The European Press

In the Name of Macedonia

Le Monde


(Leaders in Skopje.. Greeks and Bulgarians all disagree on the historical and geographical credentials of a Republic transformed once more into an apple of discord by the disintegration of Yugoslavia)  

by: Didier Kunz

A passageway and a meeting place right in the heart of the Balkans coveted for centuries by Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and Turks, Macedonia has been at the root of numerous conflicts. She is once more the focus of dissension in the midst of a Yugoslav crisis whose end is not in view.

The disintegration of communism and of the Yugoslav Federation has challenged the fragile balance achieved by marshal Ti-to who in 1945 created Macedonia as a buffer state so as to limit Serbia's power from the south.

The new Republic which contains Serbs, Albanians, Turks, Romanies and Bulgarians has a population of two million and occupies 39% of the geographical area going by the name of Macedonia. The rest of this area belongs to Greece (51%), to Bulgaria (9%) and to Albania (1%).

Greeks distinguish sharply the «geographical~ from the «historical» Macedonia of Philip the II anterior to the conquests of his son Alexander the Great (4th century BC). This historical Macedonia corresponds to the actual Greek province by that name except for a narrow land strip of some dozens of kilometers beyond Greece's northern borders within present day Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.

Movements of population

At the start of the seventh century Macedonia is overrun by Slavs who are successively christianized and hellenised by the Byzantines (end of eighth, beginning of the ninth centuries).

By the end of the ninth century the Bulgars completely dominate the region while Ochrid (close to the actual frontiers of Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece) becomes the center of Tzar Samuel's (997-1O~4) empire. Bulgars and Byzantines fight bitterly for the control of the region. The emperor of the Serbs Dusan takes over Macedonia in 1345 just before the ottoman conquest is completed in the 15th century.

Macedonia will remain under the ottoman yoke until 1913, when she is liberated after the two balkan wars. After the Turks' departure Serbs, Bulgars and Greeks tear themselves apart over the region. The treaty of Bucarest (~O 10th of August 1913) draws the borders of the Balkan countries in Macedonia. Greece obtains 51%, Serbia 38% and Bulgaria 9%.

This sharing out entails numerous and painful population displacements. From 1913 to 1925 tens of thousands of Bulgars leave Greek Macedonia. According to a report drawn up by the League of Nations in 1926, - as quoted by the Greeks - Greek Macedonia had achieved by then a high degree of homogeneity with 89% of its population being Greeks and no more than 5% Bulgars.

Throughout the 19th century a time of nationalist effervescence in the area, Serbs and Bulgars promote conflicting claims by invoking past glories of emperor Dusan, the ones, of Tzar Samuel, the others. By the end of the century a perceived national identity of Slavs in Macedonia begins to emerge. Bulgar intellectuals establish the «International Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) which will breed the notorious «komitadjis» whose terrorist activities will be described in 1931 by Albert Londres.

On the 6th of August 1903, nameday of St. Elias an uprising, organized by IMRO, breaks out is the town of Krusevo: it will be drowned in blood. The insurgents will, however, have had the opportunity to establish the ephemeral Republic of Krusevo, considered by the actual leaders of Skopje as the forerunner of their state and mentioned in their Constitution adopted last November.

Greco-Bulgarian rivalry over Macedonia explodes in 1870 with the establishment of the autonomous Bulgarian church (exarchate). The Greeks, worried that they might lose Macedonia launch in 1904 the «Macedonian Struggle» which was an armed struggle and lasted four years. Fighting was interrupted in 1908 by the revolution of the Young Turks who grant a general armistice and promise equal rights to all ethnic communities.

During the second world war Bulgaria, allied to the Axis powers first occupies almost the entire area of Yugoslav Macedonia and then the eastern party of Greek Macedonia practicing a policy of «bulgarisation». Tito, on his part, lays the foundations of the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In recognizing as «Macedonians» the Slav inhabitants of Yugoslav Macedonia

«he neutralized, or hoped to neutralize the bond between this population and the Bulgars» observes a Greek expert on the matter. While the civil war (1946-~949) creates havoc in Greece, the Yugoslavs manage by the agreement of Bled in 1947 to snatch for themselves the Bulgarian Macedonia of «Pirin» so-called. According to the Komintern's plans Greek Macedonia would, after the civil war, become part of a «united and independent Macedonia» to be incorporated either in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or in the wider «Communist Balkan Federation».

The Tito - Stalin rift

In 1948 the break between Tito and Stalin upsets Belgrade's plans and challenges its hegemony in the Balkans. Bulgaria in line with Moscow, disowns the Yugoslav theory of a «macedonian nation» and simply renames all «Macedonians» «Bulgars».

The cold war and the spread of communist power froze attitudes so that with the passage of the years the macedonian question lost some of its virulence but not its potential for conflict. Passions were at times stired by Moscow whenever the Soviets wanted to cut the Belgrade authorities down to size.

In the new Yugoslav Republic a «macedonian consciousness» starts to emerge with the creation of a written language (a mixture of Serbian and Bulgarian), of the autocephalous Church of Macedonia in 1967 (unrecognized by the Serbian partiarchate and the other orthodox Churches), and of a «macedonian history».

The «macedonisation» of a large part of bulgarian and greek history and cultural heritage, provokes continuous disputes between Sofia and Athens on the one hand and Skopje on the other. A number of «macedonian» nationalists aspire to create a «Greater Macedonia» which would encompass part of Bulgaria, of Albania and of Greek Macedonia or so-called «Aegean Macedonia».

There is tension between Yugoslavia and Bulgaria because Sofia insists that the slavomacedonians are really Bulgars. In doing this, Sofia heightens Yugoslav fears that given a chance Bulgars will try - as they have done in the past - to annex Macedonia.

«Usurping» the name of Macedonia - as the Skopjans did - is «intolerable» in Greek eyes. Macedonia is part of a cultural heritage which Athens refuses to auction off. This matter is «non-negotiable» as Mr. Antonis Samaras, the Greek foreign minister, explained to his EC partners(...) if a politician accepted to compromise on this point he would commit «political suicide» according to responsible people in Athens, thereby indicating that internal political considerations play a non-negligible part in shaping the attitude of Greece.

«Nationalist designs»

According to Mr. Mitsotakis government the region is «volcanic» and Macedonia risks once again to «erupt». The Constitution adopted in November by Skopje and amended in December functions as a «destabilizing factor in the Balkans» and paves the way for a «Greater Bulgaria» in Greek eyes.

Greek officials quote as supporting evidence the «nationalist designs» of the VMRO some of whose leaders conjure up the notion of a «larger Macedonia» with Thessalonica as its macedonian port on the Aegean.

The Greeks have notified their European partners that they would do their utmost. including the use of their veto, to stop Yugoslav Macedonia from being recognized as long as she continues to use «the historical Greek name»...

Last December the 16th, during a meeting of the Twelve who set conditions for the recognition of Yugoslav Republic, Athens obtained a paragraph which asked of the Republic of Macedonia - without quoting it by name - to commit itself to «adopt constitutional and political guarantees to the effect that it had no territorial claims against a neighboring country member of the EC, and that it would take no propaganda action against this state, including the use of a name implying territorial claims». 

Leaders in Skopje have since made numerous appeasing statements, repeating often that they had «no territorial claims». They have also amended their Constitution. Not enough, say the Greeks who continue to oppose recognition because of «important issues yet to be resolved».

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