Letter from Thessaloniki

«I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world» (Socrates 469-399 BC). Miss Ellen Stone, a redoubtable missionary, was the first American victim of 20th-century terrorism. She was kidnapped in Thessaloniki in 1901 by Yane Sandanski’s band, supported by Sofia in a drive to restore the greater Bulgaria of the San Stefano Treaty. Sandanski was a young, intellectual Bulgarian-Macedonian activist, the leading figure in an underground political group called the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – a hero, then and now, for the Bulgarians, who gave his name to a small town on the Greek-Bulgarian border. Sandanski was a protagonist in the age of Balkan nationalism when the great European powers started their expansionist drive to capture new markets in their mortal struggle against the dying Ottoman Empire. Believing that targeting the symbols of European capitalism might force the powers to intervene, some young anarchists in Thessaloniki took matters into their own hands and in April 1903 decided to launch a series of attacks against various business concerns in which foreign capital had been invested. This is the story of the film «The Assassins from Salonika» by Zika Mitrovic (1961), which was shown two days ago at the inauguration of the Third Macedonian Film Festival in Toronto, Canada. A more recent production – from the year 2000 – also shown at the festival was «Next Year in Lerin,» a 43-minute documentary by Jill Daniels on the Macedonia name dispute. Last Wednesday, the former foreign minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Professor Ljubomir Frtskovski, in a statement on the Greek ET3 television show «Anixnefsis,» declared, «If we lose our name as ‘Macedonians,’ we would be devoured by the Bulgarians.» So, is the «name dispute» perhaps more a Bulgarian-FYROM affair?  The 1870 Bulgarian plan to annex the entire Macedonian region, coveting the shores of the northern Aegean Sea, is still strongly confronted with mistrust in Skopje. Transmitted by the codification of national languages and the creation of national histories and pedigrees, nationalism, long ignored as a topic in political philosophy, is once again alive and kicking in Southeast Europe. Provoked by the recent letter that FYROM Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski sent to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis demanding that thousands of his compatriots, and their descendants, who left Greece after the 1946-49 Greek Civil War be allowed to return, be given dual citizenship and, moreover, have their property returned, Skopje has created a new and unnecessary rift with Athens. Moreover, longtime observers of Balkan issues have occasionally noted how the Greek debate about the FYROM name issue and the so-called «nationality» question seem to miss key historical facts while focusing extensively on others. Probably more intensely than anywhere else, truth and history in the Balkans are national considerations. We have heard American experts ask the question: What about the Sofia versus Belgrade competition for influence in Skopje? Doesn’t Greece factor this into its policy for dealing with FYROM’s name? True enough, we don’t usually discuss this as extensively as we debate Tito’s post-World War II actions in setting up a «Macedonian» identity and republic. The Americans seem to understand this historical reality perfectly well and are adjusting their policies to address what the politicians in Skopje require. Now throw in a new development: On the evening of October 9, FYROM and Montenegro recognized Kosovo as an independent country. Clearly in exchange for this, the authorities in Pristina promptly recognized FYROM as the «Republic of Macedonia,» its constitutional name. It does not take much analysis to know that the US sponsored and coordinated these recognitions. Some weeks ago, the US defense secretary was in Ohrid at a regional meeting just a few days before FYROM and Montenegro went ahead with the move. Expressing support for the resolution proposed by the ethnic Albanian political parties, the ruling VMRO MP Silvana Boneva clearly stated that FYROM was doing this to please the USA. «For us, the support by the USA, which is at the same time the major guarantor and promoter of regional stability and security, is an important indicator and this has determined our position on the future of Kosovo,» said Boneva during the debate on the resolution in the FYROM parliament. Down in Athens, the process known as globalization, for all it claims, provides no inoculation against the lurking bacillus of national resurgence in the Balkans.  Heads are spinning at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since Greece is one of several EU countries that hasn’t recognized Kosovo’s independence. One has to ask whether more creative Greek diplomacy could have somehow prevented this, and an even tougher question emerges: Were the Americans involved in all of this? They sure were, and Washington has made that clear by deciding to refuse to drop visa requirements for Greeks traveling to the USA. Reportedly it was the National Security Council that stepped in to put an end to months of negotiations between the two countries, citing «political reasons.» Commentators speculated that the move was in retaliation for Greece blocking FYROM’s bid to enter NATO earlier this year as well as for the government’s stance on Kosovo. If so, it clearly appears that two longtime allies have been working at cross purposes. Pointedly, Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis commented, «Greece has never accepted the logic of the exertion of pressure between allies.» We read in horror, in Sunday’s Greek press, of the US State Department’s deep involvement in the development of UN mediator Matthew Nimetz’s latest round of proposals for resolving the FYROM name dispute.  It should come as no surprise that Washington has long been involved. What is shocking is the apparent willingness of a UN mediator to accept Washington’s input in a largely unmodified form, as if by diktat. Now Athens awaits clarification from both the US side and Mr Nimetz.  Otherwise, it makes little sense for Greece to continue to work with such «partners.» Or would it perhaps be best to have a new UN mediator, as well as some new officials in the State Department?