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The Macedonian Minority of Northern Greece

Loring M.

During the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, world attention has focused quite understandably on the horrors of the killing and the ethnic cleansing which have been taking place in Croatia and Bosnia. By contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to Macedonia; in large part, I suspect, because the situation there has, until now at least, remained so peaceful.

Historically, however, Macedonia has often been a major source of conflict and instability in the Balkans. Even now, it lies at the center of a bitter dispute between Greeks and Macedonians over which group has the right to identify itself as Macedonians. This latest phase of the Macedonian Question involves two major issues: the human rights of the Macedonian minority in northern Greece, and the international recognition of the Republic of Macedonia. This controversy, in many ways a dispute over national symbols such as names, flags, and famous ancestors, has been largely confined to the arenas of international diplomacy and public relations. Nevertheless, the potential for violence is real, because the conflict between Greeks and Macedonians is an expression of the same forces of ethnic nationalism and irrendentism - the desire to create ethnically pure and homogeneous nation states - that lie at the heart of the more violent conflict that rages now between the Serbs, the Croats, and the Moslems of Bosnia.

The Macedonian Question in Balkan History

The Macedonian Question has dominated Balkan history and politics for over a hundred years. During the Ottoman period, which lasted in Macedonia from the fourteenth century until 1913, the population of Macedonia included an amazing number of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, including Slavic and Greek speaking Christians, Turkish and Albanian speaking Moslems, Vlachs, Jews, and Gypsies. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the population of Macedonia was increasingly being defined from various external nationalist perspectives in terms of national categories, such as Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, and Turks. Ottoman authorities, however, continued to divide the population of the empire into administrative units, or millets, on the basis of religious identity rather than language, ethnicity, or nationality. The hegemony which the Greeks exercised over the Orthodox Christian millet was seriously challenged for the first time by the establishment of an independent Bulgarian Church in 1870. Orthodox communities in Macedonia now had the choice of affiliating with either the Greek or the Bulgarian national church. This marked an intensification of the "Macedonian Struggle" in which Greek, Bulgarian, and to a lesser extent Serbian, irredentist claims came into conflict over who would gain control over the people and the territory of Macedonia.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the three Balkan states had each fielded irregular bands of guerrilla fighters who attacked the Turks, fought each other, and terrorized the local population. In addition, through the construction of churches and schools and the assignment of priests and teachers, each state conducted an intense propaganda campaign, whose goal was to instill the "proper" sense of national identity among the Orthodox Christians of Macedonia. The Macedonian Struggle reached its climax in the Balakan Wars of 1912-13, which ended with the partitioning of Macedonia among Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia (later Yugoslavia).

The Greek government has consistently denied the existence of a Macedonian minority in northern Greece and has adopted a policy of forced assimilation toward the Slavic-speaking inhabitants of Greek Macedonia. After 1913, all Slavic personal and place names were Hellenized, and all evidence of the existence of Slavic literacy was destroyed. As a result of the population exchanges which took place between Greece and Bulgaria and Greece and Turkey in the 1920s, the number of people in Greek Macedonia who had a sense of Greek national identity increased substantially.

Under the Metaxas dictatorship of 1936-40 repression of the Slavic speakers, who by this time had increasingly begun to identify themselves as Macedonians, was particularly severe: people who spoke Macedonian were beaten, fined, and imprisoned. During the Greek Civil War (1946-49), many Macedonians supported the Communist resistance. Its goals were to detach territory. Its goals were to detach territory in Greek Macedonia from the Greek state and establish there a "Free Greece" within the framework of the Balkan Federation, envisioned by leaders of the Communist Parties of Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. After the Civil War, some 35,000 Macedonians fled to Yugoslavia and other countries in eastern Europe under extremely difficult circumstances. In the decades that followed, conservative Greek governments continued this policy of persecution and assimilation. Perhaps the most egregious examples of this were the "language oaths" administered in several Macedonian villages, which required Macedonians to swear that they would renounce their "Slavic dialect" and from then on speak only Greek.

