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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.

General Assessments and Projections

The handling of the recent phase of the Macedonian Question by two PASOK governments and one of the New Democracy party revealed a departure from traditional patterns in Greek foreign policymaking and conduct. Not since the mass demonstrations of the Cypriot anti-colonial struggle of the 1950s, did Greek society and the Greeks of the diaspora exhibited such awareness and involvement in a foreign policy issue, such as the recognition of a new independent state on their northern boundaries. As a result, the formulation of strategic targets as well as the use of tactical moves—long a rather exclusive domain around the Prime Minister of an inner circle of cabinet ministers and the diplomatic bureaucracy of the Foreign Ministry— was eroded by the involvement of a wider range of concerned individuals, editors, and influential groups. By their shear numbers, their status in society, and their political and economic clout, they acted as lobby groups seeking to press upon the government and the political parties their perceptions of the problem and how to offer solutions. On the other hand, the mass demonstrations, of a much grandeur scale than anything registered in Greece’s past, could not be explained only in terms of the concern of the Greek people with their national security. They were, rather, the collective response of people personally affected by the issues at hand, namely their sense of identity and their perception of heritage (42). Undoubtedly, their awakened awareness enriched the internal debate and provided the professionals with supportive argumentation. Nevertheless, a limited understanding of the drastically changing European and Balkan political environment, as contrasted with a rather expanded input of Greek history, led these lobbies to adopt and promote maximalist claims. Emotionally charged (“the name is our psyche”), their intervention denied even the most sober politicians any room for manoeuvring, bypassing the counsels of professionals and seasoned publicists.

A kaleidoscopic appraisal of these lobbies reveals that, while the pendulum of Greek politics was at the maximalist end of the curve, it was mainly academics—historians, archaeologists, as well as theologians and intellectuals, but not political or social scientists—who drew up the theoretical framework for the policy to be pursued. Understandably, their perception of the issue at hand focused on the Macedonian kingdom of antiquity and its Makedones rather than on the Socialist Republic of Macedonia and its Makedonci. The “archaeologization” of Greece’ s foreign policy, then became unavoidable; more so, when amateur historians and publicists entered the debate promoting a series of historical theories in retrospect, such as that the region of the SRM had never been part of Macedonia, or that it had acquired its Macedonian name as a result of the Second World War. When the general public endorsed these “findings”, political leaders of all factions joined the bandwagon.

During its first phase (1991–1993), political analysts sought to interpret the dichotomy of New Democracy’s Macedonian policy in terms of a political duel between the two protagonists at the time, Constantine Mitsotakis and Andonis Samaras. There was wide speculation that Samaras was simply exploiting the Macedonian problem in order to reap personal political dividends. This is still the prevailing view. Such motives, however, were not limited to Samaras alone. Indeed, the number of politicians in both the New Democracy and the PASOK parties who fall prey to such temptations was far from negligible. Nevertheless, Mitsotakis and Samaras should be seen as the representatives of two different currents in their party at the turn of the 1990s; the “conservative” one—as pursued by Constantine Karamanlis in the 1970s—and the “maximalist”, respectively. Personal ambitions and political priorities aside, their dissenting views on the handling of the Macedonian problem split the party’s parliamentarians and perplexed the rank and file of the New Democracy party over the endorsement of the maximalist view. Particularly vulnerable were New Democracy deputies, running for office in electoral precincts in Macedonia and Thrace. Mitsotakis’ conservative approach of seeking a moderate compromise solution to the name issue could expose his followers not only to the nationalist harassment of their local PASOK opponents, but also to the erosion of their electoral clientele by Samaras’ newly-formed Political Spring (Politiki Anoixi) party.

Samaras was a relatively young, ambitious, and over-zealous politician, with family connections to Macedonia. He shared the growing anxiety of a segment of the electoral—particularly in the northern provinces of Macedonia, Epirus, and Thrace—over the dramatic developments taking shape north of the Greek border. In the volatile climate of resurgent Balkan nationalisms, he perceived threats as well as opportunities for the Greek “national issues”, such as that of Northern Epirus and Macedonia. He felt he had a cause to serve. As a zealot, sensing the approval of the masses on his back, he entered forcefully into the quagmire of Balkan politics, betting on maximalist stakes. However, he refused to budge when the odds were clearly against such stakes. Thus, he failed to compromise, even when compromise was clearly not “treason”, but a fair service to the mission he had assigned to himself.

