Thursday, August 13, 2009
MACEDONIANISM - THE MACEDONIAN ISSUE FROM INSIDE FYROM
by James Karas
On September 21, 2007, shortly after the general elections in Greece, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper recognized the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as the Republic of Macedonia. More than a hundred nations around the globe had already done that and his gesture should not have been all that startling. But it was, especially for Greeks. The act sent shockwaves to Greeks in general and the Greek communities of Canada in particular. It appeared and remains a gratuitous and unnecessary act for which there seems to be no rational explanation.
It took a few hours for very much information to trickle through once the news had hit the airwaves. Initially it was thought that Canada had granted full recognition of the name. As it turned out the recognition was to extend only to bilateral relations and would not affect Canada’s position on the international scene. When we deal with you alone, we will call you Macedonia; when there are other nations involved we will refer to you as FYROM, is the Canadian position.
The problem of the name to be adopted by FYROM has proven thorny and contentious and the United Nations has been attempting to find a solution. Matthew Nimitz has been appointed as a mediator in an attempt to find a resolution. In other words, a mechanism was in place for finding a solution and there was no need for the Canadian government to offend the Greeks of Canada and curry favour with the much smaller “Macedonian” community. If there was a rational reason for Harper flaunting international conventions and offending Greeks, I am not aware of it.
His recognition galvanized Greek communities into action and the Canadian-Hellenic Congress called for a protest rally on Parliament Hill on October 27, 2007 to register their disapproval of the recognition. The Greek communities of Toronto and Montreal arrived in the nation’s capital on that rainy Saturday morning in dozens of buses and private vehicles. There were representatives from smaller cities also as well as other provinces in addition to the Greeks of Ottawa. Metropolitan Archbishop Sotirios refused to participate and the advice from Greece was “don’t do it.”
There was a sea of placards sticking over the umbrellas and plastic ponchos on Parliament Hill reading “Macedonia is Greece” and variations on that theme and community leaders and politicians addressed the crowd. I was one of the speakers in my capacity as President of the Pan-Macedonian Association of Ontario. My position was that the Government of Canada should have respected the process that had been put in place by the United Nations rather than acting unilaterally, offending Greece and the Greeks of Canada and causing more harm than good.
Most speakers stayed on the high ground but, unfortunately, the tone of the rally descended into anti-Harper diatribes and insults that did little to advance our message.
Canada did not change its position and the negotiations continued with Nimitz proposing names and Greece and FYROM disposing of them as fast as he proposed them. Then a bright light was shone on the problem by Greece accepting FYROM’s right to use the word Macedonia in its name provided that it was modified in some way to differentiate the country from the Greek province. New Macedonia or Upper Macedonia were acceptable. FYROM refused to budge and insisted on Republic of Macedonia or nothing.
In 2004, after his re-election, President Bush recognized FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia and the young politicians that had been elected to run the new nation felt they had an almost invincible ally. The matter came to a head last April during the NATO summit in Bucharest. The United States demanded in no uncertain terms that FYROM be admitted to NATO regardless of the name dispute with Greece. Greece made it clear that if the issue of the name was not resolved, it would exercise its right to veto FYROM’s application for membership.
The United Sates and FYROM went to Bucharest firmly convinced that the might of American diplomacy will have its way and Greece will be forced to accept FYROM as a member of NATO. FYROM sent a large delegation to Bucharest and they were ready to celebrate their admission into the large alliance. Greece exercised her veto and the fury of the Americans and humiliation of the FYROM delegation were palpable. The war of words has intensified since then and Nimitz is still trying to find an acceptable name.
That much is visible to all who wish to follow the vagaries of the issue. But there is another side to the problem. What is happening within FYROM? We all know that they are and have been for some time in the process of nation-building. But what exactly are they doing?
The task of looking at that has been taken on by the Society for Macedonian Studies in Thessaloniki with funding from the Karipis Foundation for Macedonian and Thracian Studies. Under the aegis of Professor John Koliopoulos, Professor of Modern History, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of Greece’s most eminent historians, three scholars have been appointed to examine FYROM’s policies vis-à-vis Greece.
