A New Light on Macedonian Melee

By John Psaropoulos

Introduction: A Brief History of the Macedonian Issue

WHEN the border between them was set after World War One, Greece and Bulgaria signed a treaty exchanging populations who felt they were left on the wrong side of the border. Thousands of people who referred to themselves as Bulgarians left Greece for Bulgaria between 1920 and 1925.

What Greece did not know was that a number of people who felt as Slav Macedonians or Bulgarians had been left within its borders. These formed the Slavomacedonian People's Liberation Front (SNOF).

During the Nazi occupation of Greece (April 1941 - October 1944) part of Greek Macedonia was administered by Bulgaria, which had long wanted to annex it. Under this favourable political climate, SNOF made a bid to wrest Macedonia away from Greece but was beaten off by the forces of the communist­dominated Hellenic National Liberation Front (EAM), which formed the backbone of Greek resistance.

After the formation of Yugoslavia in 1945, SNOF ­which had renamed itself People's Liberation Front (NOF) - took its orders from Belgrade. Marshall Tito's great gamble was that this army could help him annex Greek Macedonia. When communists triggered the Greek Civil War in late 1944, NOF became a component of the communist army, the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE).

In February 1949, the Greek communists were losing their Civil War with nationalist forces. In a desperate move, the commander of the DSE, Nikos Zahariadis, caved in to pressure from the NOF component in his ranks and agreed to espouse the Belgrade agenda of annexation of Greek Macedonia to Yugoslavia.

At the end of 1949, Zahariadis lost the war. Approximately 25,000) Slav Macedonians fled into Yugoslavia, along with many Greeks who had fought for or sympathised with communist forces, or simply feared retribution from nationalist forces.

In 1961 the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) renounced Zahariadis and his supporters for espousing the Belgrade agenda against Greek Macedonia.

New study reveals that Greek Civil War refugees to Yugoslavia were refused repatriation, and that Skopje pressed to Belgrade to follow a hard line with Bulgaria and Greece over Macedonian ethnicity

NEW study of the Yugoslav diplomatic archives reveals that thousands of Greeks who fled north after the 1946-49 Civil War were never allowed to return by communist authorities, and died stateless.

Greek Macedonians pose for this undated village portrait during the 1946-49 Civil War

Approximately 25,000 Greeks abandoned their villages in the closing days of the war, afraid that the national army would punish them on suspicion of aiding the communist Democratic Army of Greece (DSE). About a fifth of them relented, historians will reveal in a new volume entitled "The Macedonian issue in Foreign Archives," being published this month.

The work is the result of a two-and­a-half year study by the Society for Macedonian Studies, a privately funded academic society based in Greece. It procured copies of the diplomatic correspondence between Athens, Belgrade and Sofia in the years 1950­1967, as well as the internal correspondence between the federal Yugoslav government in Belgrade and the government of its constituent Socialist Republic of Macedonia in Skopje.

"We have found classified reports with the Yugoslav foreign ministry and the Skopje government revealing that in the early 1950s maybe about 5,000 [Greeks] refused Yugoslav nationality and wanted to return to Greece", says historian Iakovos Mihailidis, who co­authors the research. "Many were imprisoned or exiled and ended up in Vojvodina [in northern Serbia]."

By the time Yugoslavia was prepared to allow repatriation a decade later. it was Greece that said no. "Perhaps we felt that these people no longer had a Greek conscience," says Mihailidis, who interviewed many of the refugees while they lived. "This is one of the most tragic chapters of the Greek Civil War."

The Greeks' refusal to take Yugoslav citizenship and sign onto Macedonian ethnicity is all the more impressive in light of the fact that they were offered housing and job incentives and war pensions.

"The motive was geopolitical and clear," opines Nikolaos Mertzos, president of the Society, in a prologue to the book: 'To bind together the diverse groups under the 'protection' of the regime, to cultivate enmity towards the Greek 'occupiers' and to homogenise people under the ideology of 'Macedonianism'.

