The long standing controversy over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been a major element of Greek foreign policy for the last seventeen years. This unresolved issue is symptomatic of the complexities faced by Europeans and Americans alike in the Balkans. Skopje has been intransigent and Greece has been ineffective in making its case or garnering the support it needs. Recently Greece has been able to reassert its rights, supported by France, Spain and Italy, by vetoing Skopje's entry into NATO at the summit in Bucharest, despite US efforts. I am, quite frankly, delighted. American policy on this key issue has been less than helpful to the Greek side, having already recognized the"Republic of Macedonia." By doing so it's unsuccessful attempts to broker a compromise have been ill fated, if not ingenuous. A detailed blow by blow description of the course of events surrounding this issue can be found here.
The average American has a limited knowledge of Balkan history and current events. The Balkans is far removed from their daily lives and concerns. Unfortunately, those individuals making our foreign policy decisions seem to be equally and unforgivably clueless.US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice made a recent statement regarding the Macedonia name dispute to the effect that “It would be a pity if something that has to do with antiquity were to get in the way of what I think is a very important step for Macedonia and NATO," while former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now in a prolonged retirement, chimed in: "The future of the trans-Atlantic alliance — and its credibility as the pre-eminent political and military instrument of the world’s democracies — are too important to be constrained by narrow disputes over semantics or to intimidation tactics more befitting the last century."
Both of these statements reflect a perilously flawed view of an issue which has the potential for exacerbating the current unstable situation and eventually transforming an already volatile region into a potential powder keg. Not that long ago, in 1945, Truman's Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius, was singing a rather different tune: "The (State) Department has noted with considerable apprehension increasing propaganda rumors and semi-official statements in favor of an autonomous Macedonia... with the implication that Greek territory would be included in the projected state. This Government considers talk of a Macedonian "nation," Macedonian "Fatherland," or Macedonian 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." Then again, that was when the United States and its only Balkan ally, Greece, were fighting an expansive Communist empire. The calculus of the past has now been replaced with a new math, aptly presented by Ioannis Michaletos in his article entitled " The Balkans: A Crucial Aspect of the Grand Game." Greek concerns have been both ignored and made fun of by Americans and Europeans alike. Greeks, like the Serbs, have been labeled as intransigent and criticized for getting in the way of American and European plans for the region. Once again history repeats itself in the Balkans, always as farce.
The "real" Macedonians were ancient Dorian Greeks who entered the area of
Macedonia about 1100 B.C., long before the Slavs appeared in that part
of the world later in the sixth century, A.D.. The name Macedonia came
from the Dorian Greeks, who were called "Macedni." The language they
spoke in ancient times was a Greek dialect. The Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos became convinced that a hill in present day Greek Macedonia concealed the tombs of the Macedonian Kings.
In 1977, Andronikos undertook a six-week dig at the and found
four buried chambers which he identified as hitherto undisturbed tombs. Andronikos claimed that these were the burial sites of the
kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Phillip II, father of Alexander the Great. Last summer my family and I traveled to Vergina, the small town in northern Greece where the tombs are located. For a short time we were able to look into the past through the time capsule Andronikos discovered. Even the most uninformed layman cannot help but emerge from such a display without understanding the undeniable nature of Phillip or Alexander's Greek identity.
Ultimately, however, it is not about ancient history. It is about events that are neither forgotten nor in the remote past. The region of historical Macedonia, the spoils of a disintegrating Ottomon Empire, was divided in 1912-14 as a result of the Balkan Wars and Big Power meddling, thus: 51.6 percent retained by Greece; 38.3 percent parceled to Yugoslavia; 10.1 percent parceled to Bulgaria. During World War II, Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito established Western Macedonia as one of Yugoslavia's six republics. He changed the name of his country's southern province in 1944 from Vardar Banovina to the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. After appropriating the name "Macedonia" he also created a mythic language (Slavic in origin) called "Macedonian." The objective was territorial expansionism. Tito rewrote history by using propaganda to distort the integrity and heritage of the region. His underlying goal was the expansion of Yugoslavia toward the Aegean Sea. For Greeks this came in the midst of a civil war which threatened to drag the country into the Communist orbit. During the pre-war period the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) adopted the policy of the Comintern favoring a united Macedonia and Thrace in a future Balkan Socialist Federation. By 1949, about 40% on the Democratic Army of Greece (DAG), the military arm of the KKE was composed of Slavophones. The defeat of the Communists in 1949 forced their Slav-speaking members to either leave Greece, which many did or fully adopt Greek language and surnames.
One of the great crimes perpetrated by the Communists during the civil war was the removal from Greece of Greek children, known as the paidomazoma. Their relocation to Yugoslavia and other Eastern bloc countries during the latter phase of the Greek Civil War (1948-1949) is an inconvenient fact in the present day controversy. It has been the subject of a good deal of historical revisionism, as have other aspects of the era. The Greek Red Cross estimated the total number of kidnapped children to be 28,296. Some 11,600 of these children were taken to Yugoslavia, while the rest were in Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. The Greek government raised the issue of the repatriation of these children as part of the "Greek Question" at the United Nations on 27 February 1948. This issue had both humanitarian and Cold War dimensions. The lack of any real pressure on Yugoslavia however, resulted in small numbers of repatriated children and tragically, allowed Tito to fulfill his objective of holding on to the children regardless of their wishes or those of their parents. From the start the Yugoslav government falsified the numbers of these children, separated many of them from their families, integrated them into the population of the Federated Republic of Macedonia, and absorbed them in the new "Macedonian" culture.
Greeks believed that when Yugoslavia dissolved and FYROM declared its independence in 1991, its leaders would make a clean break with the past. Not only did they fail to do that, but for 17 years now, the authorities in that country have continued to try to undermine Greek sovereignty over Greek Macedonia, which they portray as "occupied" territory that will one day be "liberated." While Skopjian leaders declare that they have no designs on Greek territory, they refuse to remove such claims from textbooks, speeches, articles, maps and national documents. In fact, by insisting on the name Tito gave the area, they perpetuate the goal he pursued. To make matters worse, they seek to rewrite Greek history and portray Greek symbols as their own in a perverted attempt to develop some reasonable facsimile of a "Macedonian" consciousness for a country that never existed except in the minds of those who cannot decide who or what they are. Personally. I wish the people living in the entity to the north the best of luck. Their Greek neighbors to the south have if anything propped up the struggling state created by Tito and played a key role in keeping them from sinking in a Balkan morass of their own making. The biggest threat to the immediate survival of FYROM is not Greece, it is the significant Albanian ethnic minority in FYROM itself, which already runs a state within a state and looks to the accomplishments of Kosovo as a model for the future.
It is not just about a name. It is about so much more than that. We Americans need to understand that imposing simplistic solutions to complex problems that ignore a nation's deep seated wounds and fears will transform the Balkans into one more intractable hot spot in the world and eventually bring everyone involved to grief.