The result was ΜΑΚΕΔΟΝΙΣΜΟΣ - Ο ιμπεριαλισμός των Σκοπίων 1944-2006, a well-illustrated study published in Greek and a shorter version of the book in English under the title Macedonianism: FYROM’S Expansionist designs Against Greece after the Interim Accord, (1995). The three scholars examined a wide array of official state documents, atlases, school textbooks, internet sites, proclamations, political manifestos and just about everything else they could lay their hands on, it seems, in order to determine FYROM’s position towards Greece.
The lead study, entitled “Irredentist Policy: FYROM Official State Papers, 1944-2006,” is by Iakovos D. Michailidis, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. In the English version of the book the time frame has been reduced to 1995-2006.
From 1944 onwards, according to Michailidis, FYROM (or the People’s or Socialist Republic of Macedonia as it was before 1991), has followed a three-pronged approach in its policy towards Greece.
First: Macedonia, Greece was renamed ‘Aegean Macedonia,’ i.e. an integral but unliberated part of FYROM.
Second: it advanced the claim of “the existence of an oppressed ‘Macedonian minority’ within Greece”.
Third: it proceeded with the creation of a ‘national history’ through the appropriation of Greek symbols and emblems. Ancient Macedonia was the focal point and myths such as Alexander the Great was not Greek, the Ancient Macedonians spoke another language and the like began to proliferate. They claim that there has been a distinct Macedonian nation since ancient times and that it has continued in existence until today. The presence of Albanians in FYROM is neatly explained: they are the heirs of the ancient Illyrians.
Michailidis shows that the above noted aspects of FYROM’s foreign policy towards Greece are neither haphazard nor accidental. The attempt is nothing less than to re-write history to suit current political needs, to promote territorial claims against Greece and to create a national mythology based on Greece’s cultural legacy. There are numerous maps, for example, that show graphically and dramatically, the ‘Macedonian nation’ stretching all the way to Thessaly. As Michailidis points out, these maps of Greater Macedonia flooded the country and “were reprinted in school textbooks, sent as postcards, and were even used as stamps.” The idea was to reach everyone and no doubt they did.
The idea of an oppressed Macedonian minority in Greece is promoted inside FYROM but even more importantly and effectively, outside its borders by supporting and funding publications of newspapers and magazines and organizations such as the Union of Societies of Macedonians from Aegean Macedonia.
The indoctrination takes some very subtle forms such as in the questions asked of students who are applying for entrance to university. Students are asked questions about the enslavement of Macedonians in neighbouring countries, their struggle for freedom and union with the fatherland and about their descent from Alexander the Great. This, writes Michailidis, “is not merely quaint; it is positively dangerous”.
Stavroula Mavrogeni, who is described as a specialist member of the teaching staff of the University of Western Macedonia, writes about “FYROM’s Primary School History Textbooks.” The approach taken on the national and international level described by Michailidis is also pursued in the teaching of history at the primary level.
Students are given the impression, for example, that Macedonia existed as a separate entity even in pre-historic times. There is a clear distinction drawn between Greece and Macedonia and the Balkan Wars are viewed as ‘wars of conquest’. The Ottomans were driven out of Macedonia during the First Balkan War and “Macedonia was conquered and partitioned among Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria” according to a grade 7 textbook. In the end, “the territorial and ethnic unity of Macedonia was disrupted” according to the textbook. The textbooks make some staggering historical assumptions but in the process of nation-building and myth-making, historical accuracy can be of slight importance.
The students are also taught about the oppression of the ‘Macedonian’ minority in Greece and coverage is given to World War II and the Greek Civil War and more recent events. All teaching has the same underlying assumptions about the united Macedonian nation, the enslaved brethren in Aegean Macedonia and the longing for their liberation.
