Macedonia and Greece live up to Balkan stereotype June 27, 2010Posted by Yilan in Macedonia, Yunanistan.
Tags: Alexander the great, Balkan, Greece, Ivo Petkovski, Macedonia
The Greek and Macedonian governments are absurdly mired in backward-looking defensiveness over their country’s identities
The latest instalment in this 19-year-old tale of woe unfolded last week, when, despite pressure from various MEPs, the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, and his Macedonian counterpart, Nikola Gruevski, failed to reach an agreement ahead of a European Council meeting on the 17 June. The likely result, predictably, will be another Greek veto of the motion to provide Macedonia with a date to begin EU accession talks. Some insiders claim that a mutually acceptable agreement on the name now seems more distant than ever.
Accession to the EU would be an immeasurable help to Macedonia – aside from the sorely needed economic benefits – governing parties would be forced to comply with EU standards in dealing with the sizeable Albanian minority and the long-oppressed Roma population. It would also put an end to the maddening uncertainty over Macedonia’s official legitimacy as a state, which will, in turn, hopefully quell some of the ultra-nationalistic sentiment that occasionally erupts. It would also be a big step forward in establishing stability in the wider Balkan region.
Greek concerns over Macedonian expansionist ambitions – over the region of northern Greece also known as Macedonia – are an obvious red herring. Even if we put aside the fact that the tiny Macedonian army could barely make Athens flinch, there is no conceivable future where Macedonia could garner international support to invade an EU member state. Fears over irredentism are a diversionary tactic – the argument here is really about history and symbolism.
In 2003, David Cameron and I both paid a visit to Skopje to attend an England v Macedonia football match (separately, I’ll hasten to add), and unlike me, he wrote a piece in the Guardian about it on his return. In it, he recalls being asked by unnamed Macedonians: “What will you do to help us?”. His answer was ready: “From now on I will call our esteemed EU partner “the former Ottoman possession of Greece (Fopog).”
Of course he won’t do that, and he’ll be hoping that the Greek government never read his flippant remark. However, Cameron does put his finger on something quite significant with that statement. The “Greek pettiness” that Cameron disapprovingly notes stems from a deep insecurity over Greece’s 400-year subjugation by the Ottomans, during which time, Greece, like the rest of the Ottoman lands, was generally referred to in the west as “Turkey in Europe”. When Greece won its independence in the 19th century, there was a concerted effort to reconnect the new Greek identity with the fabled Greece of antiquity.
This insecurity over heritage initially drove Greek opposition to Macedonia’s constitutional name – now it’s a bitter slog to wrestle at least some face-saving concessions from the whole mess, as the key argument was lost years ago. Whichever way it plays out, Macedonia will not only feature in the republic’s name, but it will be the key signifier. That’s exactly what Greece wanted to avoid, but they found their position became unsustainable back in 1995 – now the argument centres on whether a compromise name, such as the Republic of Northern Macedonia, if agreed, would have to be used by everyone or just by those states who are yet to recognise Macedonia’s constitutional name – 39% of Nato members.
For its part, Macedonia, under the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE government, have embarked on a misguided project of “antiquisation”, or the deliberate appropriation of ancient Macedonian figures and symbols as the foundation of the modern Macedonian identity. To this end, Skopje’s Petrovec airport was renamed Alexander the Great airport in 2006. A plan has long been mooted to build a 40m Alexander statue in Skopje’s main public square, which would be a disaster in both aesthetic and diplomatic terms.
Like Greece, Macedonia’s frantic embrace of all things classical is driven by defensiveness over their identity. Unlike Greece, VMRO doesn’t have the nous to realise how absurd all this looks to international observers, so they haven’t thought up a fig leaf for their irrational hysteria – like the “irredentism concerns” Athens uses. Each new Alexander statue in Skopje or Prilep sends faces into palms in Brussels, and makes a resolution to the dispute that bit more unreachable. Realistically, Macedonia doesn’t need any antiquisation. The main argument has been won, and conceding “northern Macedonia” is a small price to pay to move forward.
The Macedonians of antiquity were Greek in the same sense that the Caesars were Italian – sort of, but not really. Alexander was in fact Macedonian, in a sense of that word that’s long dead. He has as much continuity with Papandreou and Gruevski as Cameron has with whoever built Stonehenge. Greece and Macedonia both need to break out of the Balkan stereotype – history should be left to historians, and current realities to politicians.
Article by: Ivo Petkovski