Competing Claims to Macedonian Identity

According to the Greek nationalist position on the Macedonian Question, because Alexander the Great and the ancient Macedonians were Greeks, and because ancient and modern Greece are bound in an unbroken line of racial and cultural continuity, it is only Greeks who have the right to identify themselves as Macedonians, not the Slavs of southern Yugoslavia, who settled in Macedonia in the sixth century AD and who until 1944 called themselves "Bulgarians." Greeks, therefore, generally refer to Macedonians as "Skopians," after Skopje, the capital of the Republic of Macedonia, a practice which would be comparable to calling Greeks "Athenians."

The negation of Macedonian identity in Greek nationalist ideology focuses on three main points: the existence of a Macedonian nation, a Macedonian language, and a Macedonian language, and a Macedonian minority in Greece. From the Greek nationalist perspective, there cannot be a Macedonian nation since there has never been an independent Macedonian state. The Macedonian nation is an "artificial creation," an "invention" of Tito, who "baptized" a "mosaic of nationalities" with the Greek name "Macedonians."

Similarly, Greek nationalists argue that because the language spoken by the ancient Macedonians was Greek, the Slavic language spoken by the "Skopians" cannot be called "the Macedonian language." Greek sources generally refer to it as "the linguistic idiom of Skopje" and describe it as a corrupt and impoverished dialect of Bulgarian. Finally, the Greek government denies the existence of a Macedonian minority in northern Greece, claiming that there exists only a small group of "Slavophone Hellenes" or "bilingual Greeks," who speak Greek and "a local Slavic dialect" but have a "Greek national consciousness."

From the Greek nationalist perspective, then, the use of the name "Macedonian" by the "Slavs of Skopje" constitutes a "felony," an "act of plagiarism" against the Greek people. By calling themselves "Macedonians," the Slavs are "stealing" a Greek names; they are "embezzling" Greek cultural heritage and "falsifying" Greek history. As Evangelos Kofos, a Greek historian employed by the Greek Foreign Ministry, told a foreign reporter, "It is as if a robber came into my house and stole my most precious jewels - my history, my culture, my identity."

Macedonians, on the other hand, are committed to affirming their existence as unique people with a unique history, culture, and identity, and ot gaining recognition of this fact internationally. In asserting what they sometimes refer to as their "ethnospecificity," Macedonians insist they are not Serbs, Yugoslavs, Bulgarians, or Greeks. They also reject hyphenated names such as Yugoslav-Macedonians or Greek-Macedonians, claiming them to be "divisive labels" indicative of a "partition mentality" that needs to be overcome. There are no Slav-Macedonians, either, anymore than there are Slav-Russians or Slav-Poles. According to many Macedonians, Greeks and Bulgarians who live in Macedonia (whose nationality is Greek or Bulgarian) may identify themselves as "Macedonians," but in regional or geographical sense only.

Extreme Macedonian nationalists, who are concerned with demonstrating the continuity between ancient and modern Macedonians, deny that they are Slavs and claim to be the direct descendants of Alexander the Great and the ancient Macedonians. The more moderate Macedonian position, generally adopted by better educated Macedonians and publicly endorsed by Kiro Glogorov, the first president of the newly independent Republic of Macedonia, is that modern Macedonians have no relation to Alexander the Great, but are a Slavic people whose ancestors arrived in Macedonia in the sixth century AD. Proponents of both the extreme and the moderate Macedonian positions stress that the ancient Macedonians were a distinct non-Greek people.

In addition to affirming the existence of the Macedonian nation, Macedonians are concerned with affirming the existence of a unique Macedonian language as well. While acknowledging the similarities between Macedonian and other South Slavic languages, they point to the distinctions that set it apart as a separate language. They also emphasize that although standard literary Macedonian was only formally created and recognized in 1944, the Macedonian language has a history of over a thousand years, dating back to the Old Church Slavonic used by Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century.

