Recently a TV show was broadcast on a Greek channel about the Prespes agreement. One male speaker authoritatively said that there are tens of thousands of Slavic speakers in the border areas of Greece: That language breeds irredentism (1), and therefore the agreement must be canceled.
Such statements have extraordinary power. They evoke images of throngs welcoming armed Bulgarian-speaking sympathizers on Greek soil. (Most residents of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia speak a Bulgarian dialect.) So no one questioned the logic or asked for language statistics.
A hundred years ago such arguments were eminently sensible. Bulgarians battled for Thessaloniki in 1912, and Serbia acquired areas with large Greek populations, such as Monastir and Ohrid. In the 1940s bitter fighting took place in a bid for a communist takeover of Greece. Some guerrillas escaped to Yugoslavia, as the border closed behind them. But 70 years later, globalization and the prevalence of English have transformed everyone’s lives. Most young people in FYROM are engaged in middle-class pursuits. Which data suggest an impending violent invasion?
Surprisingly, many Greeks think the danger is now greater than ever. A cacophony of fake websites, news and social media posts influence public opinion and foment mutual hostility. Autocratic interests want to keep FYROM out of the European Union and are leaning on Greek patriotism to achieve that. Few Greeks know any FYROM citizens personally or have crossed the border, so the threats are easily believed.
One strategy resurrects 19th century visions, notably Slav desires for a port in the Aegean. But today the conqueror of Thessaloniki would have to restore infrastructure and clear the garbage. That’s a messy job best left to the likes of Mayor Yiannis Boutaris. Crucially, the invader would have to face the Chinese companies with long-term port leases. It’s cheaper to skip the invasion, negotiate prices for port access and pray that there are no worker strikes.
So what about hostile Slavic speakers on the Greek side of the border? Some gained notoriety in the 1980s, insisting on their right to speak their language and sing their songs. One organization in Florina clashed with Greek police in 1995 and was vindicated in 2005 by the European Court of Human Rights. But how many members are alive today and how well do they speak Bulgarian? People intermarry, so the next generations rarely learn sufficient Bulgarian, Vlach, Arvanitika or Tsakonian. The irredentists’ grandchildren may be married to Spartans, live in Rhodes and hold a dim view of last century’s aspirations.
Distance helps perpetuate beliefs that are unadulterated by reality, so old immigrants may stoke irredentism. In Australia some vociferously promote a Macedonian non-Greek identity. At a recent rally, their grandchildren burned the Greek flag and demanded the removal of Pontian refugees from Greek soil. (Some newcomers got into disputes with locals.) Actually this demand has been easy to meet. Practically all 1922 refugees are not merely dead but also exhumed from their graves.
So who are the crypto-Slavs and how many are there? Greek census data do not include ethnicity or language. To find them, let’s look for new and innovative conspiracies. Some Macedonians are privy to secrets, but given the current climate, they are being tight-lipped.
For example, a friend from Serres has a deeply hidden family secret. Her great-grandmother spoke nothing but Bulgarian. Her sons did not teach their children, but there were at least 36 lateral cousins. Some are known to have infiltrated Athens, hidden behind the name Papageorgiou. Shockingly, a genealogist suspects that about half the population of the Serres prefecture has some Bulgarian-speaking ancestors in living memory. (The current debate is not about Bulgaria, but the premise is that language breeds irredentism.)
Digging brings up more suspects. An elderly lady zealously protects the secret of her origins from Monastir Vlachs. Her mother managed somehow to slip through the Iron Curtain and visit relatives in Krusovo. She was once seen relaxing at a show in a Gevgeli casino, right across the border. Shows are a prime medium for internationalist propaganda, and they could turn clueless citizens into sympathizers. Incidentally, she was absent from the million-person demonstration in Thessaloniki in February 2018. The Greek police ought to monitor the GPS data of her smartphone and track contacts with her third cousins in FYROM.
In fact, suspects of covert irredentism are everywhere. A half-Vlach also has relatives in FYROM. A few years ago, one of his nephews infiltrated the government and became a minister. Double agents? The uncle once got a scholarship to the US, so the American government must be sowing confusion about who has the right to be called Macedonian.
Crypto-Slavism can strike anyone. Ardent Peloponnesian patriots may find that their male DNA haplotype is more common in Slavic countries. One friend innocently gave a sample of his saliva and nearly had a heart attack when he saw the names of people with similar results.
Greece is not alone in harboring cryptos. Probably everyone in FYROM is genetically related to Greeks, so the social media are outing crypto-Greeks.
Some cases are open-and-shut. Certain high-level officials descend from Greek guerrillas and FYROM mothers. Nikola Dimitrov, current minister of foreign affairs, is reputedly one of them. Is he colluding with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to betray his country’s cherished name? Even FYROM's premier, Zoran Zaev, is a prime suspect. He declared that he has Albanian ancestors, but rumors say they were Arvanites. His great-grandfather is reputedly related to the grandmother of former Greek president Karolos Papoulias. He had a favorable attitude toward FYROM, so maybe the Prespes agreement was hatched by crypto-Albanians. Given the frequency of trans-Balkan families, even top officials cannot be trusted.
The infiltration of Greece by FYROM is obvious on the border highways. Hordes of its citizens invade Halkidiki every summer. Travel agencies are known to lease entire hotels, perfect for irredentist plots. Fortunately, the name dispute thinned out the travelers and reduced this danger, along with the finances of Greek hotel operators. Nevertheless, the more bourgeois Skopians keep going to Pelion. Are they planning an invasion from the Zagorohoria? “Za gor” means “beyond the mountain” in South Slavic; it points right to the lair of crypto-Slavs.
All this foretells the seismic effects of FYROM joining the European Union.
Busloads of young crypto-Slavs and crypto-Greeks will just zip across the border without passports and meet at the ancient theaters of FYROM for rock concerts and wild dancing. If roads are upgraded, the new destination for Greek weddings will be Ohrid, the city of 365 Byzantine churches. The FYROMian youth will sail through the unguarded border and mob the shopping centers of Florina and Kastoria, looking for bargains on the latest iPhone. They may invade the more distant malls of Thessaloniki and take hotels hostage, haggling in bad English and brandishing newly minted euros. They may even get jobs there and dislodge some Pakistanis and Filipinos. Some are sure to shout irredentist slogans during soccer games, just like Athenian fans who call the Macedonia teams “Bulgarians.”
The Prespes agreement has many imperfections. But the 100-year ghost of irredentism will be most effectively exorcised through European Union membership. Free movement makes borders invisible and eliminates incentives to annex parts of other countries. It has melted down multiple ethnic disputes. Perhaps the biggest current obstacle is the disinformation machinery that leads the citizens of both countries to mutual rejection. If reason prevails, crypto beliefs should hold no further currency.
1. Irredentism is the desire to annex areas of a country with historic or ethnic links and redeem purportedly suffering brethren.
Helen Abadzi is a Greek psychologist, a polyglot and a retiree of the World Bank. This essay represents the author’s views.