Macedonia name accord opens more cans of worms than it closes

Greece Letter: For decades, Athens denied there was a Macedonian language

A  statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, Macedonia: has 28 years of prevarication and chicanery come to an end?  Photograph Akos Stiller/The New York Times

A statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje, Macedonia: has 28 years of prevarication and chicanery come to an end? Photograph Akos Stiller/The New York Times

 

The “Prespes agreement”, which brings into existence the newly named state of the “Republic of North Macedonia”, has been ratified by both the Skopje and Athens parliaments, despite vigorous opposition in both. Applauded internationally as an end to a 28-year period of prevarication and chicanery, it opens the way for North Macedonia to join both the EU and Nato.

The opposition in both countries has inevitably been conditioned by sentimentalism – trying to cling to an outmoded past, unable to accept the compromise that would open the door to the future. For the Macedonians, both the carrot and the stick have been the imperative of modernisation along western lines, just as they have been in Greece since its independence caused the first major upheaval in the Balkans.

The effect of the Prespes agreement is not merely to give Macedonia a new name, nor even to assuage Greek fears by removing irredentist clauses from the Macedonian constitution. In fact, it opens more cans of worms than it closes.

The next major eruptions in the Balkans will be in Kosovo (the ethnic Albanian semi-autonomous region at the centre of the Balkans which may, or may not, be part of Serbia depending on which foot you dig with), and Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats and Muslims (Bosniaks) are jostling for position in the self-determination stakes.

Turkey, too, is a player in this game, with the declared ambition of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a Muslim community throughout the Balkans.

While these may not seem of immediate relevance to Greece, they underline the fragility of borders, languages, ethnicities and cultures within the entire region, in which Greece is inextricably rooted, whether or not it pursues its own future in the EU and the West.

Elements of identity

Macedonians remain divided, as are many Greeks, by the question of whether or not they want to be “westernised”, which will inevitably mean relinquishing cherished elements of their identity. As with all future-oriented decisions, the question “How much of our past are we prepared to lose?” is more than merely sentimental.

Migrants and refugees, such as those from Syria or Afghanistan, carry into the unknown a knapsack of memories as their key to an identity on which they will otherwise have only a tenuous lien. Migrants within their own borders also cling to memory embedded in the collective experience of the past. The Balkans have always been a melting pot of identities on the move.

How any country defines itself in the international community – by its name, its borders, its culture, its language, its relationship with its neighbours – is central to its ability to tell its own story. All of these have been crucial factors in the 28-year Macedonian-Greek standoff. The votes in both countries represent a redrawing of the domestic and international maps.

Due to the kaleidoscope of history, Macedonia is multiethnic: Slav, Albanian, Vlach, Bulgarian and Roma. It is not helped by the fact that in Greek “ethnos” means “nation” and “ethnic” means “national”, with the danger that nationalists are prone to exclude from their community any who do not conform to their own ethnicity.

Ethnic Macedonians

Both the Greeks and the Macedonians have been appealing to the intangible: what makes them Greek, what makes them Macedonian, because each is a reflection, and a denial, of the other. The essential definitions have been up for grabs, and the outcome is, in effect, a lose-lose situation for everyone. For decades, Greece denied that there was a Macedonian language, a concession it has now had to make. North Macedonia, in order to get its name, has had to relinquish any claim it has on ethnic Macedonians living within the borders of Greece.

One outcome is that there are now two Macedonias: one, the fledgling republic, the other the northern Greek region of Macedonia which includes Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, which has in fact been part of Greece only since the first major boundary-breaking crisis of 1912-1913. And, to cap it all, the president of the new republic, Gjorgy Ivanov, refuses to sign the agreement into law, so that technically he is president of a country that does not yet exist and of which he does not wish to be president.

Imagine if, in 1922, the Six Counties had been nominated as “North Ulster”, leaving Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan as another “Ulster” after the bargaining over boundaries had concluded.

Both sides have learnt that you cannot rewrite the facts of history, but you can change the way they are interpreted. I think of the apocryphal Englishman in Thurles railway station, irascibly asking why two clocks told different times, to which the stationmaster replied “What would be the point of having two clocks, if they both told the same time?”

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