Today, I want to talk about Macedonia. If you’re new to the issue, you won’t realize that that’s already controversial, and the tea only gets hotter. If you’re already prepping your “Macedonia is Greece” comment, stick around to the end. I think I can convince you.
Two weeks ago, there was a rally in front of the UN in New York to protest the Greek government’s ongoing negotiations with FYROM, its northern neighbor. Hellenic-Americans, many my friends, proudly proclaimed: Macedonia is Greece. It’s an intensely emotional issue, one woven with thousands of years of history. But the reality is that the hardline stance my community is taking, despite its simple, satisfying truth, is wrong, uninformed, and counterproductive
Before we go further, I want to explain something: my family is from Macedonia. Greek Macedonia. Είμαι Μακεδόνας. I feel this issue in my blood, as many Greeks do. And yet: watching my peers chant, I know that they haven’t done the reading or the research – it’s a stance we’re taught to take culturally, not logically. So keep these things in mind when you want to discredit my argument.
Here’s an overview: In 1991, during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, one region of the former republic, called Macedonia, proclaimed itself the independent Republic of Macedonia, but when they applied for membership to the United Nations, Greece objected to any use of the name Macedonia. The young country was admitted to the UN under the provisional name FYROM – former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – with the expectation that the name issue would be resolved. It hasn’t. As a result, FYROM has been prevented from joining both NATO and the EU because of Greece’s objections.
Greeks argue that FYROM is appropriating Greek culture, trying to draw a nonexistent link between the current majority Slavic population and the Macedonia of Alexander the Great; that FYROM was never Macedonia; and that FYROM has territorial aspirations to claim parts of Northern Greece, aspirations which are laid out in its constitution.
Let’s take them one at a time. The claims of cultural appropriation WERE true, and Greeks rightfully oppose them. The former prime minister of FYROM, Nikola Gruevski, began a program of ‘antiquization’ in 2006: he introduced the history of Alexander the Great into textbooks as Macedonian heritage, erected statues of Alexander the Great and Phillip II of Macedon, and named the airport and highway after Alexander the Great. He did so in an attempt to write a nationalism-inducing mythic origin for a Slavic population that arrived in modern day FYROM in the 6th century AD at the earliest – at least 800 years after Alexander, and in so doing, repress minority ethnic Albanian and Turkish populations. It was a false history, an oppressive practice, and a disgusting robbery of Greek heritage.
But Gruevski’s right-wing nationalist government is out, in favor of the western-facing Zoran Zaev, who pledged to resolve the name issue in order to move FYROM forward and achieve accession to the EU and NATO. Zaev has already renamed the airport and highway, begun taking down the statues in the capital of Skopje, and announced a review of educational materials to correct the record.
On to the historical claims: Greeks like to say FYROM was never Macedonia, but if we look at the borders of Ancient Macedon, they include large swaths of modern-day FYROM. If we look at the kingdom before Phillip II’s conquest, it includes something like 70% of modern FYROM, and the entirety if you go off the Macedonian Empire at the time of Phillip’s death. So while the population may not be related to Alexander, it is indeed accurate to refer to the geographical region as Macedonia.
And finally, the conspiracy theory that FYROM is planning to invade Northern Greece and claim Greek territory for itself. “It’s in their constitution!” is something I’ve heard when I question this. But I actually read their entire constitution, and you’re stretching if you think it justifies an invasion of Greece. While the original constitution passed in 1991 DOES have an article saying “The territory of the Republic of Macedonia is indivisible and inalienable” and one saying FYROM “cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighbouring countries”, BOTH were amended almost immediately, in 1992, to clarify that “The Republic of Macedonia has no territorial pretensions towards any neighboring state” and “the Republic will not interfere in the sovereign rights of other states or in their internal affairs”. You might say “oh but this is exactly the logic Putin used to invade Crimea” and I might say “which resulted in a sanctions regime that reduced trade with Russia by 35% in two years”.
Not to mention, FYROM has an economy that is 5% of the Greek economy (FYROM is to Greece as Greece is to Germany, and we know how scared the Germans are of us). Greece has an army 10 times bigger than FYROM does, and spends 40 times more on its military, and is backed by the biggest military alliance in the world. So when Greeks paint the Macedonian boogeyman waiting to invade Kastoria (my ancestral home), I can’t help but laugh a little bit.
FYROM is willing to compromise. It is willing to accept Macedonia with a modifier – Northern Macedonia, Upper Macedonia – and has already taken steps to demonstrate good faith, like renaming the airport.
So Greece has an opportunity: it can stabilize its northern neighbor and help it join the West – accede to NATO and the EU, and enshrine democracy and liberal values in a valuable trading partner, ultimately benefiting the entire region; or it can tell FYROM to shove it, which would result in its citizens feeling disenchanted and angry and drive FYROM into the arms of nationalist populism and instability, vulnerable to Russian influence and internal conflict.
Greece is already losing this battle internationally. Over 150 countries, including the United States, already formally recognize the Republic of Macedonia, no qualifier necessary. Greece will lose the ability to help write this narrative. We can be petty and unforgiving, and drive our region to greater conflict; or we can have a hand in guiding it forward, and in so doing engender international goodwill, which will be particularly important as Greece approaches the end of the bailout program started in 2015 and seeks an arrangement to deal with its 224 billion euros of debt.
So you tell me. #fpf