Letter from Thessaloniki

There was a glint of challenge in US President George W. Bush’s eye as he solemnly stated the other day, «We promise Macedonia it will join the alliance as soon as possible.» How nice if he were right. For, on the same day, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis repeated exactly the same sentiment, inviting the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to resume talks and settle the name dispute that divides the two countries. «We want to support the Euro-Atlantic and European course of FYROM, but the name issue has to be settled,» were his exact words. «We have covered our fair share of ground, now the other side has to move too.» Now really! Has the recent history of our countries been of good intentions badly thought out and gradually abandoned as our Karamanlis is insinuating? Quite true relations – that is economic relations – have modestly improved but are still outrageously complicated. On Thursday, April 3, «The Board,» a blog-column composed by a group of journalists who write for The NY Times published a piece which initiated a genuine battle. A confrontation of bloggers. It was titled «Shame on Greece.» Here are some excerpts: «Croatia and Albania were granted membership in the Western alliance at a leaders’ meeting in Bucharest, but Macedonia was barred for an absurd reason: Greece doesn’t like its name… That decision shames Greece and dishonors NATO, which has far more serious problems and challenges to worry about.» And it goes on: «Tiny Macedonia doesn’t threaten Greece under any name. In fact, bringing it into the NATO fold would enhance regional stability. Now there are concerns Macedonia’s failure to gain alliance membership could fan nationalism and anti-Western sentiment as well as jeopardize its ability to join the EU.» So an angry battle of the bloggers followed, with more than 300 participants attacking each other. Some clashes, of course, are inevitable. As they occur, Greeks and Slav-Macedonians had mainly old cards to play. «They’re the ones who started the dispute anyway… Imagine if the Greek Macedonian region produced something like the Greek feta cheese. What would it be called then? Greek Macedonian ‘whatever’? So shame on them for trying to steal our historical identity, based on the huge historical inaccuracies they are being constantly fed, just because they lack one themselves!» wrote Lina, obviously a Greek. «Are you aware of the maps in FYROM’s schools? On all the maps, Greek Macedonia is depicted as part of FYROM. Skopjians call themselves Macedonians even though they are Bulgarians of Slavic descent. Why do they do that? Maybe they just like the name… right?» asks Chris. On the same argument, Alexandra, apparently a Greek American, adds: «Greece has never published maps of Greece which include FYROM. On the other hand, they do it consistently. If they have no territorial claims, why do that? Last time I looked at one of their maps, my father’s family home and property were part of FYROM. All ancient artifacts (including the star on their flag were found on Greek soil (Pella to be exact.) All ancient writing on ancient tombs, vases, etc are in Ancient Greek… Shame on the USA for backing their claims without any real foundation and considering the whole matter the most trivial argument ever.» It wasn’t always like that, of course. US government policy on the Macedonian nation (cite the old State Department Airgram, entry Number 233) has changed radically. Washington should explain to its remaining Greek friends why its policy has altered so drastically. The old State Department Airgram clearly states that Macedonia could be a threat to Greece in the future – exactly for the same reasons the Greeks present right now. Was this initial pronouncement in 1944 in error? Some Victor – clearly from the other side – posts his suggestion: «As long as Greece denies Macedonia her name, Macedonia should do the same to her. Officially Greece should be known as ‘The Former Ottoman Colony of Athens.’» In fact, how was it in Ottoman times ? How were maps drawn then and how are they drawn now? Vlatko refers to a more recent past: «In 1939, Hitler labeled the Austrians and the Dutch as artificial nations created with a sole purpose to steal German land and abuse German heritage. I see that history is repeating itself and the world is watching with popcorn and a Coke in its hand. Any attempt by one nation to rename and redefine the name of another, to rename its national identity, culture and language is nothing but a fascism…» History and assumptions have their place: Let’s say that Mexico breaks up into smaller countries and one of the regions comes out and calls itself «Texas.» Let’s also say that they say that George Washington was from Texas and that they are descended from him. Let’s also say that they create maps of their region and state that the states Arizona, New Mexico and Texas belong to them. Let’s also say that they would like to enter NATO and they have France pressuring the USA to accept them with the name «Texas,» because it’s good for the French foreign policy. What would you say to France and to «Texas»? Greece did the same thing. They stood their ground and they said «no» to Bush and «no» to the lies of FYROM! Elena says: «What’s the point of Macedonia joining NATO anyway? Instead of standing up for justice and human rights, NATO has taken the side of the Greeks’ nationalists and irredentists and their fight for exclusive right to Alexander the Great, Ancient Macedonia and all the history of the Macedonian region… And despite all the claims of friendship and support, NATO has betrayed Macedonia and the Macedonian people in the most cynical and humiliating way. It has led the Macedonians all the way to Bucharest just to get the slap in their face… Macedonia should immediately cease any further negotiations with the Greeks on its constitutional name. The Greeks are bluffing… Negotiations with the Greeks are just a waste of time, resources and nerves for the Macedonians. It’s a trap, it’s a Trojan horse that’s intended to finish them.» For that, it is clear that both partners will have to curb their implacable egos. However, there were also some very reasonable blogger comments. My favorite one bears the number 272 and was posted by «Nick.» It reads: «The reality is that FYROM needs Greece more than Greece needs FYROM. The obtuse nationalist rhetoric that continues to infect this tiny nation’s populace with manufactured Titoist historical propaganda is making them blind to the reality that is facing them… non-entry into NATO, and potential exclusion from the EU, and ultimately, economic oblivion. The USA should stay out of it and let them work it out.»