OPINION

Letter from Thessaloniki

«Oh, my God, all those names! I’m totally confused about what to call her…» «Don’t worry, dear, whatever you choose to call her she’ll turn out all right …»  This dialogue is from the play «Tonight We Dine at Jocasta’s» by Akis Dimou, a hilarious comedy, which, after a most successful run last season at the Experimental Theater in Thessaloniki is now on stage at the Dimitris Horn Theater in Athens, playing to sold-out houses. Entangled not only in geography, this short conversation concerning the neighboring state of FYROM – or «Macedonia» as the natives call it – is one of the side-splitting high points of the play. However, there is a slight difference between the two productions. While in Thessaloniki all allusions to the name issue are carefully omitted, one can hear them itemized in detail in the Dimitris Horn theater production – generating big laughs, too. Now, who said there are no differences between north and south? This Balkan peninsula in southeast Europe is one of the most ethnically, linguistically and religiously complex areas of the world. It’s a historically established fact: The three longest established peoples in this region are the Greeks, the Vlahs (descended from the original Thracians) and the Albanians, who claim descent from the ancient Illyrians. The Slavs came later. Much later. They began to cross the Danube into the Balkans in the 6th century AD. And as for the concept of nationality as expounded in the ideology of nationalism, this was also a late arrival to the Balkans. In modern times, the nationalism that sparked savage wars in Croatia and Bosnia and has set Kosovo alight is spilling with alarming speed into the daily life of this sleepy backwater. Self-proclaimed «Macedonia,» one of the five states carved out of the former Yugoslavia, has been unable to halt the ideological mutations that led to ethnic conflict – Slavo-Macedonians vs Albanians – for Ethnic Albanians make up about 25 percent of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s population of 2 million. Greece wants its neighbor’s name to be Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), under which it has been registered as a UN member. In five days from now, FYROM – «or whatever…» as Jocasta Papadamou, hilariously interpreted by comedienne Sophia Filipidou, in Dimou’s play would put it – will have the chance to rectify last year’s election mistakes and prove that it is a mature, democratic country deserving full membership in European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Last June’s general election ended in incidents of violence and fraud. Violence that erupted between rival ethnic-Albanian parties during last year’s vote left one person dead and nine wounded. Now they will be closely watched by the EU, while the government in Skopje, alarmed by the growing separatist movement after Kosovo’s independence, has begun to crack down on the militants. The so-conveniently-called «neighboring country» could face years of delay in the process of joining the European Union if its next elections, this coming Sunday, are not up to international standards, an EU envoy has said. «If these elections do not reflect completely the standards at the international level, I’m afraid this will be a major setback for the country and will delay the journey to EU accession,» Erwan Fouere, an envoy of the European Union and its executive commission, told Reuters recently. While giving its ethnic Albanian minority a share in government, the state has also sought to bolster its legitimacy by extolling a self-invented «Macedonian» culture. Despite the lack of any real historical evidence, the government has asserted that Alexander the Great is the forefather of their modern nation. It has also turned the «Macedonian Orthodox Church» into an official creed. Now, as to who FYROM’s next president will be, the answer is quite simple. In all probability it will be law professor Georgi Ivanov, nominated by the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), a center-right entity that has formed an election campaign coalition with 18 smaller parties. With slimmer chances, the other main presidential candidate is Ljubomir Frckovski, a professor nominated by the center-left SDSM, which is the successor to the «League of Communists of Macedonia,» which ruled the country for the decades it was a constituent republic within Yugoslavia. Sure enough, the job of president of the country, a largely ceremonial post, has a five-year term with a two-term limit. What looms ominously is Skopje’s protracted dispute with Athens over the use of the name «Macedonia,» an issue that will certainly not be easily resolved in the near future. A recent dispatch from Mina news agency claimed that Frckovski – the probable loser – had said that he would accept the country being called «North Macedonia,» a compromise that Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis has reportedly indicated would be acceptable to Athens. On the other hand, hard-liner Ivanov – the likely winner – has already said that the «North Macedonia» proposal, made by UN mediator Matthew Nimetz, was the «worst» yet and not worth considering. With concerns about potential violence and electoral abuses looming large, one now expects the March 22 presidential elections to produce a decisive result, that is, more than 50 per cent of the votes cast. Otherwise, there will be a run-off on April 5. In either case, polls indicate that Ivanov «the hard-liner» will emerge victorious.