The Macedonian Question: history and the present day.

By Andrew Leech (

To fully grasp what is happening today in the Balkans regarding the strained relations between Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia (known in Greece as Skopje), we have to first grasp exactly what Macedonia (the area) is, wh
at it stands for, and its past history, in order to arrive at an understanding of the present day fears and attitudes of both Greece and former Yugoslavian Macedonia (which I shall refer to, in this article, as Vardar Macedonia, to distinguish it from the area of Greater Macedonia). To follow any other course would be to fall into the same trap that some other journalists have tumbled into — such as Strobe Talbott of Time Magazine (12 Oct 1992) — and arrive at a superficial veneer of comprehension that is fraught with underlying inconsistency, hysteria and error.

It is not an easy task but, as a European with blood ties in Britain, Greece and the U.S.A., I feel it is vitally necessary if people are going to understand why Greece is behaving in an apparently unreasonable manner, and why Vardar Macedonia is making no compromises. In this matter the well-known story of the Jewish Rabbi who, after first agreeing with both plaintiffs (on the ownership of a goat) that they are both right and, later, agrees, with a third person who points out that “ they can’t both be right “, has a certain application.

Greater Macedonia covers an area of some 26000 sq. miles, but is not in itself a geographical entity. It is divided into Aegean (or Greek) Macedonia 13360 sq. miles; Pirin (Bulgarian) Macedonia 2620 sq. miles; and Vardar (formerly Yugoslav) Macedonia 10230 sq. miles (38% of the area). Historically this area is agreed to have been the state consolidated by Philip II of Macedon (according to the O.E.D. Macedon was a term used to refer to Macedonia that dates from 1584, in English) about 400BC, which disintegrated after Alexander’s death. By 146BC Macedonia was constituted as a Roman province and the Thraco-Illyrian population became part Hellenized and part Latinized.

When the Slavs entered the Balkans in 500 AD, they colonized most of Greater Macedonia which was subsequently lost to the Bulgarians in the 9th century. In 1018 all of Macedonia was returned to Byzantium and in 1430 it was conquered by the Turks, under whose domination it remained for the next 450 years.

In 1878 Russia compelled Turkey (Treaty of San Stephano) to recognise Bulgarian independence and cede to it all of Macedonia apart from Salonica and Halkidiki. Britain then claimed the treaty was unfair to Greece and, in the Treaty of Berlin (1878) created a Bulgarian principality (with Sophia as capital), leaving the Macedonian strongholds of Hellenism under the suzerainty of Turkey.

From then on, all countries interested in gaining territory in Macedonia formed liberation committees and put forward their claims. Bulgaria claimed that the Slavs of Macedonia spoke a dialect similar to Bulgarian, therefore they should be incorporated into Bulgaria. The Serbians claimed that as the Macedonian Slavs retained the custom of “the feast of ancestors” (common to all Serbs) they were not true Bulgars but Bulgarized Serbs . The Greek nationalists claimed that the Slavophones in Macedonia were attracted by the superior Greek culture and considered themselves of Greek nationality.

In 1893, a secret “internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO)” was formed by Damien Gruev and Goche Delchev in Salonica which put forward the slogan “Macedonia for the Macedonians.” This was followed, in 1895, by “the Supreme Committee for Macedonia and Adrianople (VMOK ) formed in Sophia with the task of incorporating Macedonia into Bulgaria.” Athens, in defence, formed a new Ethniki Etairia for the protection of its part of Macedonia, run by the Greek Consul, Lambros Koromilas, in Salonica.

Concurrently, the Serbians, cut off from expansion in Bosnia-Hertzogovina by the Austrian occupation, started to look southward and sent Chety (guerrillas) to encourage a pro-Serbian movement among the Macedonian Slavs. The resultant terrorist activity of the Bulgarian “ Komitadzhi “, the Serbian “ Chetnitsi “, the Greek “ Andartai “ and the Turkish “ Bashi-bazouks “ created havoc in the area between 1895-1905.

To give some idea of what life was like for the inhabitants, in those days, I will quote from my uncle’s book (George Horton, US Consul, Athens and Salonica 1893-1911) Recollections Grave and Gay; Bobbs Merrill, 1927; “the people of Macedonia changed their names and nationalities when need arose, which was often. If a man were Panaretof, under the Bulgarians, he became Panaretovich when the Serbians arrived and Panaretopoulos after a successful Greek invasion. He altered the sign over his shop accordingly if he had one.” Obviously there was a lot of fear, uncertainty and mistrust; and those feelings die hard.

In 1908, after the Young Turk movement broke out, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece gradually became allies and, in 1912, attacked Turkey. Bulgaria and Serbia concluded their own agreement as to the division of any new territory won, but that did not include Greece. After the victorious campaign against the Turks, in 1913, the Bulgarians turned coat and treacherously attacked their allies: Serbia and Greece, — but lost. By the Treaty of Bucharest, in 1913, frontiers were decided for the three parts of Macedonia that basically are those in force today.

During World War I, the Bulgarians, smarting under their 1913 losses, entered the War on their side of the Central Powers and rapidly occupied Serbian Macedonia. After the Allied Offensive of 1918, their defeat, and the subsequent Treaty of Neuilly (1919), left the Greek frontiers unchanged, but transferred the district of Strumitsa to the newly-fledged country — Yugoslavia. There was also an exchange of populations where 25,000 Greeks left Bulgaria and 47,000 Bulgarians left Greece. The movement for an autonomous Macedonia within a federal Yugoslavia began in 1924, but was given no support by Belgrade as no Serbian leader could envisage autonomy for Macedonia. In the 1930’s, though, Italy began to exploit the movement and lend it support, as it wished to expand its interests in Albania. Then, in 1943, at Petrich, Dushan Daskalov ( Bulgarian Communist Party) indicated that he wished “the whole of Macedonia (after World War II) to become an independent republic within the Balkan Federation“ and Yannis Ionnides (Greek Communist Party) stated — according to his memoirs — “that a certain autonomy for Slavo - Macedonians should be permitted as regards use of their language and customs“, although he rejected the idea of an independent republic. Tito, however, disagreed believing that Federation should be under the leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party. On October 11th, 1945, he said “we shall never renounce the rights of the Macedonian people to unite.There are brothers in Aegean Macedonia to whose destiny we are not indifferent.”

Furthermore, in 1947, Tito and Dimitrov (the Bulgarian Premier) agreed that “on the successful conclusion of the Greek Communist rebellion, Greek Macedonia would be incorporated into Yugoslavia and Thrace into Bulgaria.” Then, in November 1948, Bulgaria announced that “the only correct and democratic solution was the creation of a Macedonian State equal to both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria”; and it is possible (though I am lacking reliable documentary evidence) that some members of the rebel Greek Communist Government concurred (the Civil War was still in progress and general government disorganized and chaotic).

From 1950 onwards, however, Graeco-Yugoslav relations improved: the pact of friendship (1953) and the subsequent military alliance (1954) between Greece, Yugoslavia and Turkey made a dispute over Macedonia unlikely. It is worth mentioning at this point that Greece formally objected to the use of the name Macedonia, when it was used for one of the federal republics of Yugoslavia in 1945, but did not pursue the matter then, in the interests of peace and harmony and the security of forthcoming alliances. Unfortunately, the present day division of Yugoslavia has now negated all those past treaties, leaving Greece — once more — in the position it held in 1945, together with the uncertainty of foreign aspirations.From this you can see how deep Greek fears are when the word “Macedonia“ is used — one might say it is akin to the word “Ireland“ in Britain, and vice-versa, or the word “ Israel“ to some Arabs: in short, the name arouses very strong feelings, based on an inherited bitterness and distrust from the past.

Greece believes 100% — perhaps wrongly, but nevertheless 100% — that Vardar Macedonia has designs on its territory; perhaps even more so how than in the past, as it has no port of its own (being landlocked) and badly needs the use of the Greek port of Thessaloniki. To date, Vardar Macedonia has used the picture of the Tower of Thessaloniki in an official manner, the Star of Alexander the Great on its flag; and it has given itself the name “Macedonia“ — as a sovereign state — as though it, alone, represented the whole of that geographical entity, (whereas it holds only 38%) and has also made claims on the history of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander. It is also alleged that the constitution of Vardar-Macedonia specifically claims parts of Greece as belonging to it, but I have not yet been able to obtain a copy of it.

