Letter from Thessaloniki

Marina and I exchanged doubtful glances. So these were the celebrated descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers, we wondered, who were left behind in the depths of Asia and could not follow the great general in his new conquests? It was some years ago that we visited the Kalash, an ethnic group of the Hindu Kush mountain range, who live in the Chitral district of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Marina Karagatsi, a trained archaeologist, distrusted the signs she saw – and convinced me regarding her disbelief. Although there were some scattered pieces of «evidence,» the claim of a direct lineage to the Great Warrior has never been scientifically confirmed. All the same, there still are some groups in Greece that insist that the distant Kalash people help our «Macedonian Cause.» How? I do not know. During the 9th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, a Kalash film by Nikos Vezirgiannis was shown, leaving very little doubt that «these» were the true children of the Macedonian army. Some years later, in 2005, another film, this time by a Marina Dojcinovska, a Skopje-based travel journalist, about a tribe of different «Macedonians,» named «Hunza» showed us another species of Macedonian descendants. According to their own account, these fair-skinned, blue-eyed Hunza people, living in the Himalayan foothills, also traced their descent to Alexander’s march-weary troops, who reached northern Pakistan 23 centuries ago. Clearly much better organized than the Kalash, the Hunza people retain a royal court and a prince, Ghazanfar Ali Khan, who some months ago was invited to visit the land of his forefathers – Skopje, apparently – together with his wife, Princess Rani Atiqa. Arriving at Skopje’s «Alexander the Great» airport last July, this most unusual delegation was met by Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and blessed by the «Macedonian» Orthodox archbishop. But they were not received by everyone with the same enthusiasm. Widespread sardonic smiles and strong criticism at home has dismissed the Hunza visit as unashamed populism. More importantly, after ridicule in local newspapers, the Youth and Sports Agency cancelled the princely couple’s planned appearance in Skopje’s main square. By mythologizing its own culture, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has sought to bolster its international legitimacy. And it is not only that the present government has asserted, despite highly questionable historical «evidence,» that Alexander the Great is the forefather of the modern nation. For recently, government spokesman Shefik Duraku told local Alfa TV that «Alexander of Macedon» will be the new name of the country’s main highway that runs from Serbia in the north to the Greek border in the south, as part of Pan-European Corridor 10. Furthermore, Duraku added that the main soccer stadium in Skopje would be renamed «Arena Philip the Second,» after Alexander’s father. The same name was also chosen for the planned cargo airport near the central FYROM town of Stip. The founder of modern FYROM, its former president Kiro Gligorov said: «We are Slavs who came to this area in the sixth century … we are not descendants of the ancient Macedonians» (Foreign Broadcast Information Service Daily Report, Eastern Europe, February 26, 1992, p. 35). Also, Mr Gligorov declared: «We are Macedonians but we are Slav Macedonians. That’s who we are! We have no connection with Alexander the Greek and his Macedonia… Our ancestors came here in the fifth and sixth century» (Toronto Star, March 15, 1992). Such quotes abound. On 22 January 1999, FYROM’s ambassador to the USA, Ljubica Achevska gave a speech on the present situation in the Balkans. Answering questions at the end of her speech, Ms Acevshka solemnly declared: «We do not claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great … Greece is Macedonia’s second largest trading partner, and its number one investor. Instead of opting for war, we have chosen the mediation of the United Nations, with talks at the ambassadorial level under Mr Vance and Mr Nimetz.» In reply to another question about the ethnic origin of the people of FYROM, Ambassador Achevska realistically stated that «we are Slavs and we speak a Slav language.» All the same, sensing threats on all sides, Macedonian patriots have become more stubborn about identity, calling themselves «Alexander’s descendants,» even though the ancient conqueror had no known children. Last week, speaking in Parliament, Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis toned up his rhetoric on the subject. In a strongly worded message to Skopje, he made it crystal clear that the country’s road to the EU and NATO will remain blocked unless a deal on the name row – a name with a geographic qualifier – is reached. This was tantamount to giving Skopje an ultimatum. However, despite the acrimony over an awkward acronym, business between neighbors continues to flourish. Major Greek businesses are prominent in FYROM’s oil, banking, telecom and construction sectors. The Hellenic motherland has emerged as the leading investor in FYROM, with direct investments approaching 1 billion euros over the past decade. Around 300 Greek companies employ some 20,000 people in FYROM while cross-border trade in both directions rose by more than 15 percent last year, with the bilateral balance of trade favoring Greece by nearly 140 million euros. However, in order to get a scheduled investment of 50 million euros for infrastructure, our neighbor will have to stop its confrontational behavior. «Let us be entirely clear: As long as a climate of provocation, nationalism and bigotry is cultivated, not one euro will be disbursed,» Karamanlis told Parliament. FYROM, which hopes to gain EU membership, will hold presidential and local elections on March 22, the fourth elections since its independence in 1991. Meanwhile, with everybody’s eyes turned toward President Obama, Skopje showed its good intentions by sending a contingent of 150 troops to Afghanistan. To outsiders, the Greek name objection remains hard to fathom, yet to face the problem cynically, the end of the dispute may come naturally as FYROM is swallowed up by its neighbors. At least this was the view expressed by Antonis Samaras in a March 2008 interview with Greek state television (ERT) – before his recent appointment as culture minister – re-aired a few days ago. «Time is on our side,» Samaras said. «I believe that Skopje will not survive as a single country and that Greece has nothing to fear from the creation of a larger Albania or larger Bulgaria.» So we might be in for some spectacular surprises.

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