Normalizing relations between Greece and FYROM


TAGS: Letter to the editor

I was glad to read a comment on this subject, published in the December 10 issue of Kathimerini English Edition. I am in agreement with the main point of the article, which is what I have been saying for some time with regard to the naming dispute between these two countries.

Nearly 10 years ago, as a professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia (which of course has no official position with regard to this question), I was invited to allow my name to be added to the signatories of a letter that was being sent to US President Barack Obama, protesting the erection of a statue of a horseman in Skopje – a statue that was obviously a larger copy of a statue of Alexander the Great that had been made in Alexander’s time by the Greek sculptor Lysippus. This, like other things that had been written or displayed in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, clearly implied that the population of that country was descended from the ancient Macedonians.

I had never previously paid any attention to this question, and thought that the letter (which President Obama would probably never read) could have been improved, but nevertheless I allowed my name to be added to the list of signatories. I felt that since my name was not a Greek one (and I had no Greek relatives), its appearance on the list might suggest in a small way that this protest was not just a nationalistic reaction to what was happening in Skopje.

Because of this I was then invited to explain to a Greek audience why I had allowed my name to be used in this way. I also created a little pamphlet with the title “The Myth of Modern Macedonia,” after I had done a little research into the history and formation of this country during the last two centuries. The original English version is available online here. When my explanation was reported on the internet, and my pamphlet began to be circulated, I began to receive angry emails from Yugoslav Macedonians, and in the end a complaint was made about me to the Australian Human Rights Commission by their Western Australian group. This led to an interesting four-hour meeting controlled by a mediator, in which the complainants were represented by a barrister instructed by a solicitor, while I represented myself. I carefully avoided saying anything aggressive, because I hoped to encourage debate rather than warfare, and I am very pleased to see that at the moment the renaming of FYROM as “North Macedonia,” which I had suggested in my pamphlet, has been more or less accepted by both sides, although ratification by the Greek Parliament of this, and other changes listed in a memorandum of agreement, has not yet been achieved. And from a personal point of view, I will be glad when this long and clumsy title, although it has been accepted by the United Nations, is no longer used.

The Greek position has changed in recent years. Originally a majority of Greek decision-makers adopted the position that the name “Macedonia” should never be applied to this country (and if we are taking about the time of Alexander the Great, this would be correct, because its inhabitants were then called Paeonians, not Macedonians, and their separate identity was demonstrated by the fact that they were issuing their own coinage, which differed from the coinage of their neighbors. But Paeonia had become a part of Macedonia in the middle of the second century BC, when the Romans, probably intending to dilute the identity of the Macedonians whom they had defeated in a series of wars, created a much larger province bearing that name, which extended westward to the Adriatic and also included Thessaly and Epirus. So the present official Greek position, that the name “Macedonia” may continue to be applied to this neighboring country, provided that it is qualified in some way, is exactly right, and “North Macedonia” is probably the best name to choose from the options that are available.

Also, I believe that “Modern Macedonian” is the best name to use for the language that has been developed in modern times for this country. The ancient Macedonians were not accustomed to writing, so we have very little evidence for their language, most of it consisting of names, and in a number of entries in a Byzantine lexicon where single words are described as “Macedonian.” The philological interpretation of these entries is difficult, because we cannot always be certain that they have been copied accurately by the various scribes who produced these manuscripts, but it seems that the Macedonian language was related to other languages in that area.

I am sometimes asked whether the Macedonian language was Greek. My reply has always been that the question is wrong in its basic assumption – that there was a Greek language before the time of Alexander the Great. In fact there was a multitude of dialects, Corinthian, Boeotian, Cypriot and so on. They were related, so speakers of one dialect could probably understand most of what speakers of other dialects were saying. The dialect in which most of the greatest literature was written, and which probably had the largest vocabulary, was that used in Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, and it is clear that at the Macedonian court the elite upper-class Macedonians might be familiar with this, even if they used the Macedonian dialect in other circumstances, such as giving orders to their slaves, or in military circumstances, when Attic might have been misunderstood. So after Alexander the Great had conquered large tracts of territory in the Near East, it is not surprising that Attic Greek became the basis of the “common language,” the koine that was used for administrative purposes.

Back to the naming problem. Even if the extremists who refuse to accept the solution that is now proposed are outnumbered, and “North Macedonia” is created, there are other things to be considered. It will probably take two generations to modify the culture that has evolved in the past in FYROM, and to get Greeks who still furiously adhere to the original Greek position to relax and accept the new arrangement. A committee which includes members from both nations has begun meeting in order to work out how to modify such things as history text books. There is the question of renaming the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and perhaps its acceptance by Constantinople, which would then have to be followed by Serbia. And there will be a number of minor changes, such as modifying the number plates of North Macedonian cars and other vehicles. These things may be tiresome, but the benefits will be great, not only for North Macedonia, which is much more likely to attract foreign investment if it becomes a part of NATO and the European Union, but also for Greece, as the tension between this country and its northern neighbor is gradually reduced, and trade becomes easier.

John Melville-Jones

(Emeritus Professor and Senior Honorary Research Fellow of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia)