What’s In a Name? The Greece – Macedonia Conflict

by Thomas W. Balamaci*

When presented with the course requirement last fall of writing a term paper about a current diplomacy issue of international interest for my international relations class, I saw the opportunity for research about a hot and relevant conflict that also related to my dual Vlach-Greek heritage. Although this research had very little to do with the Vlachs in particular, it did address a conflict that involved two nation-states in which many of our people live.

Many of the events that brought some conclusion to the conflict unfolded during the months that I researched and wrote this paper. What follows is primarily a historical chronicle of the conflict. Since this paper’s writing in November, the agreement between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was made public and the agreement’s implementation began.

As a student, I encourage feedback and updates about the topic from the Newsletter‘s readers so that we may all learn more about the progress of this partially resolved, potentially dangerous Balkan conflict that enveloped our ancestral homelands for centuries.

Since the paper makes few predictions for the future, I postulate some briefly here. The Balkans, and Macedonia in particular, have tremendous economic potential. The breakaway republic of Slovenia is a good example. FYROM will succeed economically; and political stability will come when the government treats ethnic Albanians with respect. Greece’s role as a European partner in both the EU and NATO should be taken more seriously by the Greek government in respect to development and policy. Finally, the US role and diplomatic presence within the two nations should not only take advantage of long-standing friendships, but also of Greece’s and Macedonia’s potential both strategically and economically.

Tom Balamaci
Fairfield, Connecticut
December 30, 1995

“The dominant political party in Macedonia is the Party of Fear,” said Kole Casule, a famous Macedonian author.1 Quoted in 1994, Casule’s words rang true, as the future for the then three-year-old Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (hereafter FYROM) looked bleak. All of her neighbors had reservations about her independence. Greece, which borders Macedonia to the south, levied a harsh economic embargo against the Republic in February 1994 because at the time, according to Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, “There was no longer an interest in the issue, and I had to tell the world somehow that there is an issue, an issue of security, of stability in the region.”2

Papandreou felt the global community buried the hatchet on Greece’s conflict with Macedonia, a conflict that stemmed from what appeared to be unimportant identity issues concerning the new republic. To the world, Greece’s position seemed irrational and her issues of contention with Macedonia seemed trivial. A name, a flag, and the wording of the Macedonian Constitution were the main points of disagreement. Macedonia’s first years were plagued by a controversy rooted in history, that to Greeks was marked by threats to territorial integrity and cultural and national identity. What prompted these feelings of threat and what evidence in history fostered them?

In September 1995, the two parties resolved most of their differences by signing an agreement at the United Nations. Greece agreed to lift the embargo on the fledgling republic while Macedonia agreed to change its flag and revise some clauses in its Constitution. The conflict over the name “Macedonia” remains to be worked out in the future. The argument herein will primarily provide a historical base for the present situation, then chronicle the conflict and ensuing embargo since Macedonian independence in 1991, discuss the resolution and signing of the agreement, and will conclude by briefly addressing prospects for Greek-Macedonian relations within an international framework in the future. Taking into account the history of the area and the high-flying nationalist feelings on both sides, however, the new truce between the two nations could prove tenuous, as the conflict stemmed from difficult questions of national identity.

The ancient kingdom of Macedonia was a separate realm to the north of Greece, not branded a city-state, but a sovereign empire ruled by a line of non-Greek speaking kings (Editor=s note: There are those who would disagree, of course, and indeed recent analyses seem to indicate that Macedonian, though a distinct language, may have been within the Greek linguistic family). King Philip sided with Persia in the Persian Wars and by the beginning of the fourth century BC, he ruled Greece. His son, Alexander, went on to conquer most of the known world and his empire stretched as far as India.

Tutored by Aristotle, Alexander the Great was decidedly Greek. He kept a copy of Homer’s works under his pillow wherever his conquests took him and preferred to define himself as a Hellene. Although called Abarbarians@ by the Greeks at the time (as anyone who could not speak Greek was branded), Philip and Alexander are now considered heroes.3

Historian Eric Hobsbawn feels that Greece has no exclusive claim to “Macedonia” since the ancient kingdom was not associated with a Greek state. Greeks, however, do not buy into Mr. Hobsbawn’s postulation because he also feels that in antiquity, Greece wasn’t even a country — merely a grouping of unallied city-states. This “affront” to Greek nationalism (and, in some instances, unfortunately, the fact that Mr. Hobsbawn is Jewish) has weakened his case among the relatively homogeneous Orthodox Christian Greeks.4

In the fourth century AD, Slavic conquerors began to invade the region that now includes FYROM, but did not adopt or make any reference to the name Macedonia. The Byzantine Empire later reasserted control, but then lost it again in the Middle Ages. Thus, Greeks assert that they had claim to the area as part of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire before the Slav invasion.5