Greece believes that Vardar Macedonia will start a campaign of propaganda among all the inhabitants of Greater Macedonia to unite and form a separate state — as has been in the past — and cause as much internal strife, in Greece, as there has been in Ireland (although that strife should have ceased in 1928, with the division of Ireland). Greece does not want a potential “Irish“ situation in the future (the situation in Cyprus is a grim enough reminder), so it is standing firm now. Greece’s attitude may be causing pain and uncertainty to others — particularly the inhabitants of the unrecognised country of Vardar-Macedonia — at present, but those few months of pain now are better than the years of bitterness, strife and killing that would ensue if the potentially explosive situation were left unchecked. Greece has had nearly 100 years of strife over this area, in the past, and doesn’t want further wasted blood and youth to ever be spent in such a futile manner. It is because it has the experience that it is standing firm now; to use the dictum: “to be cruel to be kind“. These are also bitter memories of the period 1943 - 1949 when it was the habit of the Slavo-Macedonians (who were aiding the Greek Communist uprising) to kidnap Greek children and take them back, over the border, for re-education and indoctrination! However, we must not overlook the plight of the inhabitants of Vardar-Macedonia. They are basically a good people (as are the people of most countries) struggling to make a nation out of a war-torn piece of land in any way they can, who need all the help we can give them.

From their point of view, the name of Macedonia is the correct one — as they, themselves, have always called themselves Macedonians (though not as a sovereign nation, but only as inhabitants of a province). They are as much a victim of past politics and propaganda, by unscrupulous rulers and entrepreneurs, as is Greece, who possibly have no real knowledge of the true history of the region.

Most Greeks, from a humanitarian, logical and political point of view, would like to help Vardar-Macedonia become a recognised state, and then make alliances and trade agreements with it — let us not forget that the only roads to Europe are through it. It also recognises the need for clear treaties and agreements between all the Balkan nations, to ensure stability in the region and avoid the bloody situations of the past. However, Greece is in the dilemma, at present, that “the hand it lends may be the one it cuts its own throat with” and, therefore, is apprehensive. It is also worried that religious differences (the Muslim minority in Macedonia) may be seized on and championed by non-European countries, further inflaming and clouding the issue.

From a completely non-political and non-party point of view I believe that to ensure fairness to both countries and to promote future stability, autonomy and prosperity in the region, the question of the name must be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties. If we are going to be fair to all the inhabitants of Greater Macedonia, then the names should reflect the areas they occupy and be historically correct: Greece could alter the name of its province of Macedonia to Aegean, or South, Macedonia and the northern section (Skopje-Macedonia) could become the sovereign state of Vardar, or North, Macedonia. This solution would preserve the common history, as well as the national differences, of the region; and the borders would stay as they are — and as they have been since 1913. However there are still many Greeks who object to the use of the name Macedonia in any form, fearing future conflict, and the Skopjians reject any compromise.

In final conclusion I would like to add one point: it would be very nice if Vardar-Macedonia would stop its “borrowing“ of Greek history. The Slavic-Macedonians arrived in the 5th century AD — and are part of Macedonian history from that date — but they are not part of it before. If you don’t believe that the misuse of history engenders an immense amount of emotion and hatred, then try telling a Brit that “the Magna Carta was drawn up by a group of French nobles temporarily resident in Britain at the time“, or an American that the Declaration Of Independence was “a quasi-commercial document designed to legalise the actions of a group of British Colonists who did not want to contribute taxes to the country that had raised, educated and equipped them“; not to mention telling an Irishman that “Cromwell’s actions in Ireland were for the overall good of the Irish people“. A nation’s history is a nation’s pride and you tamper with it at your peril.

N.B. Apart from sources specifically referred to in the article, the others may be independently checked in the Encyclopaedia Britannica under the headings of: Greece, Macedonia, Yugoslavia and Turkey

NB. This article was passed to the (House of Lords (Westminster) by Lord Michael Fraser of Kilmorack (to make aware matters not covered by the British Press), and discussed prior to the EU Summit of 12th December 1992. Recommendations were then made and, during that summit, recognition of Skopia (Fyrom) as Macedonia was left off the agenda until the UN had had further time to consider the matter.

(Posted date: December 2007. Previously published ELT News: Jan 1993 and later copied by other news sources)

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