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On the eve of the explosive consequences of Kosovo’s independence, an artificial “dispute,” created by Greece seventeen years ago over the name and identity of the Republic of Macedonia, threatens to further destabilize the Balkans, with possibly uncontrolled consequences for regional peace. Incredibly, far off Latin America may help diffuse this situation and offer a solution.
Greece falsely accuses Macedonia that the latter is engaged in irredentism and hostile propaganda — not to mention Greece’s preposterous claim that Macedonia does not have the right to its own name and to its historical, ethnic, and religious identity. Demonstrably, Greece’s moves are suspect: Macedonia historically and culturally did transcend the country’s current borders. In 1912-13, through two brutal regional wars, Macedonia was forcefully partitioned among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. The Macedonians were subject to qualified genocide and many were driven from their land.
It is this reality that Greece tirelessly tries to cover up. Human Rights Watch, among other credible organizations, has documented the existence of on-going discrimination against the remaining Macedonians in Greece. In fact, until recently, Greece had legal provisions preventing exiled Macedonians from entering Greece in order to claim title of their family property. This context should help explain the “name dispute,” the endless Greek misinformation campaigns, the hostile posturing, and attempts to censor and trivialize Macedonian claims, but now via more refined methods involving international mechanisms, in the hope of gaining legitimacy via international sanctions of Macedonia.
Latin America and the Recognition of Macedonia
Greece’s campaign to wipe Macedonia from the map has been in effect for well over a century. In recent months, Greece has intensified its anti-Macedonian campaign in the United States and in the European Union, as well as in Latin America, at a time when Macedonia’s prospective stability is critically important as the country inches closer to European Union and NATO membership. Instead of its maliciously preventing Macedonia from establishing ties with Latin America, Greece should refrain from transferring its baseless European dispute to Latin America. Rather, it should take a leaf of history from recent Latin American successes at improving neighborly relations and area cooperation, such as the spate of local agreements now coming to life: Mercosur, CAN and Alba, to name a few.
Last year, for example, the name of Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez was brazenly invoked by the Greek propaganda machine against Macedonia. During a visit to the United States, one of Macedonia’s political leaders was surprised to be questioned by U.S. officials over whether he had earlier entered into secret meetings with Chávez. This was one of a number of rumors that was being maliciously spread by the powerful Greek lobby in the United States which, we are lead to believe, coordinates its activities with those of the Greek ambassador to the U.S., Alexandros Mallias. The Greek interest was clearly to injure Macedonia’s ties with the United States by exploiting current U.S.-Venezuela difficulties. Chávez, for his part, had been surprised to learn that there exists a descendant of Alexander the Great, referring to Srdjan Kerim, the former Macedonian foreign minister who recently assumed the Presidency of the UN General Assembly.
The Latin American Angle
A competition has thus been steadily developing for winning Latin America’s hearts and minds regarding the issue of the recognition of Macedonia. Faced with a concerted Greek effort to block Macedonia internationally, bilateral recognition has become the ticket for Macedonia’s survival. This is understandable: at a time when war was raging in the Balkans in the 1990s, Greece’s campaign against Macedonia included a three-year illegal embargo and an economic blockage of Macedonia, which was also directed against international institutions dealing with the country. As a result, factories in Macedonia were shut down; crops rotted in the fields; emigration of Macedonians in search of slightly better living standards accelerated. What is most troubling is that the bulk of the émigrés included the young and the educated along with complete households and families. Some of these destinations included, Canada, Australia, and some Latin American countries such as Argentina or the Dominican Republic. At the time, a former Macedonian minister, Jane Miljoski, summed up Greece’s actions against Macedonia: “murder without bullets.”
Yet, the murdering of Macedonia’s identity continues in every respect and has finally reached a new level of paranoia: recently, Greece labeled any use of Alexander the Great’s name by Macedonia as hostile propaganda. It has attempted to officially prohibit the singing of a song at sporting events that mentions Alexander the Great. Putting the bizarre proposition of censoring another country’s musical preferences aside, many Greeks seem unaware of, or oblivious to, the historical fact that it was the Macedonian forces of Alexander the Great, led by his father King Philip II of Macedon, that beat the entire Greek army at Chaeronea in 338 B.C. and conquered the modern Greeks’ ancestors. The battle of Chaeronea had established Macedonian hegemony over Greece in ancient times; Greeks did not regain their independence until 1827, that is, until 181 years ago.
