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    Copyright: The following text is for personal information only. Any professional use or publication in written or electronic form is subject to an agreement with AIM, 17 rue Rebeval, F-75019 Paris, France

    WED, 02 DEC 1998 00:25:18 GMT

    On the Astonishing Improvement of Greek-Macedonian Relations

    AIM Athens, 30 November, 1998

    Balkan observers certainly remember the mass rallies held in Salonica and then in Athens, in 1992 and 1993, to protest against the name Greece's newly independent northern neighbor wanted to take for itself, Macedonia. Anyone who would have then forecast that, in late November 1998, the first visitor to congratulate the newly elected Speaker of the Macedonian Parliament would be Greece's official representative in Skopje (Head of the "Liaison Office") would have been considered as out of touch with reality. It was not the rallies as such, but the fact that in them the nearly hysteric crowds were showing, not a mere opposition to that choice, but a profound hatred against the dominant nation of their neighbors, the Macedonians.

    How could it have been otherwise when the mainstream Greek media had been using systematic hate speech against Macedonians, or more precise "Skopjans." The monitoring of the media "Greek Helsinki Monitor" has been carrying out since 1994 had registered, through 1996, qualifications for Macedonia such as "a non-viable sorrowful mix of fluid consciousness," "a statelet" "product of artificial insemination of Marxist Slavism with Titoist anti-Serbianism artificially preserved," "a state with embryonic economy, social development and culture." Macedonians were nothing short of "bare-footed," "professionals of servitude," "barbarian embezzlers of blood-stained territories of Greece," "Slav Gypsies," "a people of criminals," "thieves," "hungry," "wretched, ragged, desperate." At the same time, all foreigners daring calling the state Macedonia rather than Skopje or "FYROM" [Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] were branded as provocateurs if not anti-Hellenes. Indeed, Greeks were led to believe that, following the various EU declarations on the name of the country, the "M" word (Macedonia) was banned forever and for all.

    Progressively, though, attentive Greeks were noticing that this intransigent position was not leading anywhere; or, worse, that it was damaging Greece's vital and real national interests. For example, Greece's usually not unreasonable arguments on its conflict with Turkey were not given the appropriate attention by international public opinion as well as by its European and NATO partners. While Northern Greece's economy was deeply hurt by the closure of the border with Macedonia as a result of the various implicit or official embargoes imposed since the beginning of the bilateral conflict. In fact, the resulting financial loss was mitigated only because some Greek businessmen were simply defying the embargo and dealing with Macedonia via Bulgaria or, less, Albania.

    Some believe that the pressure of the Northern Greek business lobby was crucial to help bring Greece to its senses and reach an Interim Agreement with its neighbor, in September 1995. With it, bilateral relations were to improve while the "name problem" was to be solved through future negotiations. In return, Macedonia made an important gesture to indicate that all possible irredentist interpretations of its foreign policy were erroneous: it changed its flag, replacing the controversial "sun of Vergina" -that decorated the burial grounds of ancient Macedonian leaders found on Greek territory- with a rather different "sun."

    However, it was the arrival in 1996 of a new Prime Minister -Costas Simitis replaced Andreas Papandreou and was confirmed in a snap election in September 1996- that help set the tone which led to the remarkable improvement in bilateral relations. It was not just that people started traveling freely between the two countries. Within a year, Greece became one of the three leading commercial partners of Macedonia. Never mind that bureaucratic formalities had to remain cumbersome as Greece could not recognize any document mentioning the "M" word: so visas on both sides have still being issued not on passports but on separate papers; while special stamps and stickers have been devised in Greece for letters, documents, car plates, etc. mentioning Macedonia, so as to indicate that Greece recognizes that country only as FYROM.