On the other side stood Mitsotakis, an elder, experienced statesman, master of political manoeuvring and thence the logical hand to promote an exodus from the Macedonian imbroglio through compromise. Although he was aware that at that historical turning point his country’s best interests and its European orientation required the further strengthening of its ties with its partners in the European Union, he let himself be drawn into petty Balkan intrigues. In all fairness, it should be acknowledged that he sought to cast himself in the role of a Balkan “honest broker” and earn dividends for himself and his country. By associating too closely with Milosevic, however, he defeated his own aims and exposed his country to unwarranted criticism from the West, particularly offered him some latitude to manoeuvre when he asked their support for a fair hearing of Greece’s reservations vis-avis FYROM’s recognition. Nevertheless, the European and American environment, already in a violently anti-Serbian mood, remained suspicious of Mitsotakis’ intentions and motivations on the Macedonian issue, to the point of pressuring their respective governments against Greek initiatives for peace in Bosnia-Croatia, but also on the Macedonian question. In the end, the Greek conservative leader, pressed by the opposition in his own party, chose to temporize. His loss in the October 1993 elections ushered in the second phase of Greek policy toward the recognition of FYROM (1993–1995).

New players entered the Greek political arena, this time with Papandreou and his party in the dominant position. It was a different terrain. Despite an almost daily dose of official pronouncements reassuring Greek audiences of the new government’s steadfast maximalist position, there was a gradual decrease of patriotic fervour, so atypical of media commentary of the previous two years. At the same time, the new voices of a growing number of influential publicists, intellectuals, and political analysts challenged the monopoly of maximalist views. On the one hand, the leftist Synaspismos party had already come out publicly in favour of a compromise solution on the name. Indeed, one of its leading members is credited with publishing, in 1992, a political diatribe with arguments for a compromise approach to the whole issue of recognition, including the acceptance of a compound name. In the end, however, it was Papandreou’s brinkmanship in applying the embargo on FYROM that raised havoc and shifted the focus of the debate from the issues of Greece’s security and the Greeks’ perceptions of identity-heritage to issues of human rights and regional Balkan security considerations. Thanks to the Greek government’s bonanza offering, FYROM propagandists adroitly exploited a pro-underdog mentality among Western European and American human rights activists, to augment the ranks of their supporters (43).
Steadily, political analysts, academics, and publicists in Greece took over the rostrum from historians and archaeologists. Closer to international political realities and more sensitive to the negative impact of the Macedonian issue on Greece’s overall orientations, they sought to assess the issue from the perspective of Greek foreign policy strategic interests as a whole. Their criticism of both the New Democracy and PASOK governments centred on the “Skopjanization” of Greek foreign policy to the detriment of other vital priorities. In their view, these priorities should have focused on strengthening Greece’s position and stature within the EU, upgrading the Greek role in the economic and social reformation of the Balkan sub-region, and gaining international support to contain Turkish challenges and provocations over Cyprus and the Aegean. Understandably, these proponents of the “realist” school tended to bypass, if not to altogether ignore the more abstract aspects of heritage and identity, such as the appropriation of the “Vergina sun” as a national symbol on FYROM’s national flag and the monopolization of the Macedonian name. Nevertheless, even the “realists” would not venture to suggest the recognition of FYROM by its current denomination, “Republic of Macedonia” (44).

By this time, the internal debate in Greece grew to the point that two trends had become visible, transcending party lines. The Greeks were rediscovering their popular pastime of assigning derogatory labels to opponents. On the one side stood the maximalists, or ethnocentrists, advocates of the pure patriotic line, refusing any concessions over the name and symbols. On the other side were the endotikoi (“yielders”) and the evroligourides (“Euro-addicts” or “Euro-zealots”) supporters of a compromise approach to the “Skopiano” issue and the reorientation of Greece’s Balkan policy along the lines and priorities pursued by the EU partners and the United States.

By August 1995, when the international community had finally decided to intervene militarily in Bosnia, the voices of the maximalists in Greece had been substantially weakened by the active lobbying of advocates of compromise. Despite the fact that both the government of PASOK and the major opposition New Democracy party appeared to stand by their maximalist views, parliamentarians and rank and file were crossing party lines. It was at that moment that the maximalist Papandreou grasped the opportunity to extricate himself from the problem, giving his consent to the Interim Accord. By deferring the name issue at some future final accord, he tried to convince his audiences that he had honoured his pledge not to recognize the neighbour state by the name Macedonia, whereas in essence he had joined the “yielders” in indirectly compromising even the use of the temporary name of FYROM. Once again, the “Papandreou magic” worked miracles, as the announcement of the Interim Accord was received in Greece with almost general relief and little criticism, as the normalization of relations with its Balkan neighbours opened up the prospect of a rewarding Greek economic “penetration” into the Balkan hinterland.

