Cutting the Gordian Knot: Settling the “Macedonian” question – Part 2

Part 2 – Northern Exposures & Southern Fears

To ask whether Macedonia is Greek is rather like asking whether Prussia was German. If one talks of distant origins, the answer in both cases must be “No.” Ancient Macedonia started its career in the orbit of Illyrian or Thracian civilization. But, as shown by excavation of the royal tombs, it was subject to a high degree of hellenization before Philip of Macedon conquered Greece. 

Norman Davies, Europe: A history, p. 134

In 1991, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Yugoslavia) began to break up into five parts. It all began around 25 June 1991 when Slovenia, followed by Croatia, declared their independence. Other Republics followed suit.

The contemporary geographical region of Macedonia is not officially defined by any international organisation or state. In some contexts it appears to span six states: Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia and Serbia:
–Aegean Macedonia (or Greek Macedonia)
–Pirin Macedonia (or Bulgarian Macedonia)
–Vardar Macedonia (or the Republic of Macedonia)
–Mala Prespa and Golo Bardo (in Albania)
–Gora (in Kosovo or Serbia) and Prohor Pchinski (in Serbia)

On 17 September 1991, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) declared its independence, with Bosnia and Herzegovina doing likewise a month later on 16 October 1991, resulting in a rump-Yugoslavia of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. A civil war broke out in Croatia and later in Bosnia and Herzegovina. And as the saying goes, the rest is history.

When FYROM declared its independence it moved swiftly to erase from its name anything associated with “Yugoslavia.” A new dawn had risen for the “Macedonians,” as they had called themselves since 1945 with the formation of Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito. They named their new country “The Republic of Macedonia.” And so the Macedonian question came to the fore. Greece immediately took offense to their northern neighbor appropriating the name “Macedonia.” Considering Greece’s past experiences and what was also included in the Constitution of The Republic of Macedonia, the Greeks were not without justification – real or perceived – to feel threatened. To the Greeks, these were not Macedonians; they were Slavs living in parts of Macedonia historically belonging to Greece, but in the hands of its powerful neighbor, Yugoslavia. This did not give these Slavs the right to call themselves Macedonians, though for some Greeks, characterizing them as Slavo-Macedonians was almost tolerable.

To fully appreciate this moment in history and what was to follow, it is necessary to go further back in time. Here things get murky. Not all historians are in sync. Suffice it to say, the geographical boundaries of Macedonia from antiquity until after World War II have shifted, with control resting in the hands of Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, and Serbians. Slavs, Albanians, and others have also migrated to and settled in this area, coalescing over the centuries into constituent nations or national minorities, woven into the fabric of the states that occupied or controlled various parts of the Macedonian landscape. Its rich cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity is as much of a source of celebration as it is a source of mistrust and conflict.

During the Roman times, Macedonia covered a great deal of geographical space – as far as the Adriatic. It is believed that it was around the 6th century and afterwards that Slavs migrated to Macedonia, living side by side with Greeks. During the medieval times, parts of Macedonia were incorporated into Bulgaria. Then in 1346 the Serbian Stefan Dušan, crowned in Skopje, became the Tsar of the Serbs, Greeks, Bulgars, and Albanians (lending at the turn of the 20th century to Serbia’s justification in claiming Macedonia as far south as Thessaloniki). Then came the Ottomans. And by the 19th century “Ottoman Macedonia was a typical Balkan province of mixed religious and ethnic composition. Orthodox Christians lived alongside Muslims, and Greeks and Slavs alongside Albanians and Turks. By custom, all Orthodox were counted as ‘Greeks’ because of their allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople.” (Davies, p. 134) Then came the Balkan wars in 1912-1913, with Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia fighting over the geographical space of Macedonia, effectively dividing it into three parts, with the southern part, including Thessaloniki, going to Greece, the eastern part to Bulgaria, and the northern part, including Skopje and the Vardar valley with a mixed population of Slavs and Albanians, to Serbia. Then in 1945, the autonomous Republic of Macedonia was established as part of Yugoslavia. Arguably, it is at this point in history that the Slavs living in this geographical space of Macedonia, take on the national identity of Macedonians. As Davies puts it:

When this northern section was reconstituted in 1945 as the autonomous republic of ‘Makedonija’ within Yugoslavia, a determined campaign was launched to simplify history and to transmute the identity of the entire population. The Yugoslav leadership was intent on reversing the effects of wartime Bulgarian occupation, and on resisting the cultural charms of ancient Greece. The Slav dialect of the political élite was declared to be a separate language; Old Church Slavonic was equated with ‘Old Macedonian’; and a whole generation was educated according to the ‘Great Idea’ of a Slav Macedonia stretching back for centuries. (pp. 134-135)

Whether Greece concerned itself with what was happening in Yugoslavia and its revisionist attempts to re-write history and to effectively create an identity for a segment of its population residing in the geographical space of the autonomous Republic of Macedonia is questionable. Perhaps it never envisaged the break-up of Yugoslavia. Perhaps it did not feel any imminent threat of south-bound adventurism to occupy or lay claim to the Greek administrative region of Macedonia. Perhaps it knew it could not change this fait accompli, or perhaps after World War II, Greece was too preoccupied with its own Civil War and other more existential threats to focus its attention on this matter. Whatever the reason, by the time 1991 came around, there was no turning back the clock – the Macedonians of FYROM were a recognized reality. It is this reality that vexed Greece. FYROM was perceives as an existential threat, with its 1991 Constitution containing language endangering Greece’s sovereignty.

I have already commented on Article 3 of the Constitution in the earlier post. It has language, which the Greeks perceived to be the first step by its northern neighbor of territorial ambitions over parts of Greece. Article 3 seemed to suggest the possibility of expanding the borders. But there was another provision that seemed impermissibly intrusive to the internal affairs of Greece, leading to the possibility of this upstart state to agitate and stoke fear or even violence within Greece. Article 49 read: “The Republic shall safeguard the status and rights of citizens of neighboring countries who are of Macedonian origin and of Macedonian expatriates, shall assist their cultural development and shall promote relations with them.” To those unfamiliar with the region, this language may seem innocuous. However, to fully appreciate the alarming nature of Article 49 – which, no doubt, was carefully drafted well-knowing the reaction it would cause from Greece – it is important to factor in other actions by this new state.

By adopting symbols that the Greeks identified as theirs since antiquity and by teaching in their textbooks (with maps) that part of Greece’s terrain (historically) belonged to The Republic of Macedonia, Greece could not but conclude that this new northern state, calling itself “Macedonia,” posed a clear and present danger. When considering that a war was raging in parts of Yugoslavia – principally over historical proprietorship of terrain that was (or believed to have been) taken away from one national group or another with the artificial drawing of the administrative borders of the republics within Yugoslavia – and, as I noted, Greece’s painful experiences of northern invasions, its struggle to regain Greek territory lost during the 400-year Ottoman occupation, not to mention the importance of all that is considered “ancient Greek” to the psyche and national identity of the Greeks, Greece’s reaction to what The Republic of Macedonia appeared to be up to was (and remains) justifiably perceived – even if unwarranted.

It is against this backdrop that Greece decided to frustrate and hopefully reverse this imminent threat to its sovereignty, its security, and its national heritage and identity. To dismiss these fears is to deny reality as perceived by the Greeks. And to do so is to also fail to grasp the essentials of the ongoing discontent between Greece and FYROM, and why finding an accommodation to their difference has been long in the making.

Greece’s first action was to oppose The Republic of Macedonia’s entry to the UN. This did not get them far. By 1993 the war in parts of Yugoslavia (now independent states) was at its peak with no end in sight. The UN was already engaged in bringing the warring parties to come to peace through the Steering Committee of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia (ICFY), co-chaired by Mr. Cyrus R. Vance and Lord David Owen, and as of 1 May 1993 by Thorvald Stoltenberg, replacing Vance. So, the Macedonian question neatly fit into the mix of one of the many pesky issues to resolve resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Based on UN Security Council’s Resolution 817 (7 April 1993), The Republic of Macedonia was admitted to UN membership “being provisionally referred to for all purposes within the United Nations under the provisional designation ‘the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ pending settlement of the difference that has risen over the name of the State.” The parties (Greece and FYROM) were urged to continue to cooperate with the Co-Chairmen of the Steering Committee of the ICFY to “arrive at a speedy settlement of their difference;” a matter that was re-urged a few months later in Resolution 845 (18 June 1993).