By the late 1800’s, Macedonia was extremely mixed ethnically and throughout the century the Balkan states struggled for independence from the Ottoman Turks. Greece and her northern province of Macedonia were no exception. The Greek Democracy began in March 1821 after the War of Independence. Throughout the twentieth century, the Greeks have been nervous about their northern borders — they were lucky to win them in the Balkan Wars of 1913-14, to maintain them in 1918 after World War I, and to recover them from the Nazis in 1945. During the early part of this century Greeks became increasingly intolerant of other languages or ethnic “fragments” within Greek borders, especially in Macedonia. The Greeks felt that by promoting homogeneity of language, education, and culture (especially in the North), their democracy would remain intact and whole through any wars or conflicts in the future. A series of population exchanges between Slavic speakers in Greece and Greek speakers in what was then Serbia (and now FYROM) to the north, took place.6 Although the population exchanges were largely successful, some minority groups remain in the North to this day. For that reason, historian Tom Winnifrith feels that

Recent sensitivity about the possibility of the Yugoslav province of Macedonia becoming an independent state springs partly from a feeling that Greece’s claim to Greek Macedonia is made weaker by the existence of non-Greek fragments in this [Macedonian province] area.7

A few years later, after World War II, Tito was instrumental in uniting a multi-ethnic region by giving rise to a Communist Yugoslavia. Although he united the people with fervent nationalism, he allowed for separate constituent republics and the maintenance of the multicultural fabric of Yugoslavia. One such example is our case study: he was the first to recognize Macedonia as a distinct republic, Macedonians as a distinct ethnic group, and Macedonian as a distinct language. Between 1945 and 1946 the Slavic-Macedonian cultural entity took root, and for the next fifty years the people forged an identity by standardizing and publishing grammar books on their language (related to Slavic languages and closely related to Bulgarian) and teaching Macedonian history in schools.8

The Greek Civil War between 1946-49, a struggle between communism and democracy, soured Greco-Yugoslav relations immensely. Stalin, Tito, and Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov allegedly used the uprising of Greek Communists as an opportunity to usurp the Macedonian province and incorporate it into the Communist states.9 Thousands of Greece=s Slavic Macedonians were pushed into Yugoslavia during the war, and their land was confiscated by the Greek government. These properties were given to Greeks who remained loyal to the government. In addition, nearly 200,000 Greeks and Slavic Macedonians (who made up approximately 40 percent of the Communist forces in the fleeting days of the Civil War) defected to Eastern Bloc countries at the conclusion of the war. Now, many Slavic Macedonians want their family land back, and Greeks who combine this fact with the Stalin-Tito-Dimitrov Communist plot of the past heighten their distrust of any forces to the north, whether they be Yugoslav or “Former” Yugoslav. Metropolitan Crysostomos of Edessa said, “All this history, all these wars, all these exchanges of population have taught the Greeks here to fear that these threats to our territory are real.”10

Putting distant history aside, it is the recent emergence of the modern Republic that has acted as the catalyst for the conflict. The Republic of Macedonia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991; and like its predecessors Slovenia and Montenegro, did so without a fight from the Serbs. It had the poorest economy of any of the former Yugoslav republics and perhaps one of the most heterogeneous populations: 67 percent of the population is Slavic-Macedonian, 20 percent is Albanian Muslim, four percent is Turkish, there are two percent each of Serbs, Gypsies and Bosnians, and two percent of other groups including Jews and Vlachs.11

Although Greeks originally contended that a unified Macedonian nation was an impossibility because of the ethnic mix within it, they were later reminded that in 1918 following World War I, their own Macedonian province had fewer than 50 percent Greek-speaking inhabitants. Additionally, over 95 percent of the Republic of Macedonia’s population voted for independence in a September 8, 1991 referendum.

Once Greeks recognized the unified Macedonian populace and the reality that the republic to the north had the potential for obtaining full nation-state status (as did Slovenia and Montenegro soon after their independence), they rallied behind several points to block international recognition. Greece was a member of the EU and NATO; her powerful allies in both organizations refused to recognize Macedonia out of deference for their stable Balkan ally. Consequently, Macedonia’s first years (before a 1993 name compromise that won it international favor) were disastrous and uncertain. Greece’s main selling point was a fear of losing territory in its own Macedonian province.

Papandreou explained, “We have really a challenge to our national security, because the objective is a Macedonia with the Aegean.”12 Along with historical concerns over the northern Greek border and the Slavic-Macedonians asking for their family land back, Greeks also worried about a clause in the 1991 Macedonian Constitution that promised to protect “Macedonians everywhere.” This clause and two articles, which were quickly revised by the Macedonian government, caused the initial fears. “Theft” of Greek cultural property provided the other flash points for conflict.

