Blog The Origins of Greece's Policy with Regards to the Current "Macedonian Issue"

The Origins of Greece's Policy with Regards to the Current "Macedonian Issue"

Posted by Author on in Blog 49

by Evangelos Kofos
abstract from the essay “Documenting the Greek-Macedonian Name Controversy”
Sudosteuropa, 58, January 2010, pages 413-435

The original "Macedonian question" emerged in the last decades of the 19th century and covered the two first decades of the 20th. Simply stated, it was a contest between three young Balkan states, vying with each other to inherit the possessions of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The vaguely defined "Macedo­nian" lands were both the prize and the apple of discord for Bulgarians, Greeks, and Serbs. For the European powers, the treaties of the Balkan Wars (Bucharest 1913) and the First World War (Neuilly 1919 and Lausanne 1923), terminated the armed conflicts in Southeast Europe, rendering the "Macedonian Ques­tion" a challenging subject for historians rather than politicians.[1] Not so for the locals.

Perceptions of an endured "historical injustice", lost homelands for hundreds of thousands of uprooted natives, various types of population exchanges, all followed by suppressive measures for the induction of varied ethnic groups into new unified political environments, kept the issue alive. Out of the peace settle­ments, Greece had emerged as a status quo country, Bulgaria as an irredentist one. Former Serbia, subsequently Yugoslavia, had turned introvert seeking to put its multi-ethnic state entity in order.

Soon, new international actors emerged in the region, intent on plying the murky Macedonian terrain for their own benefit. The first....
to challenge the recently established status quo was the Communist International (Comintern) which was quick to introduce a novel blueprint for a future Balkan Communist Federation. A Macedonian state, to be composed of the Macedonian provinces of Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria was expected to be one of its constituent members. The initial reference to a "Macedonian people" included all inhabitants of the Macedonian regions, irrespective of their ethnic background. Gradually, however, the Comintern's documents began to attach an ethnic identity to the name, compelling all Balkan communists to adhere, nolens-volens, to Moscow's constructions.[2]

The second intervention was Nazi Germany's occupation of the Balkans in the Second World War and its apportionment of Greek and Yugoslav Macedonian lands to its allies, Italy and Bulgaria. For Greece, the four year occupation of its Macedonian provinces (1941-1944) and the subsequent Civil War (1946-1949) opened traumatic wounds on issues of security and identity. For decades, those wounds were still visible in Greek state policies as well as in public perceptions of the country's security. They certainly influenced and shaped Greek politicalthinking vis-a-vis the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia's declaration of independence and various related identity issues.[3]

Nevertheless, the reactions of Greek political leaders and the masses in 1991-­93, particularly in the region of Macedonia, were not an instinctive, backward jump into the vicissitudes of the 1940s. On the contrary, in December 1991 Greece merely stressed, perhaps with a dose of hyperbole, what had been a traditional policy, shared by all parliamentary parties.

Particularly enlightening in this respect is an August 1983 circular letter ad­dressed to Greek missions abroad by the first PASOK Foreign Minister in An­dreas Papandreou's government, Yannis Haralambopoulos.[4] The text reflected the policy of all post-Civil War Greek governments on the issue of the "Mac­edonian nation" and the identity of the Slavs of the wider Macedonian region.


Foreign Minister Yannis Haralambopoulos on 13 August 1983, in a letter to diplomatic and press missions abroad.[5]

"The Greek policy on the Macedonian issue consistently pursues the same line since 1950 [the end of the Greek Civil War]. Greece raises no territorial or minority claims to the Macedonian lands of Yugoslavia or Bulgaria, but [for its part] does not accept the existence of a "Macedonian" minority on its territory.

More specifically, Greece pursues the following line vis-a-vis the Yugoslav position on the 'Macedonian nation':

-    It does not recognize the existence of a 'Macedonian' nation, language etc. This negative position refers to the appropriation of a geographical term - which also is in use in Greece - by a nationality which was constructed in Yugoslavia for political reasons, after the Second World War. If another name is adopted, Greece would have no problem to accept it.[6]
-    It insists on the use of the term 'Macedonia' solely as a geographical concept. Not wishing to interfere in the internal affairs of a foreign country, it does not raise the issue of the name of the southern Yugoslav republic, 'Socialist Republic of Macedonia', as this is an issue of internal [Yugoslav] law.
- If Yugoslavia abandoned the tactics of monopolizing the term 'Macedonian' to adopt, for example, a name such as 'Slavomacedonian' or 'Macedonoslav', exclusively for the Slav inhabitants of Yugoslav Macedonia and persons sharing their ideas, there would be no negative response on the Greek side.
- Referring to the novel interpretations of Yugoslav historiography for the 'Macedonian nation', Greece rejects them. On this issue, it is only natural that Greek and Bulgarian positions coincide, although they are not harmonized on purpose [...].[7]

About the Macedonian nation

- It is not possible to recognize the existence of a 13-century old 'Macedonian na­tion', as claimed by Skopje, because no historical sources exist which justify the existence of a Macedonian nation, either in Byzantine or Ottoman times [...].

Turning now to post-war developments in Yugoslavia, it is possible to accept that in the span of four decades, in the well-known social and political conditions, a new ethnicity was constructed in southern Yugoslavia, although erroneously named, 'Macedonian'. The formulation of a nationality is an internal issue and concerns the national-political state structure of a neighbouring country. Nevertheless, the appropriation by a Slav nation of an ancient Greek name which, moreover, is in use today in Greece as a geographical appellation, has no scientific basis. Moreover, it is politically unacceptable because, through a process of adoption of a geographical name, it has attempted to appropriate a significant part of the Hellenic political and cultural heritage associated with the region of Macedonia. If, however, Yugoslavia adopted the names, 'Yugoslav Macedonians' or 'Slavomacedonians', for the inhabitants of the Yugoslav Re­public of Macedonia, there would be no reason for objections, as the former component would indicate the national identity, while the latter, the regional provenance of each inhabitant of Macedonia, at large. [...]

The geographical meaning of Macedonia

Another important point to keep in mind when dealing with Macedonia, is the indisputable historic fact that the geographical region of present Yugoslav Macedonia has not been part of ancient Macedonia - apart from a narrow belt of a few tens of kilometers north of the Greek frontier. Consequently, it has no historical title to appropriate the term 'Macedonia' [...]. Nevertheless, Yugoslav authors have a tendency to present the entire geographical region of Macedo­nia as an ethnical, historical and geographical entity. Moreover, they refer to the 'three parts' [i. e. the Macedonian regions in the three neighbouring coun­tries, Yugoslavia, Greece and Bulgaria] as 'Vardarska del [part] na Makedonija', 'Egeiski del na Makedonija' and 'Pirinski del na Makedonija'. Such denomina­tions, however, are inadmissible because they reveal tendencies for territorial claims. Since the three regions have been finally and legally passed under the jurisdiction of three neighbouring states, the correct appellations should be 'Greek Macedonia', 'Bulgarian Macedonia' and 'Yugoslav Macedonia'."

The importance of this document is that it was issued by Andreas Papandreou's first PASOK Minister of Foreign Affairs, just eight years prior to the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation. Later, however, Andreas Papandreou both as the opposition leader (1992-1993) and as Prime Minister (late 1993 to the end of 1995) rode the popular bandwagon and emerged as a staunch supporter of the Greek position to firmly oppose the Macedonian name or any of its derivatives for the newly independent neighbouring country.

Yet, Haralambopoulos' circular of 1983 reveals that in fact the Greeks adopted a policy on the name issue as early as the termination of their Civil War, and that there is a continuity to be drawn to their stance towards the emergence, in late 1991, of an independent Macedonian state in their neighbourhood.

Compared to post-1991 polemics, certain points of the 1983 circular, referring to Greek objections to Yugoslav claims, appear milder in tone and open to con­structive dialogue. For example, Athens appeared ready to acknowledge that a new ethnicity had been constructed in the SFR of Yugoslavia. At the same time, serious objections to the use of the Macedonian name for the Republic and its inhabitants within the federated state already existed then. Nevertheless, the Greek side appeared willing to accept a number of hyphenated or compound names, including the adjective Macedonian, for the different Macedonian geographical regions and their respective inhabitants.

On the other hand, these aspects do reveal, in a succinct way, the key Greek concerns as they pertain to security and identity issues. Over the course of four decades, the security elements of the Macedonian issue for Greece, so pronounced during the 1940s, faded away. Still, Athens was seriously annoyed by the Yugoslav practice of referring to Greek (and Bulgarian) Macedonian provinces as parts of a united region, a practice that, according to the Greeks, could contribute to eventually reviving irredentist claims to Greek regions. Secondly, the Greeks objected to attempts to monopolize the Macedonian name as the ethnic appellation of a Slavic people; a monopolization that, according to them, could eventually lead to wider encroachments into the Macedonian Greek patrimony, with reference to all historical eras. However irritating such tactics were to the Greeks, and more so to the Greek Macedonians [the Makedones], on an international scale their political significance was rather minimal. After all, these tactics originated from a provincial - federated - republic of the Yugoslav state. At least until Tito's death in 1980, Athens could expect Belgrade to somehow contain nationalist excesses in Skopje, should they occur. It is such considerations that were dealt a serious blow, when on 17 September 1991 the parliament in Skopje declared the independence of the "Republika Makedonija".

[1] For an up to date Greek and international bibliography on the subject consult the recently published book by Vasilis Gounaris, I Istoriografia tou Maked onikou Zitimatos, 19os to 21os aiones [The Historiography of the Macedonian Question, 19th to 21* centuries]. Athens 2010.
[2] That was a time when Stalin's Soviet Union was engaged in creating or recognizing new ethnicities for its own political ends ("Belorussians", "Moldovans"etc). Much later, on 7 June, 1946, in a meeting with Yugoslav and Bulgarian leaders in the Kremlin, Stalin reprimanded Georgi Dimitrov for his reservations to assigning a "Macedonian" ethnic identity to the in­habitants of Bulgarian Pirin Macedonia which would be opening another Pandora's box for the Macedonian Question: "You do not want to grant autonomy to Pirin Macedonia. The fact that the population has yet to develop a Macedonian consciousness is of no account. No such consciousness existed either in Belarus when we proclaimed it a Soviet republic. However, later it was shown that a Belorussian people did in fact exist." Minutes from the Archives of the Communist Party of Bulgaria, published in Otecestven Vestnik, 19 June 1990.
[3] For English language books on the Macedonian problem during the decade 1940-1950 consult Evangelos Kofos, Nationalism and Communism in Macedonia: Civil Conflict, Poli­tics of Mutation, National Identity. New York 1993 (First edition: Thessaloniki 1964); John S. Koliopoulos, Plundered Loyalties: Axis Occupation and Civil Strife in Greek Western Macedonia, 1941-1949. London 1999; Dimitris Livanios, The Macedonian Question: Britain and the Southern Balkans, 1939-1949. Oxford 2008. For more recent developments on the Macedonian issue cf. James Pettifer (ed.), The New Macedonian Question. London 1999.
[4] The text was published in Thodoros Skylakakis, Sto Onoma tis Makedonias [In the Name of Macedonia]. Athens 1995,24-28, from a copy submitted to the Greek Parliament in the early 1990s by the then Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis.
[5] Excerpts follow in an unofficial English translation.
[6] The emphases in bold characters in all documents were added by the author.
[7] A rather lengthy paragraph follows, refuting historical tenets of Yugoslav historiography on Macedonia, from medieval times to the establishment of the SFR of Yugoslavia.