A close look at the Resolution reveals that save for the UN (and naturally, Greece), The Republic of Macedonia continued the use of this name as its official name. As tensions mounted while the negotiations stalled, Greece imposed a unilateral embargo on FYROM, prompting the European Commission to institute proceedings against Greece. The long and short of it is that Advocate General Francis Jacobs in his 6 April 1995 Opinion in Commission v. Greece (Case C-120/94) found that Greece was justified in invoking Article 224 of the Treaty establishing the European Community as the basis for imposing a unilateral trade embargo with FYROM on the ground that Greece was countering what it believed to be serious international tension between Greece and FYROM constituting a threat of war. (para. 60).

To appreciate this conclusion, and how its basis (findings and reasoning) continues to be relevant to the many Greeks who outright reject any compromise on the use of the name “Macedonia,” however qualified, it is worth quoting extensively how Advocate General Jacobs summed up Greece’s concerns over what it perceived its northern neighbor was up to:

57. I stress once again that it is not necessary to pronounce on the rights and wrongs of the dispute between Greece and FYROM or to take sides on the issue of who is entitled to the name “Macedonia” and the Macedonian symbols. But it is necessary to look at matters from the Greek perspective for the reasons given above. Greece’s position is, as I understand it, that FYROM, as a newly created independent State characterized by great ethnic diversity, is attempting to foster a sense of national identity, in order to weld together its heterogeneous population, by cultivating among its citizens a Macedonian consciousness and instilling into them a belief that they are the heirs to the ancient kingdom of Philip and Alexander. Greece regards that, rightly or wrongly, as the theft of a part of Greece’s own national identity. Moreover, Greece points to the use of text books in schools showing maps of Macedonia which include, in addition to the present territory of FYROM, the Pirin district of Bulgaria and a portion of Greek territory stretching as far south as Thessaloniki and Mount Olympus. Greece’s apparent long-term fear is described in a pamphlet entitled “Macedonia: more than a difference over a name,” which was issued by the Greek Secretariat General for Press and Information in April 1994 (Annex 1a to the defence, at pp. 11 and 12): “… a new generation is being educated in FYROM believing that territories belonging that territories belonging to neighbouring countries from part of their ‘fatherland’ and have been unjustly detached from it. Accordingly, it is not difficult to presume that the new generation – and the generations to come – will nurture feelings of aggressiveness, vindictiveness and revanchism towards ‘usurping’ neighbours.”

58. It may be that Greece’s fears are entirely unfounded, as indeed the Commission infers from, amongst other things, the fact that the Constitution of FYROM, in its amended version, allows FYROM’s frontiers to be altered only in accordance with the principle of good will and the generally recognized rules of international law. But what matters is not so much that Greece’s fears may be unfounded but rather that those fears appear to be genuinely and firmly held by the Greek Government and, it would appear, by the bulk of the Greek people. Where a government and a people are fervently convinced that a foreign State is usurping a part of their cultural patrimony and has long-term designs on a part of their national territory, it would be difficult to say that war is such an unlikely hypothesis that the threat of war can be excluded altogether. If such matters were to be judged exclusively by what external observers regarded as reasonable behaviours, wars might never occur. It is often, however, the subjective assessment of the parties to the dispute which is decisive.

Shortly after Jacobs issued his opinion in Commission v. Greece, the case was discontinued and the embargo ended when Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Cyrus R. Vance, managed to get Greece and FYROM to sign the Interim Accord on 13 September 1995. In no small measure, the Agreement signed on 17 June 2018 at Prespes Lake is the result of the on-again, off-again negotiations related to and inspired by the Interim Accord. Though the Macedonian question is far from resolved, if there ever was a time for a mutually acceptable final agreement to be reached, it is now. Serendipitously, on both sides of the border the political leadership is willing to take a pragmatic long-term view of the respective and mutual interest and to make necessary compromises.

