Cutting the Gordian Knot: Settling the “Macedonian” question – Part 1

Part 1 – Macedonia here (and there)


Inhabit the brain with telltale imagery…
For metal breeds in dark places.
So, thenceforth, journey through bright brilliant skies…
Clouds laced intricately in a macramé.
And worry not of planets falling like maces.
Look unto your wild, lynx-eyed lover
And beckon forth the lyricist in the clouds.
Let him play lute or madder flute…
Onward to Macedonia.

Tyler Mason  

As the airplane landed at the airport in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, in the northern Greek administrative region of Macedonia, the pilot announced emphatically, εδώ Μακεδονία, εδώ Μακεδονία! (Macedonia here, Macedonia here). To the Greeks on board, it was obvious that he was not referring to the airport, also called “Macedonia.” It was more of a declaration to all passengers of any origin that we had landed in Macedonia – the one and only Macedonia located in Greece (and nowhere else).

This was a few years ago. I remember thinking how jingoistic it was. Was it necessary? To many Greeks, especially the northern Greeks, placing such an emphasis on the name and location of Macedonia for all to know was an essential reaffirmation of their control and ownership of all that is Macedonian – not just land title, but exclusive copyrights over the name “Macedonia,” and proprietary rights over all historical and cultural truths associated with Macedonia as far back as Ancient Greece. How dare its northern neighbor expropriate the name, the heritage of Alexander the Great, his symbol of the Sun of Vergina which adorned their flag, call themselves Macedonians and their Slavic-based language Macedonian, and lay historical claim to a good chunk of modern Greece as far as Thessaly, the central region of Greece?

Many point to the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia or, as it was known, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) – renamed “the Republic of North Macedonia” under the Agreement signed on 17 June 2018 at Prespes Lake (which remains to be ratified). While it affirms the inviolability of its borders, to the Greeks, Article 3 of the Constitution suggests southward-bound territorial ambitions: “The existing borders of the Republic of Macedonia are inviolable. The borders of the Republic of Macedonia may be changed only in accordance with the Constitution.” (Emphasis added). Since the school books used across North Macedonia claim parts of Greece as historically theirs, not to mention the numerous invasions by or attempts of Greece’s northern neighbors (particularly Bulgaria) from the Byzantium times up to the 20th-century Balkan Wars to occupy and control Northern Greece (including Thessaloniki, pearl of the Mediterranean), how else to interpret Article 3? Where else or in which direction could North Macedonia’s borders change? Suspicions run high – as do conspiratorial theories in this wonderfully diverse and culturally rich part of the world. (For a fascinating read that touches on the diversity of the folks inhabiting parts of Northern Greece, see Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, John Murray, 2004.)

I had been to North Macedonia on several occasions for legal reform projects. I found the people there (Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Romanies, and other nationalities) warm, hospitable, generous, and self-deprecatingly humorous. Some Macedonians did let me know – lamentably, though resigned to the existing realities – that their historical roots and borders were far-reaching into Greece. This neither surprised nor concerned me. Myths and dreams. Ask any Greek where Greece’s borders ought to be and he or she will likely tell you that they should include part of Albania, most of (if not all) North Macedonia, part of Bulgaria, and most of the Turkish coast (commonly referred to by the Greeks as Asia Minor), including Constantinople. Though writing about the time when Greece was liberating itself from the Ottomans, Michael Llewellyn Smith’s words continue to (and perhaps forever will) resonate in the soul of most Greeks (including yours truly) – even if mere wishful thinking:

These were the feverish outward-looking years of the new kingdom, the years of the ‘Great Idea’ of a revived Greek empire, a Byzantium rising in new splendour across the dolphin-torn Aegean sea. For the dreamers in their studies lined with the ancient Greek classics, the politicians on the rostrum developing a nationalist rhetoric to encompass the new horizons which opened up before the nation, the chatterers in pavement cafés, there were few limits to what in an ideal world would be Greek. Crete, Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, the Aegean islands, these were patently areas of Hellenism. Farther off were Cyprus, the Dodecanese, the Ionian coastlands of Asia Minor, even Pontus on the Black Sea.1   Michael Llewellyn Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922 1 (Hurst & Company 2009).

Every Balkan country has maps of their greater this or that. So what? Between Greece and North Macedonia, I am unaware of any acts of aggression by either side to occupy or annex any land beyond their existing internationally-recognized borders. Nor, for example, is Greece handing out passports in North Macedonia to Greeks and others who may be associated with Greek minorities so as to inflate the population of Greeks residing in North Macedonia and empower them with greater minority rights (something that is claimed to be done by Bulgaria, which also asserts historical proprietorship over parts of North Macedonia, including the historic and picturesque city of Ohrid, which, at the risk of sounding proprietary, also dates to the time of Ancient Greece).

