The New York Times
«MACEDONIA» FOR GREECE
by Leslie H. Geib
What's in a name? Ghosts or real historical demons. Perhaps war or peace. Nothing and everything.
The name in question is Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great and Aristotle. Some 1.9 million souls who used to constitute a republic within Yugoslavia now insist they must have that name for their newly independent state. Greece with its own province of Macedonia, says it will recognize the new state, with its capital of Skopje - but only if «Macedonia» appears nowhere in its name.
Athens deserves US support.
From the Balkan wars of 1913 to the Greek civil war of 1946 to 1949, when Greek and Macedonian Communists tried to unite the two Macedonias into Yugoslavia, tens of thousands have died over this obscure pinch of land. And over this issue today, Greece is united as it has rarely been throughout what Greeks here call their 2.500 years of democracy.
This history and situation would be quite unremarkable save for one very curious occurrence: Most West European nations and the U.S. are not supporting Greece in the matter. That fence-sitting is curious even mysterious, because the West has every incentive to back reform-minded Prime Minister Constantine Mitsotakis -
whose two-seat majority in Parliament surely will collapse unless he can bring the Macedonian issue to a successful conclusion.
The question of Western neutrality and even quiet opposition saturates newspapers, television and daily conversation in this low-slung, white city on the Aegean.
The conservative Mr. Mitsotakis is the most pro-American Greek leader in a very long time. He consummated a controversial naval base agreement with the U.S. He recognized Israel and got tough on terrorism. Surprisingly, he delivered Greek help for the war against Iraq. He has the full weight of the powerful Greek-American lobby behind him, a lobby with close ties to President Bush. Not least, the alternatives to Mr. Mitsotakis are the notoriously anti-American Socialists.
The 12-nation European Community, of which Greece is a member, also has strong reasons for helping Mr. Mitsotakis out. Greece has become the poorest E.C. nation, a basket case constantly in need of E.C. economic aid. And though E.C. leaders feel that this gentle Prime Minister has not gone far or fast enough in making reforms, they greatly prefer him to Andreas Papandreou, his old and bitter Socialist rival.
Mr. Mitsotakis does not have a good explanation for his plight either. «Perhaps Greece didn't provide enough historical in formation soon enough to the West» before their positions were staked Out, he said iii an interview in his office, sitting behind his desk flanked by the Greek and E.C. flags with tables adorned by proud pictures of his extensive family.
He recalled that months ago he offered compromise names like Slav-Macedonia, only to be rebuffed by Skopje and Greek politicians and ignored by the West. Pressed for further explanations, he responded: I would prefer not to explain».
In the Balkans, answers are always elusive. Perhaps the West does not like the friendly relationship between Mr. Mitsotakis and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Though the Greek fully supports E.C. sanctions against Serbia. Perhaps the West fears the two will divide Yugo-Macedonia between them. Though it is now known that Mr. Mitsotakis rejected just such a Milosevic offer. Perhaps the West thinks of Skopje as a democracy. Though it is run by a bunch of Communists who still look to Serbia. Perhaps the West reckons that independence for Skopje can work only if it has the name Macedonia. Though these «Macedonians» are mostly Slavs, and though Macedonia is largely a geographical expression and not a tribal reality. Perhaps Britain and Turkey are secretly conspiring against Greece, as many Greeks darkly suggest.
Or maybe the explanation for Western neutrality is tragically simple - Greece no longer counts. Once at the center of Western civilization, it now seems a backwater.
But such a judgment would be shortsighted. Greece is the one true democracy in the Balkans. And it is led by a man trying to rid the Greek economy of bureaucratic Socialism and who is also working with Turkey toward a solution of the long-festering Cyprus problem. These are not prospects to throw away over a name. Let the West tell Skopje to be «Skopje», and let <<Macedonia>> be Greek.