Why did it take 23 years to get to where we are today? In my view, the answers, in part, lie in some of the terms of the Interim Accord and the lack of genuine efforts on both sides to follow through on their respective commitments in good faith and alacrity.

The Interim Accord was sufficiently comprehensive and clear as a way forward, but if it were to bear fruit, both states would need to find solutions to emotionally charged issues that would be acceptable to their respective citizens. With mistrust, and a lack of bold political leadership, and with the Interim Accord leaving it up to the parties to find the solutions, and considering the ongoing events in the region (and later Greece’s economic woes), it was inevitable that the Interim Accord would merely serve as a stop-gap in ensuring no more than the status quo.

Here are some of the issues which, in my opinion, the Interim Accord left unresolved or insufficiently provided mechanisms – other than the good will of the parties – for tackling some of the peskier matters of discontent. For instance, Article 6 called for amending Articles 3 and 49 of FYROM’s Constitution. These amendments seemed sound but considering the lack of trust between Greece and FYROM, and the lack of effort by FYROM to act on other provisions of the Interim Accord, Greece, rightly or wrongly, was left with little confidence that the constitutional amendments went far enough to eliminate the perceived threat to its borders and internal affairs. Also, from Greece’s perspective, FYROM was not making serious efforts to comply with Article 7 of the Interim Accord, which dealt with prohibiting hostile activities or state-sponsored propaganda and the use of symbols constituting part of Greece’s historic and cultural patrimony.

At the heart of it all was Article 5, calling upon Greece and FYROM to continue negotiating in good faith pursuant to UN Security Council resolutions 845 (1993) and 817 (1993). While it expected the parties to take practical measures “dealing with the matter of documents, to carry out normal trade and commerce between them in a manner consistent with their respective positions in regard to the name of [FYROM],” there were no provisions on how and when the dispute over the name would be resolved.

As time went by, there was no real progress in resolving the name issue, in correcting the textbooks to reflect what Greece perceived to be a more accurate rendition of historical facts, to cease using symbols associated with Greece’s patrimony, etc. To the Greeks, it seemed that FYROM was playing for time; the longer it became known and recognized as “The Republic of Macedonia,” the harder it would become to jettison Macedonia from its name.

Rightly or wrongly, Greece blamed FYROM. It also knew that it had a trump card even if under Article 11 of the Interim Accord Greece had agreed “not to object to the application by or the membership of [FYROM] in international, multilateral and regional organizations and institutions of which [Greece] is a member.” As FYROM would come to realize that it was in its national security and economic interests to join NATO and gain entry into the European Union (EU), so would Greece come to realize that it had blocking leverage (as a NATO and EU member) in coaxing FYROM to an accommodation to their disputes. When an accommodation to Greece’s liking was unforthcoming, it opposed FYROM’s accession to NATO in 2008, resulting in a 2011 International Court of Justice (ICJ) judgment, which found Greece in breach of its obligations under the Interim Accord, by a vote of 15 to one.

With Greece’s opposition to FYROM joining NATO, relations hardened. About this time, the then-FYROM government went on a spending spree, erecting statues and monuments, much of it intended to create or reaffirm the Macedonian consciousness through a historical narrative imbued in antiquity – being the heirs to the ancient kingdom of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great. In the eyes of the Greeks, this was further provocation, reaffirming their strongly-held beliefs that its northern neighbor was intent on robbing Greece of its heritage and national identity.

The counter-arguments by FYROM are equally compelling. From FYROM’s perspective, Greece was obdurate and insensitive, insisting on improbable concessions and demands that even if agreed to by the government, would not be accepted by the citizens of FYROM, especially the Macedonians. It is not entirely unjustified to conclude that Greece was effectively demanding terms that called for an entire nation to wake up one morning with a new national identity, a new name, a new (and less splendid) history, calling themselves something they have no affiliation with or appreciation of, and so on. What politician, what government, what nation could seriously undertake such drastic, indeed, subversive measures, without feeling the wrath of its people? Greece’s response that it is your problem to solve – so just solve it in a way that wipes out all that you claim is Macedonia or Macedonian, bluntly put, was not only absurd, but offensive.

And this brings us to where we are today with the signing of the Agreement on 17 June 2018.


In the next and last post in this series I will discuss the Agreement.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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