    The litmus test for the spectacular improvement were the recent Macedonian elections. For a long time, the three partners of the post-election coalition were looked upon with suspicion in Greece. After all, in its first congress in the early 1990s, VMRO had announced it wished to hold its next one in (Greek) Salonica. DPA Albanians had been consistently portrayed -in Greece like almost everywhere else- as dangerous radicals. While Tupurkovski=92s Aegean (i.e. Greek) Macedonian roots and authorship of a rather nationalistic version of Alexander the Great's life had for long be reasons for concern if not hostility towards him.

    When it became obvious though that the "moderate" social-democrats were to lose the elections, Greek media looked to the eventual winners with near objective curiosity. After their victory, journalists covering Balkan issues who are known for "faithfully reflecting" the Greek foreign ministry=92s line became overnight optimistic about the future of bilateral relations: one of them, in fact, "reported" a Gligorov attempt to stage a coup to prevent his opponents from coming to power! No wonder then that the Greek diplomat was the first to meet the new Speaker of the Macedonian Parliament to convey to him the congratulatory message of his (quite nationalist) Greek counterpart. That was followed by an announcement by Prime Minister Simitis of his intention to visit Macedonia (and Serbia -the only two countries he has not visited).

    One should not misinterpret this turn of events in the Greek-Macedonian relations though. Greeks have yet to come to terms with the name of the country, though an increasing number of them prefer the name "FYROM" to that of "Skopje" for it. Even more, the existence of a distinct legitimate nation of Macedonians has yet to be admitted. A major consequence of this situation are the continuing problems of the Macedonian minority in Greece. It would not be too simplistic to argue that the Interim Agreement and the ensuing improvement in the bilateral relations has hardly had any effect on that minority. In fact, many interpreted the "coincidence" of the signing of that Agreement in September 1995 with the sacking of the Macedonian minority "Rainbow" party=92s offices in Florina as a clear indication that the minority should not expect anything out of it.

    In fact, "Rainbow" had put up -outside their offices in Florina- a sign in both Greek and Macedonian. It was the first time that language was used in such public form. Soon after, the prosecutor indicted the party leadership and ordered the sign removed. When it was replaced, an angry mob led by the city's mayor removed the new sign and, a few hours later, the offices were burnt down. Three years later, and following an international outcry, the case against "Rainbow" led to its acquittal, but the charges its leaders brought against the perpetrators were "stuck" in the prosecutor's office.

    At the same time, the Macedonian minority remains unrecognized and is consequently denied many of its rights: while signing the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Greek authorities have made it clear that, when ratified, it will concern only the recognized minority of the "Muslims" of Thrace. Greek media, which, with few exceptions, have stopped using hate speech against the neighboring country, continue to treat the Macedonian minority in the same hostile way and to consider its activists as something like "Skopjan agents" and "autonomists" [which in the Balkan jargon means separatists]. Even citizens of Macedonia or of other third countries with Macedonian origin who are in long "black lists" of the Greek authorities are denied entry even for short visits to their birthplace. The wounds of the civil war, which had a "Macedonian component" and plagued the country between 1944-1949, have not healed for that minority as many nationalists have succeeded in keeping them open in ways that make it difficult to adapt Greek policy to the European standards on minority rights.

    Greece's Macedonian minority has nevertheless been lucky not to be "taken up" by the authorities in Skopje, unlike Albania=92s Greeks who have been patronized by Athens and Greece's Turks ("Muslims") who have been manipulated by Ankara. In doing so, Macedonian authorities have on the one hand helped bring about the improvement in bilateral relations. They have also given a chance to the Macedonian minority in Greece to seek its legitimization in Greece using its own means as well as the help of still few sectors of Greek society: those which have managed to be correctly informed about that minority and thus opened themselves up to a constructive approach to its concerns if not to an outright defense of its rights.

    Should the publicly stated willingness of the new Macedonian government to further develop bilateral relations be confirmed in action, one may predict that the conflict between the two countries will be safely shelved, even though Greece may not accept Macedonia's name. Sustained good neighborliness could eventually also help Greece come one day to terms with the presence of a small Macedonian minority.

    Panayote Elias Dimitras