Although all Macedonians agree that Macedonian minorities exist in Bulgaria and Greece and that these minorities have been subjected to harsh policies of forced assimilation, there are two different positions with regard to what their future should be. The goal of more extreme Macedonian nationalists is to create a "free, united, and independent Macedonia" by "liberating" the parts of Macedonia "temporarily occupied" by Bulgaria and Greece. More moderate Macedonian nationalists recognize the inviolability of the Bulgarian and Greek borders and explicitly renounce any territorial claims against the two countries. They do, however, demand that Bulgaria and Greece recognize the existence of Macedonian minorities in their countries and grant them the basic human rights they deserve.

The Construction of Macedonian Identity

From an anthropological perspective, the Macedonian Question in its current from can be seen as a conflict between two opposing national ideologies, both of which reify nations, national cultures, and national identities; project them far back into the past; and treat them as eternal, natural, and immutable essences. The anthropology of nationalism must dereify the nation; it must deconstruct national cultures and identities. These tasks can be accomplished by analyzing the process of nation formation, the process by which nations, national cultures, and national identities are constantly constructed and reconstructed from pre-existing cultural forms. In this way anthropologists can avoid being coopted by the persuasiveness of either the Greek or the Macedonian nationalist myth. Instead they can concentrate on the analysis of the historical processes through which the Serbian, Bulgarian, Greek, and Macedonian nations have been constructed.

The construction of a Macedonian national identity began in the second half of the nineteenth century with the first expressions of Macedonian ethnic nationalism on the part of a small number of intellectuals like Krste Missirkov, who in 1903 called for "the recognition of the Salvs in Macedonia as a separate nationality - Macedonians." At this time, however, the vast majority of the Slavic-speaking inhabitants of Macedonia were illiterate peasants with no clearly developed sense of national identity at all. According to most disinterested observers, any expression of national identity that was encountered among the Macedonian peasantry was very superficial and could be attributed to educational and religious propaganda or simply to terrorism.

From an anthropological perspective the relatively recent date of the creation of a Macedonian state and the construction of a Macedonian nation, in comparison to other Balkan cases, does not mean, as Greek nationalists claim, that the Macedonian nation is "artificial," while the Greek nation is "genuine." Nor does it mean that Macedonian national identity is only "imagined," while Greek national identity is "real," as Evangelos Kofos put it, citing Anderson in what is a clear misuse of Anderson's work to serve the goals of nationalist historiography. Both Macedonian national identity and Greek national identity are equally constructed.

Similarly, the Greek claim that there is no linguistic evidence to support the view that Macedonian is a distinct language and not just a dialect of Bulgarian ignores the widely accepted sociolinguistic insight that the decision as to whether a particular variety of speech constitutes a language or a dialect is always based on political rather than linguistic criteria. The existence of the Macedonian language is accepted by linguists everywhere in the world except in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Finally, an anthropological perspective suggests that attempts by the Greek state to impose a homogeneous national culture on a group of people with different linguistic and cultural traditions may itself contribute to the creation of a national minority.

The Global Conflict over Macedonian Human Rights

The present phase of the Macedonian Question is taking place in an era of globalizations of many, the process of globalization has not brought about the demise of the nation or the obsolescence of national identities. Instead, national communities are being"imagined" in new ways. We are witnessing the construction of transnational national communities in which homelands and diasporas are linked through a complex network of what Arjun Appadurai has called "global cultural flows" of people, information, money, and images that have been made possible by new satellite telecommunications networks, the ease and speed of intercontinental air travel, and the accessibility of new technologies such as video equipment and fax machines. Another aspect of the recent globalization of nationalist conflict is the increasingly important role played in world affairs by organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union, which serve as international arenas in which national conflicts can be raised, monitored, and arbitrated. It is to these organizations that nations now turn when they seek recognition, legitimacy, or support.

According to the entry on Greece in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1990 published by the United States Department of State, there are between 20,000 and 50,000 Macedonian speaking people in northern Greece, many of whom live in the relatively underdeveloped area along the border between Greece and the former Yugoslavia. Although a majority of these people have a Greek national identity (that is, they identify themselves as Greeks and as Macedonians, or as Greek-Macedonians), a significant number of them have a Macedonian national identity (that is, they identify themselves as Macedonians and not as Greeks). Since the mid 1980s, a small number of these Macedonians, many of whose families experienced severe persecution during the Greek Civil War, have become politically active and begun to demand human rights for the Macedonian minority in Greece.

