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Evangelos Kofos

Greece' s Macedonian Adventure: The Controversy over FYROM’s Independence and Recognition

This is a revised version of an essay appearing in the newly-published book by Macmillan Press Ltd (UK, USA 1999), edited by James Pettifer.

The Legacy of the post-war Debate

Future historians with access to diplomatic archives of Greece’s Balkan relations during the post-war decades might be intrigued at the extent of the impact of the “Macedonian Question” on the formulation of Greece’s policy options. During the 1950s and 1960s, the political, military and diplomatic establishment of the country had been haunted by an unabated concern, lest a major armed confrontation between East and West should once again place the northern Greek provinces of Thrace and Macedonia in jeopardy. It was this concern during the Cold War that had prompted successive Greek governments to seek the safety of Western security arrangements. The threat perception however, persisted in certain circles, although the objective elements of the problem—armed conflict, secessionist minority groups—had been removed or sufficiently curtailed.

By the 1970s, the territorial features of the dispute had been pushed into the background—or the “dustbin of history”—as some specialists and political analysts might have argued. The euphoria of the Helsinki Final Act was contagious. Gradually, however, the Greek public became aware of a new-type of Macedonian question. Since the 1940s, “Macedonism”, had been Yugoslav Macedonia’s dominant nationalist ideology, aimed at “mutating” its Slav (Bulgarians, Serbs, Moslems) and, to a certain extent, non-Slav (Vlachs, Greeks) segments of its population into ethnic “Makedonci”. A full generation later, the experiment had proved successful to a considerable degree.

By the early 1980s, as the Socialist Republic of Macedonia (SRM) was also affected by the nationalist malaise of the post-Tito period, a grand campaign was launched to seek international credentials and gain recognition, not only for the existence of the new ethnicity, but also for its major constituent components: its historical “roots”, heritage, and name. Meanwhile, Slav-Macedonian nationalists, particularly in the diaspora, were developing an aggressive mentality claiming as Makedonci all Slav-speakers, or descendants of Slav-speakers, of the wider Macedonian region. Such maximalist claims, however, raised much resentment among Greeks and Bulgarians. They strongly challenged the two main tenets of Slav-Macedonian nationalism: first, their attempts to manipulate and usurp Greek and Bulgarian heritage, and, second, their offending denial of the right of Slav speakers from Greek Macedonia and Bulgarian Macedonia—Pirin, to identify themselves as Greeks or Bulgarians, respectively. Antagonism over such delicate issues as a people’s sense of identity and historical heritage was already spreading the seeds of confrontation at a time (1989–1990) when the edifice of the Yugoslav federation began to betray irreparable cracks.

On the political level, successive Greek governments in the decades following the Civil War shared the view that Yugoslavia was a useful buffer state on the fringes of the Soviet-dominated communist world. Despite frequent irritants from the local government, press, and radio in Skopje, Athens had never raised any objections to the constitutional framework of the FSR of Yugoslavia, nor had it ever questioned its internal administrative structure of federate republics. Indeed, a Greek consulate general continued to function in Skopje, maintaining normal de facto relations with the authorities of the Republic, although officially it was accredited to the federal government in Belgrade. On the other hand, however, official Greek policy, supported by all major Greek political parties, rejected the existence of a “Macedonian” nation. This denial, however, did not negate the existence of a separate Slavic people in the SRM, but objected to its Macedonian name which was considered a constituent element of Greek cultural heritage (1).

It should be noted that, in this respect, the Greek position differed from that of the Bulgarians, which categorically refused to accept the existence or ever the “constitution” of a “Macedonian” nation. In short, the Bulgarian view perceived the Slav speaking people in the SRM as “Bulgarians” or of “Bulgarian origin”. Contrary to the Greek position the Macedonian name was not a problem to the Bulgarians, who accepted it as a regional one; indeed, the name Makedonci to them defined the Bulgarians of the Macedonian region at large (2).

As a way out of the predicament, official Greek policy—both of the New Democracy and PASOK governments—opted for, and used the name “Slav Macedonians” to identify the Makedonci of the SRM and its supporters in the diaspora. It should be noted that the Greek Communist Party (KKE) had adopted this very name for the Slav speakers of Macedonia even prior to the Second World War. Similarly, historians in the SRM have referred repeatedly to “Macedonian Slavs”, when writing on Macedonian history prior to the 1870s and the period of the “Macedonian” national emancipation (3).

In the 1980s, Tito’s successors in Belgrade had succeeded in curtailing the strong anti-Bulgarian rhetoric of Skopje, so common during former decades. Instead, Slav Macedonian nationalists were allowed more latitude to channel their nationalistic effervescence in the direction of Greece. From the mid-1980s on, Skopje became the harbinger of a major escalation of propaganda against Greece, supported by Slav Macedonian nationalists of the diaspora. The new irritants from the Slav Macedonian nationalists began to filter into the front pages of newspapers, even of leftist orientation, catching the eye and raising concern among wider circles of the Greek public, politicians and academics (4). When, however, rhetoric began to take the form of demarches to international bodies for grievances originating in the years of the Civil War, a sensitive issue to Greek society as a whole, the reaction in Greece, in official circles as well as in the media, was strong.

It was in such a climate, that the spectre of the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation and the future status of the SRM as an independent Macedonian state on Greece’s northern border began seriously to preoccupy not only Greek policymakers, but a wider circle of commentators academics.


1. Evangelos Kofos, “The Macedonian Question; the Politics of Mutation”, Balkan Studies, Vol27, 1986, reprinted in Evangelos Kofos, National and Communism in Macedonia; Civil Conflict I, Politics of Mutation, National Identity, New York, A. Caratzas Publisher, 1993. A year and-a-half prior to FYROM’s declaration of independence, the then PASOK Minister for Macedonia-Thrace, Stelios Papathemelis, in an article in Kathimerini (March 4,1990) wrote that : For Greece, “there is no Macedonian question” in terms of a so-called “Macedonian” minority; there is, however, a “Macedonian Question” in so far as Skopje “appropriates our history and traditions and usurps the Greek name of Macedonia. The appropriation of the Macedonian name by a (Slavic) state entity implies territorial claims”, reprinted in St. Papathemelis, Politiki Epikairotita kai Prooptikes [Current politics and future prospects], Thessalonica, Barbounakis, 1990.

2. On Bulgaria’s post-war position, see: Robert R. King, Minorities under Communism, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp.188–204. Also, Stephen Palmer Jr, and Robert King, Yugoslav Communism and the Macedonian Question, Archon Books, 1971, pp.184–198. Also, E. Kofos, “The Macedonian Question from the Second World War to the Present Day”, in Modern and Contemporary Macedonia (ed. Ioannis Koliopoulos and Ioannis Hasiotis), “Paratiritis”- ”Papazisis”,[Thessaloniki-Athens, 1993), Vol. II, pp. 277–280 .

3. Dragan Tashkovski, The Macedonian Nation, Skopje, “Nasha Kniga”, 1976, pp.69–79, passim. S. Palmer, op. cit., p.199–203. Elizabeth Barker, Macedonia; Its Place in Balkan Power Politics, London, R.I.I.A. 1950, p.10. Duncan Perry , The Politics of Terror; The Macedonian Liberation Movements, 1893–1903, Durham, 1988, p. 19.

4. Most notable, the Pontiki, a well-informed political-satire weekly newspaper, with a left-centre orientation, influential among leftist political and intellectual circles as well as government cadres.

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