It was apparent that the “Euro-zealots” had gained the upper hand in Greek politics, particularly since January 1996 when Simitis succeeded the ailing Papandreou, who passed away a few months later. Conditions were ripe for the pendulum of Greek Macedonian policy to veer toward the other end. Supporters of the maximalist line came under sharp and unnecessarily harsh attacks as chauvinists or ultra-nationalists, even when they donned the more respectable gown of patriotism. They were summarily accused of being the culprits of Greece’s recent Macedonian adventure and were publicly ostracized, sometimes from the very media that had offered them, for well four years, extensive print and electronic coverage (45). The modernists of PASOK, supported by followers of Synaspismos and New Democracy, set out to delineate and pursue Greece’s new, “Balkan Spring” policy of open doors and no walls.

How real was this seemingly about-face in Greece’ s foreign policy which had dominated the country’s foreign relations over a period of almost four years and had monopolized the public’s attention? The withdrawal of Papandreou from the public scene, few months after the signing of the Interim Accord, coincided with a new crisis with Turkey over the Imia islets of the Aegean. It turned out to be of long duration. Accordingly, the Macedonian controversy was removed from the dailies’ first pages, conveniently deferred to two lonely diplomats in far away New York, pursuing, as dictated, their quixotic chores for “gaining time”.

Following the Dayton agreements and the Greek-FYROM Interim Accord, a period of calm appeared to return to the region. This was not the least due to Greece’s modernist approach to the solution of disputes with its northern neighbours and the advancement of cooperation on bilateral as well as multilateral regional level. The Crete November 1997 summit meeting of Balkan leaders was a unique example in that direction.

In Macedonian affairs, however, appearances might be misleading. The core of the problem over national identities, historical and cultural perceptions and, indirectly, claims of “historical space”, projected by Gligorov’s insistence on the monopolization of the Macedonian name, have remained unresolved. In Athens, politicians and diplomats probably felt relieved of the pressing burden which for a long time had hindered their foreign policy initiatives. In Thessalonica, however, the euphemistic “co-capital” of Greece, moods were mixed. On the one hand, there was considerable consensus over the Simitis-Pangalos practical approach to the development of relations with the northern neighbours. On the other hand, there was widespread and growing suspicion among [Greek] Macedonians toward the “Athenian state” for allegedly conniving to leave the dispute in limbo, thus undermining their cherished elements of their identity.

Once again, the Macedonian issue appeared to be dividing the Greeks, this time along a line of northerners, i.e. Macedonians, Epirotes, and Thracians, and Athenians. Not only the Foreign Ministry, but also Athenian-based major mass media, influential political analysts, and powerful economic and commercial interests were perceived to favour a long trench-war of inaction toward Skopje over the name issue, which would lead to a fait accomplit. The resentment of the northerners, however, appeared to be shared by grass roots segments of the public throughout Greece, as well as by a highly sensitive diaspora, entrenched in maximalist positions (46).

On the other side of the frontier, despite the initial euphoria of the first year of the removal of frontier barriers and the commencement of business contacts, officials and public in FYROM came to realize that so long as no compromise over the name was visible, relations with Greece would remain strained (47). Indeed, in recent years, despite the accommodation with Greece, there was widespread anxiety in the country. This could no more be attributed to differences with the Greeks. Since its emergence as an independent state, a series of disputes had emerged with the Albanians, the Bulgarians, and the Serbs, touching upon nationalist sensitivities. These sensitivities, directly addressed to the question of the existence of a separate “Macedonian” national identity. Within the framework of an independent Macedonian state, the new state elite encouraged nationalism as a defence against real or imagined adversaries of “Macedonian” nationhood. Despite official diplomatic disclaimers, the doctrine of a united greater Macedonian state was introduced into the school curriculum. It is a doctrine, which expands the history of the “Macedonian” nation not simply of 13 centuries—i.e. to the descend of the Slavic tribes to the Balkans—as was the national doctrine under the communist regime, but backtracks it to the Ancient Macedonians of Alexander the Great; a rather naive experiment, but still an additional irritant in the relations between neighbouring peoples sensitive of their identities (48).

