Complete the following sentence: “Over 12,000 refugees and migrants, including many families with young children, are camping out in a muddy field in rain and freezing temperatures, with dangerously inadequate hygiene facilities and little hope of continuing their journey northward, on Greece’s border with __________.”
If you answered “Macedonia”, you are in the majority. Today I carried out the following highly unscientific survey: I googled “Idomeni” (the name of the village where the makeshift camp is located) and “refugees”. In the first page of results from English-language sources, 27 out of 30 stories in the international media used the same name for Greece’s norther neighbour. Of the remaining three sources, one was a Greek news site, another an official UN press release, and the third was Chinese. They all referred to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short, the naming convention agreed at Greece’s insistence by the United Nations, the European Union and most international institutions.
There was a time not too long ago when these would be fighting words. For some, they still are. No less an international power-broker than European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tripped over his nomenclature in a press conference and was promptly tweet-corrected by a Greek MEP. A Greek reporter was applauded as a hero by a section of the popular media for correcting a US State Department spokesman to the same effect (the Americans generally regarded as favouring the other side). Meanwhile in Athens, neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party MP Ilias Kasidiaris threw a BBC crew out of his office for using the M-word (or in the words of the official party statement “displaying the anti-Greek sentiment of the BBC propaganda network”) – though he refrained from punching the female reporter, suggesting that the party is investing wisely in anger-management classes. The same sources pilloried the Greek Deputy Foreign Minister for being quoted using the offensive word in an in interview to a Slovakian newspaper. Thankfully the outrage has been largely contained.
The “Macedonia name dispute” is the latest incarnation of a contest over ethnicity, history and territory between Greece and its northern neighbours which dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, flaring up again in the context of the Balkan Wars, WWI and WWII. It took its present turn after the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, when what had been the Socialist Republic of Macedonia within Yugoslavia gained its independence in 1991.
The “Salade Macédoine” of our title provides an incidental indication of the complexity of the issues involved. A Macédoine is a vegetable or fruit medley, most commonly known in the English-speaking world as a “Russian salad”. The dish is a 19th century invention and its name, describing a mix of distinct and heterogeneous ingredients, was inspired directly by the contemporary ethnographic maps of the Macedonian region with their marbled patchwork of languages, religions and ethnicities. This was before the term “balkanisation” made the broader region a byword for hostile fragmentation.
The more recent incarnation of the dispute revolves not around territory as such, but around the right to use the name and the symbols of a more distant past, the era of the Macedonian kingdom of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. The current naming convention was the result an interim accord reached in 1995 under the auspices of the UN, according to which the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (abbreviated FYROM) was to be used by international organisations – crucially international organisations which the new country was seeking to join, like the UN, the EU and NATO. In a bilateral context, other countries can use whichever name they choose, as of course can news organisations. Greeks colloquially refer to the country as “Skopje” after the capital city, or the Greek acronym ΠΓΔΜ (pronounced pou-gou-dou-moú for short). In addition, under the terms of the accord, the national flag was changed from the “star of Vergina” (the dynastic symbol of Philip II) to a more modernist design, and the constitution amended to remove clauses which the Greek side considered “irredentist” (i.e. making claims on Greek territory). It is a messy compromise and several fruitless attempts have been made to fully resolve the naming issue since then but it remains in limbo (a blow by blow account can be found here with a bit of caution required on the detail, while a brave soul wrote a more theoretical treatment of the subject, reviewed here).
The name dispute has been costly for both sides. In Greece, it brought down the government back in 1993 when the hardline nationalist faction under Antonis Samaras walked out of the governing Nea Demokratia party and started a political grudge match within the party which still rumbles on today. Political and diplomatic capital was squandered, and much energy was harnessed into organising nationalist rallies and protests, at a time when similar phenomena in the former Yugoslavia were taking a much bloodier turn. Fortunately in this case the worst weapons wielded by the Greek side were an 18-month trade embargo, veto power in international fora, and a lot of turgid rhetoric and pseudo-history on both sides. More recently, Samaras, returned to ND and serving as Prime Minister between 2012-2014, had the opportunity to revive his Macedonian dream by sponsoring a high profile archaeological investigation of the site of Amphipolis which was hoped to yield the tomb of Alexander the Great – an interpretation which continues to be disputed outside the political spotlight. North of the border, Skopje, until recently a showpiece of Cold War era brutalist architecture, blew €560 million of state funds (initial estimate €80 million) on a controversial “neo-classical” makeover including a 22 metre tall statue evoking (but not explicitly named after) Alexander on horseback, and a renaming scheme which saw many landmarks, including the international airport, referencing the ancient kingdom of Macedon.
This remains a very emotive issue, even as business ties between the two countries have strengthened, and Greeks from the border regions have been relocating or commuting across the border to take advantage of cheaper goods and services (including gambling) since the beginning of the financial crisis. Often the sensitivity has comical results; in a recent basketball match between the two national teams, the Greek broadcaster “camouflaged” the on-screen score board with background parquet to hide the national designation “MKD” used by the International Basketball Federation FIBA (one of the few international organisations not to adopt the compromise name) – to much ridicule. Personally I find this new-found ability to laugh at our national sensitivities refreshing.
There is a slightly more serious point though. Even moderate Greeks today will feel a twinge of embarrassment when a foreign leader or reporter defaults to the simple, evocative and familiar name “Macedonia” over the decidedly clunkier middle-earth-kingdom-sounding FYROM. This is not necessarily because we all harbour nationalist delusions of grandeur, but rather because it implies that we have de facto lost the diplomatic branding battle, if not to anti-Greek sentiment then to convenience.
Our neighbours, meanwhile, have more material grievances. President Gjorge Ivanov complains that his country has been forced to do Europe’s “dirty work” without receiving any support, because of the EU’s failure to manage migrant flows. Rather than being invited to sit at the negotiating table over the refugee crisis, “Macedonia” is “part of the menu”, he is quoted as saying in German newspaper Bild. “For 25 years we’ve been lied to and manipulated… No one in the EU gets along with the Greeks and we are supposed to solve this conflict on our own with this country… Macedonia had achieved nothing out of the European Union, no EU membership, no Schengen zone and not NATO… Nobody wants us.” Peel away the rhetoric of victimhood (which may sound somewhat familiar) and you will see that they consider themselves the bigger losers.
This is the kind of statement that will no doubt be chewed over in the Greek media, but we must keep things in perspective. When you get to the end of this post, go back and read that first sentence again to remember why.
We have enough on our plate at the moment – we don’t need to add a side order of stodgy retro nationalist salad.
POSTSCRIPT: We spoke too soon. Trust right wing nationalist government coalition partner and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos to order extra helpings, purely for internal consumption. After his cabinet colleague Deputy Immigration Minister Ioannis Mouzalas let slip the M-word in a TV interview, Kammenos is now (15th March) demanding his resignation. Kammenos’s ANEL party controls nine seats in the Greek parliament which are crucial to the coalition government retaining its three-seat majority. He is joined in his call by his old party, Nea Demokratia, now in opposition and failing to live up to their “reformist” promise under Kyriakos Mitsotakis – ironically standing up for the cause which, championed by Samaras, unseated his father Konstantinos Mitsotakis back in 1993.
Image: Aerial view of Idomeni camp before the heavy rains by EPA via bbc.co.uk