Most of the Greeks who fled to Skopje did not wish to return, though, and it is apparently they who eventually fostered the most potent nationbuilding mixture - that of a modern Macedonian nationalism claiming ancient roots.

The process began in the late 1960s, says Mihailidis. "It was triggered chiefly by the political refugees from Greece. The embedding of antiquity into the national narrative starts from their newspapers and books," he says.

"Here in the Balkans the further back one can trace one's roots, the more powerful he feels today. The idea that they are descendants of ancient Macedonians can unite not just Slavs but also Albanians in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom)," says Mihailidis, using the name under which the republic has been bookshelved in the United Nations for the past 15 years. "The idea of [Albanian] descent from ancient Illyrians also exists in school textbooks, so the idea that they are both ancient races unites them."

The property issue

The study also reveals that relations between Belgrade and Skopje were strained over Skopje's eagerness to pursue the existence of a residual Macedonian minority in Greece, along with the property rights of Slavic Macedonians who had fled. These are precisely the issues raised again last July by Fyrom's Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski.

"We find from time to time a difference of opinion between Belgrade and Skopje," says Mihai]idis.

The archive contains reports dating to 1953 and 1956 by a leading Yugosalav legal expert, Milan Banos, advising the federal government that it had no legal basis to pursue property claims in Greece. "When these opinions reach the Socialist Republic of Macedonia they spark off a quest to re-state the claim in different terms, not with legal arguments but much more with sentimental and petty­political arguments," says Mihailidis.

Under pressure from Skopje, a consensus was reached in Belgrade whereby the issue would be kept alive in order to build leverage with Greece.

The difference of opinion Greece had come to expect between Belgrade and Skopje is illustrated in an exchange between the Greek ambassador to Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav foreign minister in June 1960. When minister Kotsa Popovic raised the issue of a Macedonian minority in Greece, ambassador Oimitrios Nikolareizis replied, "We operate under the impression that the issue of a Macedonian minority is raised only by circles in Skopje, and that the government in Belgrade does not encourage them."


A third revelation in the forthcoming study is an offer of reconciliation Bulgaria made to Yugoslavia after the Second World War over the Macedonian issue. Because the language spoken by se]f­proclaimed Slav Macedonians across the Balkans was mostly Bulgarian, the Bulgarians considered Macedonian­ness a component of their own ethnicity.

After the creation of Yugoslavia and its member republics in 1945, though, Slav Macedonians became a component of Yugoslavia.

"The Bulgarians recognised the Siavomacedonians in Skopje as a people divided between two nations ­ie. as Bulgarians on the other side of the border," says Mihailidis.

Under pressure from Moscow, Bulgaria floated a proposal from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s to recognise the Macedonian Republic and ethnicity, but with one proviso.

"Bulgaria had proposed that we will accept that after 1945 there is a new Macedonian nation here (in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia), but you must say that the Slav people living now in Bulgarian Macedonia have a purely Bulgarian consciousness. Additionally, you must say that Skopje was Bulgarian before 1945 and hitherto had a common political history with us'," says Mihailidis. Under pressure from Skopje, Belgrade refused the offer.

Skopje's stance was in keeping with its policy of de-Bulgarianisation after the war, as a first step in building its own national consciousness.

"We have thousands of executions of party members who sided with Bulgaria," says Mihailidis. "There were imprisonments and exilings. It wasn't an easy process at all."

This de-Bulgarianisation of the political and cultural environment was accompanied by a cleansing of the language. "If you read a document from that period, it is 90% Bulgarian. If you read a recent official document it is Serbian with the addition of words from other regional languages," says Mihailidis.

De-Bulgarianisation was perhaps never a complete success. As many as 15,000 people in Fyrom have now applied for and received Bulgarian passports, including a former prime minister.

(Posting date 10 September 2008)

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