Irrespective of the diplomatic aspects of the completion of the 1995 Interim Accord with an agreement on the name dispute, it is safe to conclude that the independent Macedonian state, still in its infancy, radiates in its vicinity a fan of irritants capable of sparking future crises. “Compromise” is still an ugly word in the Balkans, almost synonymous to treason. Modernist or “Euro zealot” politicians in both countries face the challenge to educate their respective publics on the true meaning of compromise, i.e. toward “an adjustment for settlement by arbitration and mutual concessions usually involving a partial surrender of purposes or principles” (49).


42. For an assessment of the issues of “security” and “identity” in Greek policy conduct and behaviour, see S. J. Raphalides, “Sacred Symbol, Sacred Space: The New Macedonian Issue”, and Peter Bratsis, “The Macedonian Question and the Politics of Identity: Resonance, Reproduction, Real Politik” in Journal of Modern Hellenism, No.11, Hellenic College Press, Winter 1994, pp. 89–108 and 108–122, respectively.

43. Criticism of the Greek government’s policies over the recognition of FYROM and its name, sparked certain human rights groups to focus their polemics on the issue of an alleged national “Macedonian” minority in Greece (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, Denying Ethnic Identity: The Macedonians of Greece, New York, April 1994, 85pp.). Their one-sided and frequently exaggerated reports indicate that the minority issue had been concocted to put additional pressure on the Athens government in order to abandon its maximalist position vis-avis FYROM. For a critical analysis: Vlassis Vlassidis and Veniamin Karakostanoglou, “Recycling Propaganda:Remarks on Recent Reports on Greece’s ‘Slav-Macedonian’ Minority”, Balkan Studies, Vol. 36/1, Thessalonica 1995, pp. 151–170. Similar was the case of certain American anthropologists, neophytes in the Macedonian issue, who tried to assume the ex cathedra role of supreme arbiters for social, political and historical cleavages in the volatile Macedonian terrain. On the rather light side, it suffices to observe that one of them, apparently lacking the historical background to comprehend the issues at hand, sought to construct his“own” revisionist history of Macedonia, by conveniently ignoring, misquoting or even degrading specialist historians of long standing. (Loring Danforth,The Macedonian Conflict. Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World,Princeton University Press, 1995). For an overall assessment of this phenomenon, see Professor Ioannis Koliopoulos’ “Introduction”, in the Greek translation (Thessaloniki, “Paratiritis” 1996, pp. 7–17) of Elizabeth Barker’s Macedonia; Its Place in Balkan Power Politics, London, R.I.I.A., 1950. Vasilis Gounaris et al,(edit), Taftotites sti Makedonia [Identities in Macedonia], Athens, “Papazisis” 1997, pp. 27–61.

44. Theodore Kouloumbis. and Sotiris Dalis., (Introduction and prefaces by M. Papaconstantinou, N. Mouzelis, M. Papagiannakis), I Elliniki Exoteriki Politiki sto Katofli tou 21ou Aiona: Ethnokentrismos I Evrokentrismos [ Greek Foreign Policy at the Doorstep of the 21st Century: National or Euro centrism] Athens, “Papazisis”, 1997, 212pp.

45. G. Kontogiannis reporting in Ependytis, December 13, 1997, that both in the government party and the opposition parties a new dichotomy is emerging on the national issues between “endotikoi” or “synetoi” (“yielders”or “prudents”) and “patridokapiloi” (“patriotic zealots”).On this debate, a strong attack against “nationalists” by Richardos Someritis in To Vima, December 28, 1997.

46. Statements and press conferences by representatives of the World Congress of Pan-Macedonian Associations, presenting their maximalist views on the name issue, Press reports, Thessaloniki, July 22–26, 1997.

47. According to press reports, Greece’s insistence in international fora to the use of the name “FYROM” is an element of frequent frictions between the two sides which, at times, result in unpleasant public demonstrations at sports events. To Vima, December 21, 1997 and Ellinikos Vorras, December 14, 1997.

48. Evangelos Kofos, The Vision of “Greater Macedonia”; Remarks on FYROM’s New School Textbooks, Thessalonica, Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, 1994, 34pp.

49. Webster’s Dictionary, 1992 Edition, Chicago 1992, p.207.

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