Thursday, November 22, 2007

End of an acronym


Macedonian mess
Nov 22nd 2007

Time to look past archaic disputes

FOR anyone who cares about peace in the Balkans, few things matter more than keeping intact the country most of the world calls the “Republic of Macedonia”. Its perilous stability will wobble more with looming independence for next-door Kosovo, which will delight Macedonia’s Albanian minority, and stoke the Slav majority’s fears.

In theory, no rich country should care more about Macedonia than neighbouring Greece. Yet relations are hampered by an arcane dispute about nomenclature. Greece insists that “Macedonia” was, is and can only be part of Greece. The name’s use by a region of Yugoslavia was, it maintains, part of a communist-era plot aimed at destabilising Greece. Greece therefore insists that the country be called “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).

Extremists on both sides use rhetoric (seen, among other places, in clumsily made presentations on YouTube) so ill-phrased and comical that Borat himself could claim authorship. They share the unspoken but absurd assumption that the features of the entity known as Macedonia in ancient history should be of decisive importance in modern ethnography or political geography: because an ancient kingdom called Macedonia existed, only one modern entity can claim that name. The region is still waiting for a statesman to pick that assumption apart.

It is a close call, but the extreme Macedonian nationalist position, which argues that most of northern Greece is “theirs”, is perhaps the battiest. It is as if the Greeks insisted that unicorns were pink while the Macedonians maintained, even more absurdly, that the horned beasts were of a colour found nowhere on the conventional spectrum: moonlight, perhaps.

Greek twitchiness about even mythical controversies was more understandable in the early 1990s, when the whole future of the southern Balkans was alarmingly fluid and unpredictable. Amid disputes over Macedonia’s future involving Serbs, Albanians and Bulgarians, the Greek objection to the name was part of a wider pattern of worries about borders and minorities.

But the Macedonian nuts have little effect on their government’s policy these days. The country has changed its flag and constitution in order to accommodate Greek sensitivities. The forward-looking government in Skopje is into flat taxes, e-government and attracting foreign investment (paradoxically, in large measure from Greece).

Greece, however, still insists that the mere existence of a next-door country called Macedonia “is directed against the cultural heritage and historical identity of the Greeks” and “there is no question of its neighbour acceding either to the European Union or to NATO under the name Republic of Macedonia”.

A lobby group called the “Association of Macedonians” has issued an appeal this week noting that Greece does not fully recognise Macedonian passports and that Macedonia’s state airline cannot fly to Greek airports. That, they say, adds insult to injury.

Slavophone people in northern Greece have had a tough time, not only with mass deportations in 1949 but also in their treatment by the authorities on issues such as surnames and schooling ever since. (Greeks saw the slavophone minority, with some justice, as a security threat during the Cold War, and Greek minorities have been abominably treated too in other countries. But even multiple wrongs don’t make a right).

The great tide of EU and NATO expansion that has served the continent so well in the past ten years is already running worryingly slack. Pushing ahead with Macedonia’s applications to both bodies will change the mood in the whole region. Prosperity and stability in the Balkans will benefit Greece hugely. It is time to relegate the name issue to the backwaters of bilateral diplomacy, and highlight the benefits to Greece of Macedonia’s stability and prosperity—and the dangers of its disintegration.


David Edenden said...

Dear Edward,

First things first, before I tackle your story on Macedonia, I would like to ask a favour. Can you convince the powers that be, at the Economist, to post, without charge.

The Economist London:Aug 14, 1993.

Even after 14 years, and not much has changed, it is still the best article on the treatment of Macedonians in Greece. It would help the truth see the light of day on this issue.

Also I have just learned that Samantha Power used to work for The Economist. I have said some nasty things,on my blog,
about our dear saintly friend (because of he link to the International Crisis Group or as I like to call it "War-Mongers-R-Us"). I would like to know if she had written any nice things about Macedonians before I continue with my rant against her.

Your article is quite good on the general direction but not so good in its tone.

1."Slav Macedonians"

Greece refers to ethnic Macedonians as simply "slav" to denigrate their ethnicy. This is an
"N***** word" for us. We may speak Macedonian, a Slavic language, but we do not speak "slav".

"looming independence for next-door Kosovo, which will delight Macedonia’s Albanian minority, and stoke the Slav majority’s fears."

2. Treatment of Macedonian in Greece

The treatment of ethnic Macedonians in Greece is part of the values of Nato and the EU since Greece is part of both those organizations. Theres the rub.

