In democracies, people express themselves in all sorts of ways – foremost by flocking to the ballot box, but also by taking to the streets and public squares. The right to take part in peaceful demonstrations is one of the fundamental aspects of freedom of expression.
With this in mind, I also attended several rallies in the early 1990s against recognizing Greece’s northern neighbor as “Macedonia.” Having lived almost my entire life abroad, I did not participate in the demonstrations organized in Athens and Thessaloniki, but I did turn up at rallies in Washington DC and New York. In May 1992 I stood in front of the White House in a bid to stop the United States from recognizing the former Yugoslav republic. I dare say that the mobilization of diaspora Greeks – with Archbishop Iakovos of America leading the way with his imposing manner – combined with Constantinos Mitsotakis’s channels of communication with the administration of George Bush Senior, bore fruit and recognition was averted – at least for another 12 years.
I also attended the protest outside the headquarters of the United Nations in New York in January 1993, when negotiations on the name were under way and the organization was considering Skopje’s request to join the UN. Here, too, I believe protesters contributed to the partial success of the endeavor.
The Security Council described the name “Nova Makedonija” as a good solution, while Skopje joined the organization but with the temporary name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), which was seen by many as degrading, if not offensive.
In other words, I was present at the rallies that mattered; those that were made valuable by the circumstances. It was a time when the nascent country was as yet unnamed and there were reasonable expectations that a competent political leadership in Greece – both in the government and the opposition – in coordination with the Greek diaspora, would be able to secure the best possible result. It was a time when even the absolutist positions we put forward as protesters were “weapons” that could be used by the Greek government.
But after FYROM joined the UN with a temporary name that contained the term “Macedonia” and was later recognized by almost all the countries in the world as the “Republic of Macedonia,” the situation changed. Once again the citizens have, of course, the right to protest. But what is their strategic goal this time around?