World News

Deal for Macedonia Name? High Treason, Some Greeks Say

Posted June 5, 2018 11:36 p.m. EDT

THESSALONIKI, Greece — To understand how deeply the name Macedonia is embedded in the Greek psyche, look no further than Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. It’s the capital of the northern region of Macedonia, the historical center of a long-running feud with the neighboring country of Macedonia, whose claim to the name is the focus of U.N.-mediated negotiations.

In Thessaloniki, there is a Greek Ministry for Macedonia. The international airport carries the name Macedonia. The city has a university and research institute with the same name. And the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Thessaloniki holds in its curated halls the troubled history of the region.

The dispute is so contentious that when Thessaloniki’s liberal mayor, Yiannis Boutaris, used the name Macedonia in a visit to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, in November, he was promptly branded a traitor on social media. He also came under fire for suggesting that Thessaloniki’s airport could drop the name Macedonia and for speaking of “three Macedonias” — one in Greece, one in Bulgaria and one in the neighboring Balkan country. Last week, the national federation of Macedonian cultural associations sued Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias, on a charge of high treason over his handling of the name talks with Skopje. Such extreme reactions are limited, but there are few signs that ordinary Greeks are willing to share the name Macedonia with the nation that declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 under the name the Republic of Macedonia.

Thousands of supporters of Macedonia’s main opposition party, known as VMRO-DPMNE, rallied in Skopje on Saturday, protesting any proposed changes to the country’s name. Rallies are also planned for Wednesday in 13 cities across the Greek region of Macedonia, with the support of local mayors and bishops.

The strained relations between the two countries are symbolized by the frosty ties between the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Thessaloniki and one in Skopje with the same name.

But Vasileios Nikoltsios, curator of the museum in Thessaloniki, is firm. “The Macedonian identity is my identity; it’s my grandfather’s identity,” he said. “Skopje was not even part of ancient Macedonia.”

The Skopje museum opened in 2011, nearly three decades after the one in Thessaloniki. Its website says it “symbolizes the fundamental aspiration and longing of the Macedonians for their freedom.” Nikoltsios, a retired colonel and prolific collector, is not impressed. He called that project “a museum of propaganda.”

To Greeks, their Balkan neighbor’s fight for the right to use the name looks suspiciously like territorial aspirations over the northern Greek region. They have protested again and again, with nearly 1 million people taking to the streets of Thessaloniki in 1992 and tens of thousands demonstrating this year there and in Athens.

For Macedonia, which joined the United Nations in 1993 as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the fight holds the key to the future. Resolving the dispute would open the door to greater prosperity and stability through membership in the European Union and NATO, which Greece has used its veto to block until a solution is found. The authorities in Skopje have also stressed the importance of a solution to secure “the dignity and identity” of Macedonia’s people.

Despite the differences, a solution may be closer than it has been in decades.

Talks between Athens, the Greek capital, and Skopje have edged forward in recent weeks amid hopes by Western governments that a breakthrough could allow Macedonia to join international alliances that they say could stabilize the Western Balkans.

The nation’s prime ministers had been expected to discuss a draft agreement reached by their foreign ministers to finalize a deal before a European Union summit meeting on June 28. However, a discussion of legal and technical aspects of a potential deal “are progressing with great difficulty,” according to a Greek government official on Friday, who told reporters the chances of deal in the coming days were receding.

In response, an official in Skopje was quoted by the news agency IBNA as describing the Greek comments as speculation.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of Macedonia said he was “optimistic” and expected an agreement to be announced “very soon.” Last Wednesday, he said that any deal would be put to a referendum in the fall. He spoke after his Greek counterpart, Alexis Tsipras, said that increased cooperation between Greece and Balkan countries would thwart aspirations by countries like Turkey for dominance in the region.

But there is strong opposition to a compromise in Greece.

Panos Kammenos, the Greek defense minister and Tsipras’ right-wing coalition partner, has said his party would not support a solution that allowed the Balkan nation to continue using the name Macedonia, and he declared, “The Skopjans are living with the myth of Macedonia.” But some question whether Kammenos would risk political turmoil at a critical moment for Greece, which is set to exit its third international bailout in August.

Recent surveys in Greece on the issue indicate that opposition has eased, with about half of those polled objecting to letting the nation of Macedonia continue using the name, compared with 8 out of 10 earlier this year. Greeks are apparently more concerned about potential irredentism by Turkey, a traditional foe, amid a recent deterioration in bilateral ties, surveys suggest. Still, for Greeks, besides stoking fears about potential threats to the nation’s territory, the Macedonia dispute touches on issues of identity, culture and history.

The Greek region of Macedonia was the center of the kingdom of Alexander the Great, the ancient Greek warrior king. The region was carved up after the Balkan wars in the early 20th century after decades of fighting among Turks, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians, with about half the territory becoming part of Greece and most of the rest going to Serbia and Bulgaria.

Slavs who identify themselves as ethnic Macedonians had long pressed for a separate state. Greek fears about a renewed territorial threat resurfaced with the breakup of Yugoslavia and have resurged amid hints of a compromise in the name talks.

Nikoltsios, the curator, dreads a name change. “The Skopjans won’t stop at the name; that will just whet their appetite for territorial claims,” he fretted. “I’m worried for my children and grandchildren.”

Michalis Patsikas, one of the organizers of the rallies planned for Wednesday, said: “A Macedonian is a Greek. There can’t be a Macedonian who is not Greek.” Any deal should be put to a referendum, he added.

“They weren’t elected to negotiate a name change,” he said of Tsipras’ coalition government. “They have to ask the people.”

He said that a deal including the name Macedonia for Greece’s neighbor would be a “national betrayal” and a “falsification of history.”

He predicted it would also be “a spark in the powder keg of the Balkans.”

As for Boutaris, the mayor of Thessaloniki, he said Friday that he was “completely indifferent” to the accusations of his detractors, whom he described as “ignorant” and victims of “a tragic political exploitation” of the name dispute over past decades.

“They are not stealing our name,” he said of Macedonians. “We are the ones asking them to change theirs.”