Refugees who left Aegean Macedonia as children during the turbulence of the Greek civil war gathered in Skopje on Friday (July 18th) to commemorate the 60th anniversary of their exodus. The four-day event took place against the backdrop of the ongoing name dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia and amid a push by Skopje for recognition of an ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece.
From 1946 to 1949, a bitter struggle took place in Greece as communist partisans -- with support from Tito's Yugoslavia -- sought to win control of the country. During the turmoil, tens of thousands of children from the region were evacuated and later placed in orphanages in Yugoslavia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Although some have returned, Greek laws currently offer amnesty only to ethnic Greeks.
This month's reunion drew 6,000 evacuees, coming from countries such as Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and the United States. Participants drafted a declaration to the international community, demanding restoration of their citizenship and property rights.
"We are not asking any more than the respect of such defined rights in the constitution of Greece," it said.
Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski and Parliament Speaker Trajko Veljanovski attended the event. "National identity cannot be erased administratively," Veljanovski said in his speech. "We are Macedonians and … we won't give up our identity."
With negotiations between Athens and Skopje over the name issue still at an impasse, the government of Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has sought to up the ante by bringing minority issues to the table. On July 14th, Gruevski sent a letter to his Greek counterpart, Costas Karamanlis, urging him to acknowledge the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece.
Athens should correct the "historical mistakes of the past" to pave the way for better ties, he wrote. Gruevski also sent a letter to European Commission (EC) President Manuel Barroso urging the EC to ensure that Greece respects the right to free expression of ethnicity.
Greece has long disputed such claims, saying that while there are Slavic-language speakers in northern Greece, there is no basis for describing them as a "Macedonian" ethnic group.
"There is no and there was never a Macedonian minority in Greece. Any allegation of the existence of such a minority in Greece is groundless, politically motivated and doesn't respect political realities in the region," said the official response to Gruevski's letter.
Athens has no intention of discussing such issues, Karamanlis said, adding that they fall outside the scope of the name talks.