Many of my friends and acquaintances in Northern Greece routinely go to North Macedonia for medical treatment, eye care, dental care, shopping, and weekend outings. All rave about how nice the people are and how inexpensive, convenient, and safe it is to go to places like Bitola, known to the Greeks as Monastíri (Μοναστήρι – also meaning “monastery”) – a city founded in the 4th century AD by Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. So why all the fuss?

For those who are not from the Balkans, it may seem trivial, romantic, irrational, or absurd to have historical longings, claims, or fears of neighborly invasions for territorial gains. But these aspirations and fears are not entirely without perceived (embedded) justifications. I still recall my grade school teacher lecturing us with pride on how Byzantine Emperor Basil II (976-1025), also known as the “Slayer of the Bulgars,” captured some 15,000 invading Bulgarian soldiers, blinding 99 of every 100 men, leaving one one-eyed man in each 100-soldier cohort to lead the rest back to Bulgaria. It may sound grotesque, but I still recall how all of us in the classroom were impressed by the tactic used by Basil II in (mercifully) warning his northern nemesis, Samuel of Bulgaria, to cease and desist lest worse consequences befall him and his kingdom.

Respective views of historical truths (part fact and part fancy), mixed with a potent dose of nationalism and irredentism formed in the classrooms and described in school textbooks, have far-reaching influences into the national psyche of a people who have endured, as the Greeks have, centuries of occupation and suffering at the hands of the Ottomans, only to regain their independence in a much-truncated land with borders shaped or negotiated away by outside powers and influences. Not that the Greeks are blameless for some of their fate in this vein – as their 1919-1922 adventurism into Ionia (the central part of the western coast of Anatolia in present-day Turkey) disastrously proved. Hellenism was whipped out of Ionia, leading to a mass exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece (legalized ethnic cleansing) based on the 1923 Lausanne Convention.

Indoctrination in the form of fear-mongering and neighbor-demonization takes shape from the first grade and onwards. Historical victories are rarely celebrated with the same fervor as heroic defeats. You see this not just in the school texts but in the reenactment in school plays and recitals of poetry during national holidays. Of course, it would be tragic to the national identity of a people to abandon the memories of events which shaped their history and preserved their culture, their language, and their heritage. Aside from resisting the siren calls of revisionism, ought there not be acceptable limits balanced with an accurate depiction of historical events that account for what took place and how all behaved, however good or bad or inconveniently unpleasant? Perhaps greater focus should be placed on the positive aspects of their neighbors, including their current relations, their shared values, the economic ties, and the benefits of cultural exchanges, but the past – narrated through contextually nuanced and, whenever possible, unassailable historical facts and truths (though rarely are such things universally accepted), cannot and should not be forgotten or minimized. To this end, good neighborly relations that embrace cultural exchanges and sincere efforts to bridge historical divides and narratives can pay dividends – even when agreeing to disagree on past events and present differences.

From my personal experiences, in none of my conversations in Greece (and I do spend considerable time there, especially in the town of Grevena, which is as (Greek) Macedonian as can be) have I ever heard a bad word spoken about the “Skopjanie,” as the Macedonian northern neighbors are referred to in Greece (meaning “those who reside in Skopje,” as if Skopje is the name of the entire country).

I sense no animus by the Greeks towards the Macedonians. Truth be told, Greece is a holiday destination for the Macedonians, who are welcomed by the Greeks with open arms. And it is not because tourism brings financial benefits, but because of their shared values, shared religion, and yes, dare I say, their shared culture.

Undeniably, however, many Greeks feel significant resentment – not at the Macedonians, but towards their state (and their political elite) for laying claim to the ancient Greek heritage: calling their country Macedonia, which, to them, did not exist as such prior to 1945 (an argument that is not without traction), and for whom, according to Bulgarians (rightly or wrongly), the Macedonians speak Bulgarian – there being no such thing as Macedonian (much as some Serbs argue that there is no such language as Montenegrin, even if two letters were added in 2009 to its alphabet to give legitimacy to its uniqueness). To the Greeks, the name amounts to a claim. By calling their country “Macedonia,” citizens Macedonians, and the language, logically, Macedonian, to the Greeks this is but a veiled claim to the Macedonian region of Greece, including Thessaloniki, which they call Solon. Frankly, I find this argument unwarranted and overly conspiratorial, though I am mindful, appreciative, and respectful of these perceptions which are deep-rooted and visceral.

I can sympathize with my fellow Greeks who get all worked-up about their northern neighbors and who are taking to the streets to protest the Agreement that was recently reached by the Prime Ministers of Greece and North Macedonia. Many feel betrayed – a capitulation by the Greek government for no reason. Their argument, which I find disquieting, goes something like this: If the Skopjanie want entry to NATO and the EU, then why compromise on what is so near and dear to the Greek? Why give up any leverage? Let the Skopjanie call themselves, their language, and their country whatever they want, so long as the word “Macedonia” – in any of its forms – is forever abandoned. And ditto for any claims to Alexander the Great and any of his symbols such as the Sun of Vergina. And while they are at it, the statues of Alexander the Great, his father Phillip II, and others should also be removed from Skopje and elsewhere.   