In 1984 the Central Organizing Committee for Macedonian Human Rights was established in northern Greece. In the next few years similar organizations were formed by Macedonians in diaspora communities in Canada and Australia. Among the goals of these groups are the repeal of several specific laws which discriminate against Macedonians. Two laws (passed in 1982 and 1985) explicitly exclude Macedonians from the general amnesty under which political refugees who left Greece after the Civil War were allowed to return to Greece and reclaim their property (which had been confiscated by the Greek government) only if they were "Greek by birth." Another law (passed in 1982) ceased to recognize university degrees obtained in the Republic of Macedonia on the grounds that Macedonian was not an internationally recognized language.

More generally, these Macedonian human rights groups seek recognition by the Greek government of the existence of a Macedonian minority in Greece. They are working to end discrimination against Macedonians in Greece in the fields of education and employment, as well as in other areas of social, cultural, and political life. They want Macedonians in Greece to have the right to attend church services in Macedonian, to receive their primary and secondary education in Macedonian, and to publish newspapers and broadcast radio and television programs in Macedonian. They also want the right to establish Macedonian cultural organizations, such as the Center for Macedonian Culture, which was formed in Florina in 1984. Four Greek court decisions, however, have refused to grant the Center for Macedonian Culture legal recognition on the grounds that its purpose is to promote the idea of the existence of a Macedonian minority in Greece, an activity which was contrary to the national interests of Greece and therefore illegal. At present the founders of the Center for Macedonian Culture plan to bring their case before the European Commission on Human Rights. Finally, these groups have protested police interference with village festivals in which Macedonian folk songs and dances are performed. They have also protested the harassment and persecution of Macedonian human rights activists, some of whom have been dismissed from their jobs, denied entry into Greece, and deprived of their Greek citizenship.

In 1990, an international Macedonian delegation, which included representatives from Macedonian human rights organizations in Greece, Bulgaria, and the Republic of Macedonia, as well as Europe, Canada, and Australia, began to press their demands at annual meetings of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe. At one such meeting an Australian judge of Macedonian background confronted Greek government officials over the proper definition of national identity which should apply in the dispute over the human rights of the Macedonian minority in northern Greece. This is an excellent illustration of how, in the present era of globalization, nation-states like Greece are being challenged simultaneously from above and below, from without and within, by international organizations, on the one hand, and ethnic minorities, on the other. Ethnic minorities struggling for recognition and human rights from the nation-states they inhabit are now able to mobilize the support of diaspora communities abroad. They are beginning to shift the balance of power in their favor, and away from the nation-states they are struggling against, by appealing to international organizations. These organizations' commitment to human rights and cultural pluralism generally make them much more responsive to the plight of ethnic minorities than the governments of nation-states which are committed to nationalist ideologies of purity and homogeneity.

More recently, two Macedonian human rights activists, Christos Sideropoulos and Anastasios Boulis, both from the Florina area, were charged with criminal offenses as a result of comments they had made in an interview that appeared in the March 11, 1992, issue of Ena, a weekly magazine published in Athens. In the interview, Sideropoulos was quoted as saying that he was a Greek citizen, but that he had "a Macedonian national consciousness," while Boulos was quoted as saying simply, "I am not a Greek; I am a Macedonian."

By asserting the existence of a Macedonian minority in Greece, Sideropoulos and Boulos were charged with having spread "intentionally false information which might create unrest and fear among the citizens and which might affect the public security or harm the international relations of the country." During the five hour trial, which was attended by Ahmet Sadik, a Turkish member of the Greek parliament, two Greek neo-Nazi organizations, "Golden dawn" and "National Crusade," demonstrated outside the courthouse shouting, "We will conquer Skopje!" and "We will wash our hands with the blood of the Skopians!" Sideropoulos and Boulis were both found guilty and were fined 100,000 drachmas and sentenced to five months in prison.