"Slavophone people in northern Greece have had a tough time, not only with mass deportations in 1949 but also in their treatment by the authorities on issues such as surnames and schooling ever since"

antyx said...

Let's suppose that the FYROM government and majority of the population decide it's not worth the trouble. Is there another name for the region they could take? "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" is certainly too confusing to stay.

Edward Lucas said...

I don't fully understand the first comment, but here is the article

Greece and Macedonia;
Do not disagree


LENGTH: 835 words

FOR a former newspaper editor of liberal opinions, Greece's prime minister has some odd ideas about freedom of speech. Six cases are going through the Greek courts in which the defendants, some say, have done nothing more heinous than disagree with Constantine Mitsotakis's government over a patch of the map.

This is the country of Macedonia, which Greeks prefer to call "Skopje", the name of its capital, or maybe FYROM (the acronym for Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Greece still says it will not let the world recognise Macedonia under the name of Macedonia, arguing that this would imply a territorial claim on a northern Greek province also called Macedonia. To publicise its views, Greece is conducting a vigorous propaganda campaign. "Macedonia is Greek and only Greek" is a slogan that greets visitors at airports and is emblazoned on public buildings all over the country.

More worryingly, Greeks who disagree publicly with their government on the subject can find themselves in court. Next month four members of an anti-nationalist group will appeal against a 19-month sentence for "disseminating false information" and "attempting to incite violence". Their offence was to distribute a leaflet with the title, "Our neighbours are not our enemies. No to nationalism and to war."

An 18-year-old student, Michael Papadakis, is also waiting for an appeal hearing against a one-year sentence he received for distributing a leaflet that called Alexander the Great, the most famous Macedonian of all, a war criminal. It added: "Macedonia belongs to its people. There are no races. We are all of mixed descent." Mr Papadakis was charged with attempting to incite division among citizens, disturbing the peace and carrying a weapon. No evidence was produced in court to substantiate the last charge.

Some of the laws invoked in these and other cases are arcane. One forbids publicly insulting the government or the prime minister. That was a charge levelled at a newspaper proprietor, George Bobolas (who once fought an indecisive court battle with The Economist Group over an article in one of its newsletters). In none of these cases has anyone been charged with acts of violence.

The charges, says Helsinki Watch, a human-rights organisation, "are based purely on publicly expressed opinions that conflict with the views of the Greek government." Although the undersecretary for foreign affairs has said that some of the trials are a mistake, the government has not dropped any charges. In one case, the public prosecutor even appealed against a unanimous verdict of not guilty.

Few Greeks claim that their judiciary is fully independent. Promotions for judges often depends on political links. Senior jurists are among the highest-paid public-sector employees. They may not take bribes, but they listen to their political masters.

Those convicted on these curious charges are unlikely to go to jail. The aim seems to be to intimidate others who might wish to open a debate about Macedonia -- or about the people in northern Greece whom the government calls "Slavophone Greeks."

If this were anywhere but Greece, these people, who speak the Slav language of neighbouring Macedonia, would be called the Macedonia minority. Officially, however, there are no ethnic minorities in Greece (though the 90,000 Turks in Thrace, are referred to as the Muslim minority). "Slavophone Greeks" number between 10,000 and 50,000, according to America's State Department. Many claim to have suffered discrimination because their families fought for the Communists in the Greek civil war in the late 1940s. Some are in trouble for wanting to form organisations to preserve their language and culture.

Christos Sidiropoulos and Tassos Boulis have both received five-month sentences for "spreading false information and instigating conflict". They did this, apparently, by telling a Greek magazine that they "feel Macedonian" and by claiming that 1m people in Greece feel the same way.

Many countries suppress free speech. But these trials are taking place in a member of the European Community. Greece is already unpopular with its EC partners for being intransigent about the recognition of Macedonia. It is frequently criticised by international human-rights groups for its attitude towards the Slav-speakers. The only ray of light is that these messages of condemnation may now at last be getting through to Mr Mitsotakis.

The "Movement of Macedonians", set up by Slav-speakers in a small Greek town near the border with Macedonia, has lately found life less difficult. Its members are no longer harassed by the local police. Its monthly newspaper, in Slav-Macedonian, has reappeared after a long gap. One of its founders, Christos Pritskas, says: "We have a dialogue going with the government. Our request for Slav-Macedonian to be taught in schools is under consideration. The atmosphere has definitely changed in the past few months." Not before time.

Edward Lucas said...

this article is strictly copyright The Economist 1993 and must not be reprinted or reused in any other contexts.