Some Recent Balkan and Latin American History
Despite Greece’s obstruction of Macedonia’s diplomatic recognition, some countries like Peru, Paraguay, and Suriname have had the courage to recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name. Others, like Brazil or Argentina, have been more circumspect, but have nonetheless extended recognition and established diplomatic ties with the “Macedonian government.” Still others, such as Chile, have completely ignored the argument, perhaps driven by more profitable considerations. Chile has so completely fallen under Greek sway that it does not even want to even hear about recognizing Macedonia under its centuries-old name. All seems “fair” in this pathetic game of pandering for influence, and Chile’s example may be influenced by the existence of such flourishing institutions as the “Fotios Malleros” Centre of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Santiago, the only one of its kind in Latin America. Perhaps Macedonia too will have to build a Center for Ancient and Contemporary Macedonian History near La Moneda in downtown Santiago. Meanwhile, most of the world’s leading regional historians such as Dr. Eugene Borza of Pennsylvania State University or Dr. Ernst Badian of Harvard, agree that the ancient Macedonians of Alexander the Great — the ancestor’s of today’s Macedonians — were a distinct, non-Greek people, conscious and proud of their Macedonian ethnicity, customs, and their name.
Greek Presence in Latin America
The Macedonian presence in Latin America has been rather limited, given the relatively small number of diplomatic missions, exchanges of official visits, and limited trade and economic activity involving it. However, the Greek émigré communities in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, and Panama, like Greek enclaves elsewhere, are fired up and fanatically supporting the local manifestations of Greece’s discriminatory stand against Macedonia. Despite the great geographical distance that separates the Balkans from Latin America, Greece’s influence in the region has made headway by being assisted by the early start that Athens has had in developing relations there at a time when they were not being burdened by any fractious issue. Furthermore, the cooperation of pro-Greece Cyprus with much of Latin America, within the framework of the Movement of the Non-Aligned Countries, has also helped Greece promote its ascendancy. Ever since Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou visited Mexico in 1986 for the first time in an official capacity, Greece’s influence has steadily grown, which includes opening embassies in Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina, and in recent years in Cuba, Chile, Uruguay, and Peru.
Latin America, however, is slowly learning that when it comes to irredentism, it is Greece that threatens Macedonia, and not the reverse. Greece is several times larger and economically far more powerful than Macedonia, in addition to it being a NATO and a European Union member. When Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it explicitly foreswore territorial claims against anyone. As a response to the anti-Macedonian sentiment that then developed in Greece, Macedonia even changed its constitution and its flag to show its peaceful intentions and express its desire for good neighborly relations, reflecting a long-standing policy. Macedonia could not pursue irredentism against Greece even if it wanted to; it is dependent for its very economic survival on the port of Salonica, which Greece acquired in the wars of 1912-13. By contrast, Greece toyed with Serbia’s Milosevic about partitioning Macedonia. Just three months ago, two leaders of the state-sponsored Greek Orthodox Church independently called for Greece to annex by force the southern territories of Macedonia.
Concession after Concession
With such a prejudicial atmosphere in fighting for its very survival after declaring its independence, Macedonia agreed to an unprecedented step: to be admitted into the UN under a temporary provisional reference “The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” It was agreed that this provisional reference will be used only within the UN and for a period of two months. No other country has thus far been made to adhere to such additional, extralegal requirements to join the UN, and the demands on Macedonia appear to be well beyond the scope of the UN Charter. The full UN provisional reference is not to be confused with a meaningless and nonexistent word “FYROM” which Greece has tried to insert rather than Macedonia’s formal name.
Mentioned earlier was the fact that in order to show good neighborly relations and peaceful intentions, while under the weight of an economic blockade by Greece, Macedonia took other unprecedented steps: it changed its national flag and the provision in the Macedonian constitution which stated that Macedonia will care for its nationals abroad. These actions were taken despite the fact that there is a similar article in the Greek constitution, and that no demands have been placed on Greece whatsoever.
Macedonia was also pressured by Greece and the “international community” to sign with Athens an Interim Accord in 1995 in an effort to come to a mutually agreeable solution to the stand-off. U.S. Ambassador Matthew Niemetz has been named a UN Special Envoy to work with the two nations to achieve a solution regarding Macedonia’s formal status. While it would be wise for the countries to talk over their differences, the process inevitably has turned into an initiative to rename Macedonia and to transform its identity.
The Interim Accord further demeans Macedonia because in placating Greece, it does not refer to countries but to parties: as “first party” and as “second party,” presumably referring to Greece and Macedonia, though one would be hard pressed to initially find out. In essence, the agreement places demands on Macedonia, while it does not place comparable responsibilities on Greece, save for the clause that Greece should not block Macedonia in entering international institutions if it does so under the UN provisional reference. Yet, Greece’s leaders have most recently even threatened to veto Macedonia’s entry into NATO. In fact, Greece continues to use its existing diplomatic connections and to lobby the world against Macedonia’s entry in any international organizations (or against bilateral recognition), particularly in the European Union. Despite the incessant talk of protecting fundamental human rights, the European Union has displayed a penchant for hypocrisy by accepting Greece’s stand toward Macedonia.
