further light into the gradual formulation of Greek positions during the critical period of 1991–1992. Indeed, those who took the initiative in coining the slogan on the eve of the huge, one million-strong demonstration in Thessalonica, in February 1992, could hardly understand that the outside world was more familiar with the Macedonian state of the FSR of Yugoslavia than with the ancient Macedonian kingdom and its boundaries of 24 centuries ago. By utilizing that slogan, they had two things in mind: on the one hand, to set the record straight of the Hellenic connection of Ancient Macedonia, and in so doing to defend a people’s collective right to its heritage, and, on the other hand, to voice in no uncertain terms a determination that the re-emergence of wartime irredentist yearnings for the annexation of Greek Macedonia would not be tolerated. It should be noted that such yearnings were gaining quickly in popularity and becoming vocal in Skopje for the first time since the 1940s. They found an eager echo in the Slav Macedonian diaspora. It was in this context that the demonstrating Greeks sought to make it clear, urbi et orbi, that Macedonia i.e., the Greek province of Macedonia, was an unalienable component of the Greek state (7).At about that time (1992) the state-controlled Greek Post Office chose to issue a series of stamps portraying Ancient and Byzantine Macedonian cultural treasures marked “Macedonia was and will always be Greek”.

A side effect of the popularization of the misleading slogan and other related literature was to convey to the Greek public the perception that there is only one “Macedonia”, Greek Macedonia. The inference was clear. Since no other region in the Balkans apart from the Greek province of Macedonia could be associated or identified with the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, it would be historically preposterous for a Slavic country to assume the Macedonian name as the official designation of a new independent state entity. Carrying this argument further, no other people apart from the Greeks were entitled to use the Macedonian name either as a cultural-ethnic or a geographic-regional appellation(8).

The new brand of Greek “Macedonologues”, in similar ways to their Slav Macedonian colleagues, soon found themselves trotting down slippery slopes, even distorting historical facts in their endeavour to recast Macedonian history to suit political needs. In trying to establish the thesis that lands outside the confines of Greek Macedonia had no historical justification to claim the name “Macedonia” or its derivatives, they suppressed the fact that in modern times, and certainly since the emergence of the Macedonian question in the 19th century, it was commonly accepted—even by Greek historians and politicians(9)—that Macedonia, as an ill-defined geographical region of the Ottoman state, comprised lands that today roughly correspond to present-day Greek Macedonia, FYROM, and the Pirin district of Bulgaria.

Like the dry forest of August, the logic of the “one and only Macedonia” argument caught fire with the imagination of an ill-informed Greek public in Greece and the Greek diaspora. The first victim of this mobilization was the traditional post-war Greek policy regarding Macedonism. Even suggestions to use the term “Slav-Macedonian” or any other compound name—”Vardar Macedonia”, for example—were viewed as “national treason”(10). The new independent state was christened “Skopje”, in public parlance as well as in official documents, while its people were referred to as “Skopjans”. Even the century-old “Macedonian Question” was purified to become the “Skopiano”.

One should bear in mind that Greek reaction over these issues a response to nationalist manifestations across the border in the SRM through 1990–1991, i.e. even prior to the declaration of independence, in September 1991, of the “Republika na Makedonija”. As early as October 1989, public demonstrations had been held in Skopje and elsewhere, projecting—for the first time since the 1940s—slogans calling for “reunification of Macedonia”, or declaring that “Solun [Thessalonica] is ours”. Unimpeded by the organs of a tight security state, similar leaflets and graffiti covered walls in various towns of the Republic. A nationalist party, the VMRO-DPMNE, (“Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity”), founded in January 1990, provided further impetus to such nationalist manifestations. Traditionally, VMRO had been known as a terrorist Bulgarian Macedonian organization. Whereas the new VMRO did not appear to share its predecessor’s tactics or its Bulgarian orientation, it did endorse in its statutes a political platform aiming at the independence and the unification of the three Macedonian regions. Pointedly, it chose the Ancient Macedonian “Vergina sun” and the medieval Bulgarian lion as the Party’s symbols. While other smaller parties, such as the MAAK (“Movement for All-Macedonian Action”), adopted similar nationalist positions, it was the VMRO that won most popular votes and parliamentary seats during the first multi-party elections held in SRM, late in 1990. Going into 1991, public statements and irredentist literature, such as calendars, tourist mementos, car stickers, and maps portraying a united Macedonia fanned the flames of nationalism (11).

In Greece, despite such irritants, official policy did not change overnight. Throughout 1991, the New Democracy government headed by Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis, with Andonis Samaras as Foreign Minister, pursued the traditional Greek line on Yugoslavia, while coordinating its efforts with the United States and the majority of European Community member countries to ensure the survival of the Yugoslav federation or of a new federal version, minus Slovenia and possibly Croatia. When, however, the process of dissolution of the old structures in Yugoslavia appeared irreversible, Athens shifted its attention to securing international guarantees against changes to the external borders of the Balkan countries.

Sensing that most EC countries were either ignorant of, or indifferent to the intricacies of Balkan issues, with the notable exception of Germany and Italy, the Greek Government turned to Belgrade and Sofia in search of a common approach to the emerging problems in the southern part of the Balkans. The Greeks’ major concern was to avoid the outbreak of hostilities, mainly in or over the territory of the SRM. They found no consensus of views in the two capitals, however (12). The Bulgarians accepted developments in Yugoslavia as an unexpected bonanza. Their traditional opponent in the Balkans, the Serbs, had been caught in a whirlpool of their own making which, one way or the other, was bound to wreck their hitherto dominant geopolitical position in the region. More important, however, the Bulgarians sensed that developments in the north would reduce or even terminate Yugoslav/Serb control over the territory of the SRM, a land the Bulgarians had not ceased to view as one of the three “historic Bulgarian lands” (the other two being Moesia and Thrace). Under the circumstances, they were in no mood to accommodate Belgrade—or, for that matter, the Greeks—in sustaining a structure that would perpetuate Serbian hegemony, even in an indirect way, over the region. Dormant Bulgarian nostalgia for the lands and the people to their west, in terms of a closer relationship with long estranged “brethren” and the eventual lifting of border barriers, was gradually becoming vocal once again, after decades of Zhivkovian nationalist hybernationnation (13).