Amnesty International expressed its concern over this case to the Greek authorities, stating that the prosecution of Sideropulos and Boulis was in violation of the Ruropean Convention on Human Rights. In January, 1994, after the Greek parliament passed a law ending prosecutions of "offenses committed by or through the press," an Appeals Court in Athens directed that the criminal prosecution against Sideropoulos and Boulis be dropped. Several months later, however, Sideropoulos was scheduled to be tried in District Court in Florina on charges of having presented information that could damage Greece's international relations at the 1990 meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where he stated that a Macedonian minority existed in Greece and was being deprived of its basic human rights.

Another Macedonian human rights activists, Father Nikilimos Tsarknias, a priest who has also traveled abroad to publicize the situation of the Macedonian minority in Greece, has also been the target of legal proceedings in the Greek court system. In early 1993, after twenty years of service as a priest, Father Tsarknias was defrocked and excommunicated by officials of the Greek Orthodox Church. He was found guilty in an ecclesiastical court on charges of homosexuality and disobedience to his superiors. Father Tsarknias himself, however, insists that he was punished because he publicly asserts that he is a Macedonian and not a Greek.

On December 2, 1994, in civil proceedings in a northern Greek court, Father Tsarknias was sentenced to three months in prison for impersonating a priest because he continued to wear his clerical robes. In his defense, Father Tsarknias stated that he had the right to wear his clerical robes because, after he was excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church, he became a monk at a monastery of the Macedonian Orthodox Church near Skopje. According to the court, Tsarknias was convicted, because as a Greek citizen he did not have the right to join a non-Greek church. At the conclusion of his trial, Father Tsarknias refused to promise that he would never wear his clerical robes again. Therefore, he was immediately prosecuted a second time. Again, he was convicted and sentenced to three months in prison.

Finally, in November, 1992, George Misali, a Macedonian from northern Greece who has lived for over twenty years in Australia and has been active in Macedonian organizations there, was notified by the Greek Consulate in Melbourne that, according to the Ministry of the Interior, "he had been declared to have forfeited his Greek citizenship" and to have been "crossed off the citizenship register and the municipal roll" of the village of Meliti (near Florina), where he had been born. When he tried to enter Greece from the Republic of Macedonia in the summer of 1993, he was refused permission to enter the country.


The dispute between Greeks and Macedonians over which group has the right to identify itself as Macedonians is a dispute between the proponents of two nationalist ideologies over the possession of national identities, histories, and cultures, all of which from a nationalist perspective are considered to be the property of the nation. It is a dispute over the ownership of cultural property in which each of two nations has attempted to place a copyright or trademark on what it considers to be its own name, its own national emblems, and its own famous ancestors. Since a nation's culture is as much its possession as its territory, the appropriation of this culture by another nation constitutes from a nationalist perspective a threat to the nation's territorial integrity.

From an anthropological perspective, however, we can see that in this dispute between Greeks and Macedonians two different national identities and cultures are being constructed from the same raw materials, from the same set of powerful national symbols. And while territory must be the mutually exclusive possession of one state or another - a particular village can only be located in Greece or in the Republic of Macedonia - not only can two cultures coexist in one place, but two different peoples with two different nationalities can share the same name. From a perspective in which symbols can have more than one meaning, names more than one referent, there can be two kinds of Macedonians - Macedonians who are Greeks and Macedonians who are not Greeks. Similarly, there can be a Macedonia which is an independent country and a Macedonia which is a region in another country, as maps accompanying recent accounts of the dispute illustrate.

While such a solution may create some confusion, it is preferable to a solution which denies Macedonians who are not Greeks the right to identify themselves as Macedonians. It is preferable to a solution which, in what could be called a kind of symbolic ethnic cleansing, not only denies the existence of a Macedonian nation and a Macedonian minority in Greece, but also attempts to destroy the identity, language, and culture of this minority. For that solution is an expression of the same kind of ethnic nationalism that in times of economic chaos and political collapse can all too easily lead to a literal, not just a symbolic, form of ethnic cleansing, the kind of ethnic cleansing we are withnessing now - to our horror - in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.