Sympathy must lie with Macedonia in its constant battle with Greece, a country which bullies and even questions the right to self determination of the Macedonians. Trying to play Zeus, Greece has made it clear that its status as a current member of both NATO and the European Union means that it feels justified in allowing the fledgling Macedonia, independent for less than 17 years, absolutely no leeway. Sympathy for Macedonia can only stretch to the boundaries of taste and it seems that this week some Macedonians overstepped the line. Billboards around Skopje carried a poster featuring a customised version of the Greek flag in which the cross in the upper-left corner was replaced with a swastika.
Greece has disgraced itself in its behaviour towards Macedonia, a small Balkan state which is trying its hardest to overcome difficulties such as internal disputes between Macedonians and the Albanian minority that lead the country to the brink of civil war in 2001. As a responsible member of the international community it should be Greece’s duty to offer aid and guidance to the fledgling democracy rather than looking to obstruct progress purely because of the way that Macedonia chooses to identify itself. On this occasion though Greek complaints can be understood. The poster in question was in no way sanctioned by the Macedonian government but was nevertheless visible on the streets of the country’s capital city.
With the NATO summit in Bucharest deciding whether Macedonia will receive an invite to join the organisation, a stunt like this poster does nothing but shoot Macedonia in the foot. Let us be clear, Greece’s attitude to Macedonia is pathetic but it is not akin to the Nazis. By using the swastika symbol it was inevitable that people would be upset, and moreover, countries supportive of Macedonia’s NATO and EU accession will be just that little bit less inclined to speak up for them. The swastika is such a powerful symbol with such terrible connotations that using it in jest is always risky business.
Both the Greeks and the Macedonians are standing firm on the naming dispute. This would be fine for Macedonia were it not the case that Greece can disrupt Macedonia’s entry into international institutions. Macedonia has every right to define itself as Macedonia, this after all is the designated name for the political entity and it is Greece’s bad luck if they choose not to like it. Just as the country is called Macedonia, the language is called Macedonian and it is spoken by Macedonians. Indeed, these may be relatively recent “inventions” that can be dated back to the second half of the 19th Century, before this most would have identified as being Bulgarian, but nevertheless several generations have grown up knowing nothing but being Macedonian, and for the Greeks to try and deny this is scandalous.
The region of Macedonia as opposed to the Republic of Macedonia is a large region in the south of the Balkan peninsular. It stretches across Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria and even enters into Albania, Kosovo and Serbia. Macedonia is the only country which finds all of its territory located within the region of Macedonia, giving it by most people’s standards the perfectly legitimate right to call itself Macedonia. Prior to the creation of the second Yugoslavia in 1945, the territory of Macedonia went by the name of Southern Serbia, itself a political construction aimed at Serbianising the region so as to compete with the clearly Bulgarian Pirin Macedonia and Green Agean Macedonia and it would be better to describe it by its geographical name Vardar Macedonia. The people of this region were evidently not Serbs, and based on their culture also felt different to Bulgarians. Being Slav, in no way were they Greek. Understanding this different identity, socialist Yugoslavia gave Macedonia its own federal status, partly as a way of ensuring loyalty to Yugoslavia. These reasons and justifications are of little relevance when dealing with Macedonians today who identify simply as being Macedonian.
Macedonia does itself no favours though by antagonising the Greeks. This poster is one of several examples, another being the decision to rename Skopje’s airport as Alexander the Great Airport. Alexander the Great lived several centuries before Slavs arrived in the region and can not really be considered part of the heritage of modern Macedonians. Having said this, there are plenty of examples of places in Britain looking back to their Roman and Viking heritage and nobody in either Italy or Norway has seen fit to complain to the British government yet.
Greece’s Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis stated that her country will continue to block Macedonia’s NATO dream until the dispute is resolved. She said “No mutually acceptable solution means no NATO invitation” although it is unclear as to how this is possible since Greece has said that it refuses to budge from its position that the word Macedonia can not feature in the title, which Macedonia wishes to continue with its name. Maybe Bakoyannis should have said instead that no solution acceptable to Greece means no NATO invitation.
Javier Solano, in charge of the EU’s foreign policy, has suggested New Macedonia as a name. Whilst it seems cruel for the Macedonians to have to capitulate to Greece’s dirty tactics maybe this is a fair compromise. It is unclear whether the name would be in English or in Macedonian as Nova Makedonija, but it would still be likely to be rejected by Greece. Athens has suggested ludicrous names like Republic of Skopje (were this rule to be applied Greece would be renamed as the Republic of Athens while it would be possible to look for the Kingdom of London and the Dictatorship of Pyongyang on maps) and Vardar Republic, the name of a river running through Skopje and a Yugoslav Banovina from 1929 to 1941 (meaning that equally Greece could be renamed Cephissus Republic, the United Kingdom would be Thames Kingdom and Luxembourg would be transformed into the Alzette Grand Duchy).
Will Macedonia give in and allow its very identity to be stolen so that it can join organisations which it has reached on merit? Many countries have objections with others and this is understandable if historic circumstances are taken into account. Where it becomes unnacceptable is when one country questions the very right of another to exist.