I can also sympathize with the Macedonians/citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia. For all intents and purposes, the world over, they are recognized as Macedonians from the Republic of Macedonia. Their argument goes something like this: Who are the Greeks to tell us who we are and what we should call ourselves or our language or our country? Who are the Greeks to tell us what our heritage is, or to call for the removal of statues and symbols? Over the course of the last decade or so, millions and millions of Euros have been spent sprucing up Skopje with baroque-style fake facades to give the center of this city, the capital of this proud nation, a cross between a neo-classical and Austrian-Hungarian look. Bridges were built to place hundreds of kitsch statues of our historical figures, artists, poets, scientists, and our most revered sons and daughters, who have contributed to our civilization. Ok, maybe this quant city with its old Turkish quarters has been turned into a tasteless Las Vegas or Disneyland (characterizations I have frequently heard from Skopje residents), but that should be of no concern to outsiders. Our land, our sovereignty, and our destiny are ours to do as we wish. And how fair and just is it to blackmail us into giving up the essence of who we are – in every sense of the meaning – just to gain entry into NATO and the EU – entry that is vital to our national interests in security and economic growth?

So-called experts on both sides are attacking the Agreement. It is not a perfect agreement. Overall and on balance, however, it offers realistic solutions. Good faith willing, if it is ratified (not a sure thing, as it presently appears) it will bear lasting fruit, fostering greater security and economic benefits for both countries and to the region. Painful compromises were made by both sides, with neither getting all it wanted, leaving both sides (its respective citizens) dissatisfied, even angry. But the alternative of another 27 years of bickering, useless provocations, and obstructionism is an option that neither side should welcome, let alone promote.

Suffice it to say, my views are with the many on both sides of the border who hope to see the Macedonian question resolved expeditiously, peacefully, and equitably. I would therefore be remiss were I not to say a few words about my own thoughts – thoughts which I have conveyed to my friends on both sides of the border over the years.

Macedonia, as a geographical region, covers part of Northern Greece, parts of North Macedonia and Bulgaria. Some may even argue, part of Albania. The borders are what they are and there is no going back. As for what people should call themselves or what their country or language should be called, that is a matter that cannot be imposed on them by others – whatever the reasons may be.

I would have preferred something more accurate for a name (if that is an appropriate way of putting it), such as “Slavo-Macedonia,” with the language called Slavo-Macedonian and the citizens of Macedonian ethnicity, Slavo-Macedonians. I know many Greeks find this more palatable, almost acceptable. But I also realize that this may be unacceptable to some of North Macedonia’s other citizens, in particular the Albanians, who constitute approximately 30% of the population and have equal claims to all the rights and privileges as citizens of that state, and who may find the name “Slavo-Macedonia” to exclude them as constituent peoples of North Macedonia.

I can only assume that there were good reasons for not opting to adopt “Slavo-Macedonia.” But that is beside the point. To re-emphasize, how people identify themselves, their country, and their language is a matter for them to decide, for they are the exclusive beneficiaries of the nomenclatures that express their denomination, their identity. Which is why I believe the current Greek government has – and I think the Agreement bears this out – left these matters to be solved by the Macedonians.

Some on both sides will argue that the Agreement places intolerable and irrational demands on its citizens, causing catastrophic damage (hyperbolic expressions are at an all-time high) to their national identity and heritage. Bitter as some of the terms of the Agreement may be to some, my view is that the compromises imposed on both sides, on balance, are fair and lead to a win-win result – even if not readily apparent.

In the next post I will discuss the historical background leading to the Agreement, thus setting up the final post which will deal with the Agreement.

About Author



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.

3 thoughts on “Cutting the Gordian Knot: Settling the “Macedonian” question – Part 1”

  1. You are obviously biased towards greek side but nevertheless, our country’s official name is Republic of Macedonia, Macedonia for short. Don’t spead fog around by using other names for it. Second, it is basic human right to self declare how one feel and the same goes for the name of country, UN charter is very clear about what is needed to become a members state of UN. Republic of Macedonia fulfills everything and again it is not accepted by it’s constitutional name which is violation of the very UN charter by the very UN. This problem should of not existed if UN mind their own charter and work accordingly.

    1. Thank you Mr. Cvetkovski for you comment.

      Funny, some of my fellow Greeks accuse me of being obviously biased towards FYROM. I suggest you carefully read the next two parts of this series of posts (part 2 and part 3) before drawing conclusions.

      I agree that FYROM has the right to call itself, its citizens, and its language as it pleases. I never stated otherwise. But I also agree that Greece has the right to block FYROM’S entry to NATO and the EU – especially if it perceives that FYROM possess a threat to its security (see, especially, part 2).

      For the past 27 years both states have been exercising their rights. The question is whether they should move on for their mutual benefit with this or some other agreement (though I think this is as good as it will ever get) or maintain the status quo (see part 3). Either way works for me. Ultimately, it will be up to the citizens in both states to decide their destiny.



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