Making Mockery of Fundamental Rights and International Law
Greece has dug itself into a hole and given the set timetable afforded by Macedonia’s prospective NATO membership, the United States now finds itself pressuring Macedonia to accept one of Niemetz’s “exotic” triple formulae or another alleged solution. This process contains one name for internal use in Macedonia, another for Greece to refer to Macedonia as it chooses, and yet another name for international use. A more recent Niemetz proposal has been the “Democratic Republic of Macedonia.” This putatively is more potable for the Macedonians to swallow, but the proposal has hidden clauses that prohibit the Macedonians to refer to themselves as such. Instead of being Macedonians, Niemetz’s proposal would have them become “Democratic Republican Macedonians” or unnamed “people of the DRM.” Similarly, Niemetz would have the 120 countries which recognized Macedonia as such under the new name — a new twist to this mockery of international law and order.
The bottom line is that the basis for the new proposed names is all but meaningless as the essence of Athens’ plan for Macedonia is to show that it is “permitted” by Greece to use its given name. Any change of Macedonia’s name would give credence to Greece’s self-satisfying mythology that the Macedonians have no roots in ancient Macedonia but are an artificial nation created by Yugoslavia’s Tito — or a similar outrage against historical reality that only envenomed politicians can conceivably concoct.
Chile’s mendacity aside, it appears that many in Latin America understand that the UN provisional reference is demeaning to Macedonians as well as seriously harmful for Balkan regional relations. The situation is equivalent to forcing Chile, for example, to adopt a provisional appellation “The Former Spanish Colony of Chile” and then deny the Chileans the use of the name “Chile” if they want to be part of the world family of nations. Despite the fact that over 120 countries recognized Macedonia under its actual name — including the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, etc. — Macedonia remains as if it was little better than a servitor, under extreme pressure to continue to use the UN temporary reference internationally. It is worth repeating that no one in Macedonia has a mandate to change the Macedonian people’s identity and any suggestion to do so to placate Greece’s arrogant policies are as insulting as they are jejune. Any Macedonian official that will alter the country’s name at somebody else’s bidding will be guilty of treason; indeed, he/she would be helping to destabilize Macedonia and the Balkans for years to come.
The Need for a Genuine Solution
It is at this juncture that Latin America could play a most constructive role. The region has often needed a safety valve that would let off the pressure from an already over-charged Balkans from a safe distance. Latin America could show a sense of solidarity with a small and beleaguered country by extending diplomatic recognition to Macedonia under its constitutional name. Those Latin American countries that already have recognized Macedonia have learned that the part of Macedonia that Greece acquired in 1913 is not even named Macedonia today. Greece is administratively divided into thirteen regions, three of which include the word Macedonia: “Region of Western Macedonia”, “Region of Central Macedonia” and “Region of Eastern Macedonia and Thrace”, but take notice that none of the regions are named simply “Macedonia.” So that there can be no confusion as to specific terrains, Macedonia has foresworn any territorial ambitions in any direction.
A Matter of Fundamentals
By contrast, in succumbing to Greece’s patent unfairness — such as its recent intent to veto Macedonia’s NATO membership, when invited — regional instability is likely to be followed by a worrisome gap. The vacuum could be filled by neighboring countries, which would undoubtedly disturb the balance of power, with potential spillover effects in Kosovo/Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, and even Greece itself — leaving a sizzling fuse for yet another Balkan conflict. After all, who but the Latin American countries can better understand that a nation’s very existence and choice of a name are embedded sovereign rights, with each of them having a special prerogative to promote, preserve, and protect their ethnic identity and culture?
Patently, Macedonia’s name is not a weapon against anyone or any nation, and the Macedonians are united in the justice of their cause of self-determination. Greece needs to come to terms with this proposition. In fact, Greece has been referring to Macedonia by that name in official documents and in textbooks for nearly 50 years, at a time when the latter country was part of the Yugoslav federation. The reality that Macedonia has existed and will continue to exist was recently (unintentionally) acknowledged even by the then Greek ambassador to Macedonia, Dora Grosomanidou, and she was promptly sacked for her candid admission. Leaders of Latin American countries that ignored Macedonia’s immutable rights should formally heed Ambassador Grosomanidou’s advice — and give peace a chance.