Greek protesters are seen during a rally in Thessaloniki last year against the use of the term ‘Macedonia’ by Greece’s northern neighbor.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Macedonia dispute is an issue of national importance for Greece. But what kind of issue is it exactly? And how is Greece performing?
The Macedonia issue as a liberation struggle was closed in 1914, and wrapped up in 1945, with a complete and utter Greek victory. Thessaloniki, while having a minority of Greeks, became irreversibly Greek, along with the surrounding territory. Today no sane Greek would consider it fair to expand the country’s territory northward, nor can there be any realistic dispute of the border from the other side.
Any mention of “Skopjan irredentism” in the Greek public debate is an insult to our ancestors’ struggles, when even Crete alone would suffice to defend the border against the tiny Balkan state. Indeed, ofur struggles have not been so much armed as economic. The Greek economy, built with blood, sweat, tears and a dose of luck (Greece landing on the right side of the Iron Curtain not being entirely unhelpful), has guaranteed the country’s borders against tens of millions of potentially hostile neighbors.
The teacher’s chalk, the worker’s hammer, the small businessman’s hotel and the knowledge worker’s laptop have held the borders, not the soldier’s rifle (and if danger does come, it will be from the ever unstable east).
The Macedonia issue today remains just a naming dispute – an issue of international marketing. It is not a scientific issue which could be resolved at a big international conference. Neither is it simply a bilateral issue involving only Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; rather it is a matter of influencing international public opinion. This has been a complete Greek failure. Mindless nationalism scored the first own goal in 1993, and goals against Greece have not stopped since.
To realize it is just a marketing issue, consider that Greeks don’t care what the country is called in their private conversations (most refer to it as Skopje), or within FYROM (however they please, despite any agreement). It will not make a difference to Greeks if they get to call the neighboring country Skopje for all eternity, or if their neighbors themselves switch to the Republic of the Lone Pine Tree. What really matters to them is what the rest of the world calls it.
What Greeks do care about is establishing a firm connection in the average American and European mind between the part of Greece called Macedonia today, and the glories of ancient Macedonia.
Unfortunately, such marketing cannot be done through demonstrations or anthems, nor with leaders’ signatures on a piece of paper. Greece has tried: FYROM has been internationally isolated for years. However, what diplomats have resisted, the international public has widely embraced. Ignorance, love of simplification, and the eventual sympathy for the underdog that most neutral people felt in the matter led to a simple fact: The whole planet calls FYROM’s citizens Macedonians.
The game was already lost in 1993. When German friends were receiving letters from Greece stamped with the epically failed slogan “Macedonia is Greece,” they would ask, “But why do you want to annex that poor country?” They meant FYROM obviously. Ever since, simply “Macedonia” has dominated in the international press, everyday conversation, even the ever-so-neutral Wikipedia. There are a good 235 articles on the topic in as many languages. Only in Greek is the country referred to as “FYROM.” In every other language, from Tatar to Hawaiian, the state is referred to as the “Republic of Macedonia” or plain “Macedonia.”
In recent years, those few in the rest of Europe who do care about the issue have been wondering what Greece is up to, why it is not letting that weak country stand on its feet and enter the European family, instead of falling into Putin’s arms. Anecdotally, again, a high-ranking World Bank economist in the Western Balkans asked me, “Why is the Greek PM quitting over Macedonia being renamed North Macedonia?” Clearly to him the status quo is “Macedonia” and “North” is pretty much a generous concession.
Now if Greece cares about “Macedonia” as a brand name, “North Macedonia” is not the cleanest or most beneficial solution. But it is time we Greeks weighed up the pros and the cons of this long-lasting dispute and started caring about our own backyard.
In international eyes, the heir to a shining culture will not be the one getting recognition in a treaty, but the one who looks like a worthy heir. The airport that establishes itself as the true “Macedonia airport” will be the prettiest, most efficient and most successful one. Similarly, the institution with the best chances of really establishing itself as the “University of Macedonia” will be that with the best scientists and most prestigious research.
Great “Macedonian” products (to the extent that such a brand exists today) will just be the ones that are… of good quality. Just as you can’t build a mighty carmaker by placing a BMW sign on top of a decrepit factory, any problems that Greece has will not be solved with a treaty.
At the end of the day, the safest way of getting what you want is knowing what you want. What do Greeks want? That the planet accept that we are all progeny of Alexander the Great? I bring bad news: Even if it was feasible, or desirable, this is not the way to get there.
But I might have an alternative. When you mention New York, nobody thinks of poor old rainy Yorkshire. Nobody will hear “Macedonia” and think of another place if we develop our own Macedonia and wider Greece into a truly prosperous place – one so good at nurturing its talents that it will not sound strange when Greeks shoot for the stars in sports (think Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA), the arts (Lanthimos’s multiple Oscar nominations), or the sciences.
And maybe then, when we build our own New York, we might realize that disputing names, claiming ancient people’s glory, was just a tiny bit hollow, as the great cosmopolitan C.P. Cavafy said.
Sotiris Georganas is an associate professor in economics at City University London and a member of think tank KEFIM.