Use of the name “Macedonia” by the new republic angered Greece because throughout history, Greeks refused to recognize Slavs as Macedonians. Recall that the name was only attached to Slavic people around 1945 by Tito. Previous reference to “Macedonia” had either to do exclusively with the Greek province or the larger Macedonian region that incorporated the province, parts of Albania and Bulgaria, and the present FYROM. Greeks now refer to the entire breakaway republic as ASkopje,@ the name of its capital.

The use of the Star of Vergina (a sixteen-pointed sunburst symbol discovered during the 1960s excavations of King Philip’s palace) as the state symbol and emblem on the flag of the Republic was, in Greeks’ eyes, blatant mockery of Hellenic history and culture. The symbol was discovered near Thessaloniki, the provincial capital, and was used by the royal courts of Philip and Alexander — “Greek” heroes. It was never used by the Yugoslavians.13 All told, Greeks saw the Republic as an upstart nation of Slavs and Albanians whose feeble fifty-year history and recent attempts at inciting a non-existent nationalism preyed upon the glorious Hellenic legacy for legitimacy.

By 1993, however, the world and Macedonia had compromised. That year, the republic became a member of the United Nations under the appellation “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)”. EU member nations quickly recognized the Republic, and after waiting several months, the United States followed suit, granting FYROM recognition on February 9, 1994. To Greece’s dismay the world seemed to share Winnifrith=s notion that

there is a population which has very little to do with Greece but whose best chance of freedom and democracy probably lies in an independent Macedonian nation, however shallowly rooted in history such a nation is.14

The Greece-Macedonia conflict formally manifested itself on February 17, 1994, when Greece imposed a full economic blockade on FYROM. Knowing that the world rejected the “emotional” reaction of the Greeks concerning cultural identity issues, Greek politicians sought to re-establish their position regarding a potential Balkan war. In order to “tell the world” that there was “an issue of security, of stability in the region,” all vehicles with Macedonian plates and persons with Macedonian passports were stopped at the Greek border. The usual Macedonian commercial pathway through the port in Thessaloniki was severed.15 This had tremendous detrimental effects on an already poor economy. The embargo cost Macedonia $50 million a month, and GNP per capita went from $1,800 before the embargo to less than $760 in September 1994. Rerouting oil through Bulgaria cost FYROM an extra $50 per ton. UN sanctions against Serbia, a traditional trading partner, didn’t help either.16

Downplaying problems over name, flag, and Constitution, former Greek Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras explained his country’s new main reason for levying the sanctions:

This is not a phantom fear but a reality. It is not a problem with the present Skopje; that is ridiculous [Macedonia has a very weak military force]. We are concerned for the future potential combination of forces in this region. There are three expectations — a Greater Bulgaria, a Greater Albania and a Greater Serbia. And always with Turkey looming in the back.17

Fearful of the possibility of a spread of the Bosnian war and the potential war Mr. Samaras spoke of, the US sent two hundred extra peacekeepers to FYROM (in addition to the 300 already there as part of a 1,000-troop UN peacekeeping deployment begun in 1993). American troops in Macedonia were the only US soldiers stationed in the Balkans. Although the world saw FYROM as a nation teetering on the brink of war, Macedonians themselves in 1994 had little fear of war. According to Phillips Academy instructor and economist, Dr. Christopher Shaw, who visited FYROM in the summer of 1994 to conduct research, Macedonia enjoyed improving diplomatic relations with Albania and Bulgaria. In spite of the blockade and sanctions, the Republic also carried out clandestine trade with Greece and Serbia. Although the situation was tense, armed conflict seemed unlikely to Macedonian citizens.

Shaw also commented on the people’s confidence that an accord with Greece would be worked out, “Gligorov [the Macedonian President] was positioning himself in the negotiation. The people knew he would either give up the name or the flag. Macedonians are not nationalists.”18 Barring the weak nationalism Shaw speaks of, the name could not go in any compromise as “even for those without strong nationalist feelings, the name has come to symbolize resistance and survival against the Greeks.”19

On the other side of the border, protests in Thessaloniki drew upwards of 200,000 people. The last Greek government was voted out of office based on the Macedonia issue.20 On our shores, the powerful Greek-American lobby urged the Clinton administration to support Greece. Prospects for resolving the conflict were bleak.

The tide turned on Greece in mid-1994 when the European Union took Greece to the European Court in Luxembourg and charged the nation with attempting to destabilize the Macedonian economy. The US State Department continuously urged President Clinton to send an ambassador to Skopje and establish full diplomatic relations with FYROM, as EU member nations had already done. When Papandreou visited Washington in April 1994, the United States vigorously pursued a promise from the Prime Minister to reach an accord with President Gligorov.21

Macedonia suffered through about a year and a half more of embargo before the United Nations announced on September 5, 1995 that an agreement had been reached. Cyrus Vance, an American mediator for the UN, said the entire process took 28 months of shuttle diplomacy between Athens and Skopje. Also instrumental in the process was Richard Holbrooke, the State Department’s chief negotiator for the Bosnian conflict. Greece agreed to lift the blockade within thirty days of signing the agreement, which settled all but one dispute. FYROM agreed to change its flag, affirm its borders (denying any designs for expanding them), and revise the controversial clauses within its constitution. The agreement left the name issue open for future negotiations.22

Although largely resolved, the situation remains tense in Greece and Macedonia. On October 3, 1995, President Kiro Gligorov suffered major head injuries when a car bomb exploded in an assassination attempt. Some speculated that the crime was committed by extreme Macedonian nationalists who disagreed with Gligorov’s compromise with Greece over the flag and Constitution. The country is moving on and named an interim President, Stojan Andov, an ally of Gligorov.23 Two days after the attack, the Macedonian Parliament made good on the Greek accord by voting 110 to one for a new flag. The new banner was raised over the United Nations during its 50th anniversary celebration and symbolized Macedonian optimism for economic (if not political) improvement. 24

Greece reassured FYROM that it wanted to see it succeed as a democratic republic; as part of the agreement, Greece offered to stop vetoing EU aid to Macedonia and promised to endorse FYROM’s membership in groups such as the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe.25 Chris Shaw feels that Macedonia will join the EU in the distant future: “How quickly [it does so] is up to Europe to decide and up to us to understand.” He noted Macedonia’s potential for a productive economy and its strategic geographic situation in the world: “It literally bridges East and West.”

In analyzing the current situation, we must be mindful of the uncertainties that surround it. For instance, when and how will the name issue be resolved? How will the new peace in Bosnia and Serbia affect Macedonia? When will the United States establish an embassy in Skopje? When will the flags stop waving and the ultra-nationalism in Greece and the Greek-American lobby cease? Will FYROM succeed politically and economically? Judging from the stormy history of these two nations and of the region as a whole, a total and lasting peace looks unlikely at least until the name issue is resolved. Once that happens, Greece and Macedonia can answer some of the other questions that will help define their roles in the Balkan region, Europe, and the world as a whole. Perhaps transforming this tenuous peace into a genuine one before the coming millennium will serve as a prime example to future generations for resolving and avoiding nationalist conflicts without violence.!


* Editor’s note: We don’t usually publish student papers, but we felt that this was an exceptional piece of work on a topical issue that the author has related to our common background. The writer is currently a senior at Phillips Academy, Andover, and will attend Brown University in the fall.

1Misha Glenny, “Fear: Macedonia – postcard,” The New Republic 25 April, 1994: 12.

2Henry Kamm, “Greek Prime Minister Insists Macedonia Endangers his Country,” The New York Times 7 April 1994: A11.

3T.J. Winnifrith, Shattered Eagles: Balkan Fragments (London: Duckworth, 1995) 112.

4Raymond Bonner, “The Land that Can’t be Named,” The New York Times 14 May 1995: E6.

5Winnifrith, 115-116.

6George Soros, “The Other Balkan Mess,” The New York Times 17 March 1994: A23.

7Winnifrith, 108.

8Winnifrith, 117-122.

9Henry Kamm, “For Greeks, it is More than a Name,” The New York Times 23 April, 1994: A7.

10Chuck Sudetic, “Real ‘Macedonia’ Issue is Real Estate,” The New York Times 12 March 1994: A4.

11“Macedonia (republic),” Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 1993 ed.

12Kamm, Greek Prime Minister . . ., A11.

13Ibid., A11.

14Winnifrith, 125.

15Vince Beiser, “The Next Bosnia?: another Balkan country teeters on the brink,” Maclean’s 7 February, 1994: 40.

16Saso Ordanoski, “Balkan Stepchild,” The New York Times 4 September, 1994: E11.

17Kamm, For Greeks . . ., A7.

18Christopher Shaw, personal interview, November 1995.

19Bonner, E6.

20Soros, A23.

21Steven Greenhouse, “State Dept. Criticizes White House on Macedonia Ties,” The New York Times 19 April, 1994: A6.

22Christopher S. Wren, “Greeks to Lift Ban on Trade that Crippled Macedonia,” The New York Times 6 September, 1995.

23Raymond Bonner, “Macedonia Names Fill-In for Wounded Leader,” The New York Times 5 October, 1995: A5.

24Barry Wood, News Report on radio, Voice of America, 5 October, 1995.

25“In the Name of the Bored,” The Economist 16 September, 1995: 64.


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