The dispute regarding the official name by which the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is known appears to many policy makers to be anything from arcane to trivial. Yet its mishandling during the last 15 years, and especially in the last few months, has had political consequences for some of the world’s major players and has increased tensions and the potential for instability in the Balkans - referred to by historians and diplomats as Europe’s “soft underbelly”.
The case in point is the unprecedented defeat of a United States president at a NATO meeting - the much touted Bucharest summit in April of last year. President George W. Bush proclaimed the US’ “strong support” for the Republic of Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership, only to have it denied under the threat of a veto by the Greek government. Nor did the NATO Secretary-General’s visit to Athens and Skopje - the capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - following the NATO summit, increase the likelihood of a positive result, while the mediation process currently under way under the direction of US diplomat Matthew Nimetz finds progress elusive.
Given the complexity of the situation it is useful to consider some of the elements of this case that make it much harder to resolve than the cursory (and sloppy) assessments that some foreign policy “professionals” have suggested. Until now some of these professionals, especially those based in Washington, have approached this process mechanistically, hoping somehow that the implicit threat of American displeasure would sway the Greek government. Although Greece has caved in many times in the past, there is little flexibility on this issue; After repeated polling over many years, it has become clear that more than 85 per cent of the Greek public consistently demands a hard line on the issue.
This writer remembers a meeting in mid 1992 between Nicholas Burns, then State Department Spokesman and later Ambassador, and a group of Greek-American leaders. In answer to a question about the precedent affecting the European border system that would result from the recognition of the Skopje regime under the name of “Macedonia” (it then had explicit claims on Greek territory not to mention the history that is outlined below), Burns slammed his notebook shut and refused to discuss the implications. Some of the Greek-American leaders appeared more annoyed with the questioner than with Burns’ evasive little tiff. Yet this question has, as does the entire dispute regarding the name of the tenuous state, its foundation in the settlements following World War II: in short, in recent history.
In trying to understand the issues that are thrust upon the stage of international affairs, it is ironic that diplomats, other foreign policy professionals and political scientists often opt to ignore history. But it is treacherous to wade into the Balkans - where human experience has been recorded for millennia and folk memories are long - and not to be sensitive to recent historical traumas.
To be fair, much of the discourse of those most immediately involved has related to realities of the 5th-4th century BC, or cites mythological ethnogenetic constructions, which may be obscure to diplomats and policy makers. Many Greeks argue their case by making reference to 4,000 years of the Hellenicity of Macedonia; while the Skopje regime’s mythology increasingly expands its symbolic pantheon to include Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, even though the Slavic culture and language, which are the axes of its purported identity, appeared a little more than a millennium later.
Yet the history that matters most, even if it largely has been ignored so far, refers to recent events, those taking place before, during and after World War II. In the Balkans these fall into three major categories:
- the unresolved issues regarding ethnic and linguistic minorities before World War II;
- the Axis occupation and policy of collaboration with minority groups; and
- the successful shift from collaboration with the Nazis to alliances with Communists by some of these minority groups.
In order to set a broader historical context, one only needs to recall the use of ethnic minorities by the German National Socialist regime to destabilise Eastern Europe in the 1930s. In practice that meant that the Nazis encouraged the Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia and the German minority in Poland in order to put pressure on those states. These minorities were encouraged to make allegations of, what we would today call, human rights violations against the Czechs and the Poles: this provided the justification for the interventions that led, first to the collapse of the Czech state, and then to world war, when the Germans attacked Poland.
In Greece, after the Germans invaded in 1941, they established occupation zones for their forces and those of their Italian and Bulgarian allies. In Macedonia (the Greek province only used that name at the time), the German High Command under Field Marshal Siegmund List approved of the presence of Slavophone “liaison officers” to be attached to the occupying forces. These were mostly Bulgarian officers, linked to the nationalist VMRO group (Slavic for “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization”), whose agenda was to mobilise and co-ordinate the activities of the Slavophone inhabitants in Macedonia for the benefit of the Axis occupiers.
The leader of VMRO was Ivan “Vancho” Mihailoff (also known as “Mihailov” in some the literature): he was a major figure in the history of southeast European extremist nationalist movements, though little studied even by experts. By 1930 Mihailoff had prevailed in the bloody power struggles (which included dozens of assassinations and other terrorist acts) for the leadership of VMRO.
VMRO's main goal had always been the creation of an independent “Macedonian” state; it had built an extensive network in Bulgaria, which was used to provide financing for the organisation and an operational base from which the offensives into Yugoslavia and Greece were conducted.
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