Vlasis Vlasidis, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Western Macedonia, examines “Irredentism on the Internet”. Not surprisingly, the number of websites dealing with FYROM is legion. Vlasidis has found some quaint trends that tell as much about present political events as they do about historical facts. There are scant references to relations with Russia in the 19th century, for example. That was the era of Pan-Slavism and the Treaty of San Stefano. One would have thought that there would be praise for Russia and damnation of Great Britain, Germany and the Treaty of Berlin. “The silence is deafening” notes Vlasidis, but it is not surprising. When you are currying favour with the Americans, you do not praise the Russians.
Equally interesting is the demotion or, let’s say, the marginalization of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs in favour of St. Paul. This means that ethnic Macedonians existed in the peninsula well before the arrival of the Slavs in the 6th century A.D. The latter, according to the new mythology, were simply incorporated in the existing Macedonian ethnic group.
Greek symbols and maps are used on web pages the same way that they are used in other publications and in the school textbooks as described by Mavrogeni.
Two organizations, the United Macedonian Diaspora and the World Macedonian Congress have major websites. “They engage in an overtly aggressive policy against Greece and Bulgaria and cherish the idea of a Greater Macedonia” notes Vlasidis. The Canadian Macedonian Historical Society comes in for special mention for its “competent presence” on the internet.
The essays in the English version of the book take up 40 pages, including illustrations. There are more than 100 pages of reproductions of documents, including numerous maps, book covers, government decrees, magazine covers, statements by officials, posters and many more. Here you will find the cover of the book All Saints of Macedonia. The book states that “St. Demetrius was an ethnic Macedonian.” Along with the cover of the book, there is an excerpt of the entry about St. Demetrius but only in Macedonian. This holds true for most of the documents reproduced in both versions of the book. No doubt the intent was to show their existence but it would have been immensely interesting to read a translation of all of them.
The English version under review was produced quickly in pocket book format to have it available for the diplomats at the Bucharest summit last April. A full version of the Greek book was published in English later and it is available on the website of the Society for Macedonian Studies at http://www.ems.gr/ekdoseis.php. I only have a copy of the pocket book version for review purposes.
The Greek and English versions of the book are not without their faults. A number of illustrations are reproduced more than once and the captions for others are unsatisfactory. Some thirty pages of the Greek version are taken up with copies of the outlines for teaching history and geography in primary school and sample examinations. All of this is in Macedonian with only a few lines of explanation. Some of the documents appear to be printed more than once, but I cannot be sure of this.
The Greek edition is printed on large, almost coffee-table size paper, and runs to 229 pages. The English edition is a much smaller, trade paperback with only 167 pages. As a result the illustrations are smaller and some of the text in the reproduced documents is almost unreadable. What is worse, a number of pages at the beginning were simply missed by the printer. That is unfortunate, because it is non-Greeks who should be reading the book as much as Greeks. It is hoped that the larger version that has been published will be made available widely for those who are not keen on reading books on a computer screen.
The contents of the books should be startling for everyone interested in the Balkans. Few people could have realized the breadth and depth of FYROM’s myth-making in its attempt at building a nation. Its attitudes and policies towards Greece are dangerous and destabilizing. A generation of children is being raised with a mythology about an evil Greece, a neighbour that holds their brethren enslaved and occupies territory that belongs to their beloved Republic of Macedonia. In fact Greece is one of the biggest investors and creators of jobs in FYROM; it is helping FYROM financially and wants to maintain good relations. None of this receives any mention at all.
Last November FYROM started proceedings against Greece in the International Court of Justice in the Hague claiming redress “for flagrant violation of its obligations under Article 11” of the Interim Accord signed by the parties on September 13, 1995. FYROM wants the Court to order Greece to withdraw its veto to FYROM’s application for admission to NATO. Greece has a strong position on the wording of the Interim Agreement alone but seeking a juridical solution to a political problem is probably not the wisest course.
FYROM is one of the poorest countries in Europe and needs investment, economic development and jobs for its citizens. National mythologies, patriotism and even judicial proceedings may be fine for making speeches and arousing the public; good jobs, high standards of living and good relations with one’s neighbours are much better.