Bulgaria, in the Greeks’ view, was still very weak and would be unable to influence developments in Macedonia for some time to come. On the other hand, the international community, particularly the EC was expected to be receptive to Greek sensitivities and interests. That was the period of the Maastricht euphoria for “European solidarity”. As a result, Athens opted for a strong Serbia under Milosevic capable of successfully running a new federal entity and holding Skopje’s reawakened irredentism in check (14).

Greek assessments and expectations proved wrong on all three counts. Bulgaria was, indeed, too weak to interfere. But it was, certainly, far from indifferent to Macedonian developments and to Greece’s apparent rapprochement with the Serbs on this issue, to the extent that it did not hesitate to sacrifice the climate of good relations that had prevailed with Athens over a quarter of a century. In the case of Milosevic’s Serbia, pressing priorities in the north and in Kosovo led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army from FYROM, to the painful surprise of the Greeks, who belatedly realized that they were acquiring a new neighbour to their north free of the tutelage of and influences from Belgrade. And, as for the Maastricht “spirit of solidarity”, it lasted as long as it did not clash with the priorities of the most dominant members of the European Community/Union.


5. Most scholarly works were dealing either with the period of the “Macedonian Struggle” (1903–1908) or with Ancient Macedonia and current archaeological discoveries. It is interesting that the impressive collective volume, Macedonia, 4000 Years of Greek History and Civilization (ed. M. Sakellariou) Athens, Ekdotiki Athinon, 1981, 572pp., spared only seven pages for “The Macedonian Question in our time”. Some publications during this period, dealing with contemporary aspects of the problem, include, the monthly journal Makedoniki Zoi, edited by Nikos Mertzos, who is also the author of the book, Emeis oi Makedones [We the Macedonians]. Athens, Sideris, [1986], 459 pp. Also, Nikolaos Martis, The Falsification of the History of Macedonia, (Greek and English editions), Athens, 1983, 204 pp. Also, Stelios Papathemelis, “Estin oun Ellas kai I Makedonia” [“So, Greece is also Macedonia”], (speaches by the Minister of Macedonia-Thrace), Thessaloniki, 1989. Basil Gounaris, “Reassessing Ninety Yeasrs of Greek Historiography on the Struggle of Macedonia, 1904–1988”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 14/2 (1996), pp. 237–251.

6. Nikos Mouzelis, “Ethikismos”, To Vima, March 16, 1993, reprinted in the author’s book, O Ethnikismos stin Ysteri Anaptyxi[Nationalism in Later Development], pp. 50, 69.

7. Personal interview with Dimitris Zannas, member of the Macedonian Committee of citizens of Thessaloniki, which organized the mass demonstration of February 14, 1992.

8. Numerous statements at the time by members of the Academy of Athens, university professors, intellectuals, journalists, and politicians.

9. N. Mouzelis, among others, criticized this attitude, assessing that the tactics of “misinformation” and “disorientation” of the citizens had “assumed Kafkist proportions”.

10. A leading Synaspismos party member, ventured in late 1992 to suggest as a suitable denomination the “Macedonian Republic of Vardar”. He was harshly criticized by opposition leader A. Papandreou as well as by leading members of the New Democracy party. Leonidas Kyrkos,To Adiexodo Vima tou Ethnikismou. Skepseis gia to Makedoniko[The Dead-end step of Nationalism; some Thoughts about the Macedonian Issue], Athens, 1993, p.85.

11. Hugh Poulton, Who are the Macedonians? Indiana University Press, 1995, pp. 172–175. Xavier Raufer, and Francois Haut, Le chaos balkanique, Paris 1922, p.73. Also, Eirini Lagani, “The Macedonian Question: Recent Developments”, in Modern and Contemporary Macedonia, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 296–299.

12. For a critical view of Greece’s appraisal of Serbia’s and Bulgaria’s role at the time, see Sotiris Walden, Makedoniko kai Valkania, 1991–1994. I Adiexodi Poreia tis Ellinikis Politikis[The Macedonian Question and the Balkans; the Dead-end course of Greek Policy].Athens, 1994, pp. 29–30 and 73–78, quoting his own article in Avgi (22.9.1991).On Greek-Bulgarian rapprochement in 1990–1991, Christopher Cviic, Remaking the Balkans, London, R.I.I.A., 1991, p. 102.

13. Following Zhivkov’s fall, the Bulgarian delegation at the Copenhagen CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension referred to two million “Bulgarians” living in Yugoslav Macedonia. Subsequently, the Bulgarian leaders adopted the more nuanced term of “persons of Bulgarian origin”. For Bulgaria’s recognition: Lagani, op.cit., pp. 302–303.

14. Walden, To Makedoniko, op.cit. pp. 29–30. Stavros Lygeros, Anemoi Polemou sta Valkania;Skopje[Winds of War in the Balkans. Skopje], 3rd ed., Athens, 1992, pp. 69–73. Sherman, Arnold, Perfidy in the Balkans; The rape of Yugoslavia, Athens, 1993, p. 82

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