It’s been four days since the rally against the Prespes Agreement and the Macedonia name deal, in central Athens last Sunday.
More than 100,000 people are said to have gathered around Syntagma Square and the Greek Parliament, the official police number report is 60,000, an impressive number nevertheless yet far below the estimated 600,000 that the organisers expected, while out of the 3,000 buses lined up to travel to the capital, mainly from the country’s north, only 326 were recorded clocking in at tolls on national highways.
It was expected to be a peaceful rally but as it turned out no rally is peaceful in Greece. The Greek Police (ELAS) was accused of excessive violence and use of inappropriate chemicals. ELAS responded with an official statement saying that measures were aimed at ensuring public safety and protecting public buildings against intrusion and vandalism, including the Greek Parliament.
According to ELAS, authorities had received information that groups of protesters would attempt to storm Parliament, which indeed was attempted. An alarming information given by ELAS is that maps had been circulated among protesters with detailed directions as to how to access the parliament building. Parliament President Mr Nikos Voutsis expressed his fear that the attempt was a test for future actions by the extremist protesters and some fear that similar invasion will be attempted on Friday morning when the voting for the Prespes Agreement will take place in the Greek Parliament.
The fact is that violence prevailed once again. Civilians suffered breathing problems, 28 police officers were injured- some of them badly- and maybe the most outrageous was that this time even the Press was attacked by certain extremists who claimed to protest for the benefit of our country and the ancient Macedonian identity.
Several photo-reporters and journalists were attacked, beaten and had their equipment destroyed or stolen by extremist groups.
One of the victims was journalist Thomas Iacobi, correspondent for many international media and co-author of a documentary about the ultranationalist far-right political party Golden Dawn. The journalist managed to record the threats against him while he was attacked, apparently by Golden Dawn supporters based on the recordings, with a hidden voice-recorder in his pocket.
The other victim that was seriously injured was Kostis Dadamis who was hospitalised and treated for head injuries while his equipment had been stolen. He said that first it was a group of two or three people around him until a mob gathered. The attackers first told him to hand over his camera and when he refused, they started to hit him with clubs until his colleagues came to his help.
According to the Greek Proto-Reporters Association, a total of five photographers and cameramen were attacked, beaten and had their equipment smashed or stolen.
Obviously not all protesters were extremists and out of the thousands gathered it was only a disgraceful few hundred people who took advantage of the rally for their own dark purposes.
However, everyone who went to the rally was angry. People demonstrate in order to express their discomfort, their disagreement, their disapproval, their anger.
What fuelled thousands of Greeks, who included diaspora Greeks who had flown in from as far as the United States, to gather last Sunday in front of the Greek Parliament?
It is the accord known as Prespes Agreement, that was signed on June 17 last summer in Psarades, a tiny village in the Prespes lake district, by the two foreign ministers, at the time, of Greece and FYROM, Mr Nikos Kotzias and Mr Nikola Dimitrov.
The Agreement was to end a bitter unfruitful dispute that started in 1991 when Skopje declared independence from Yugoslavia.
Skopje invested indeed in the name “Macedonia” and the roots of that go way back. Back to 1945 and Marshal Tito who gave the name “Republic of Macedonia” and used it as a nucleus for annexing parts of Bulgaria and Greece that were once the Macedonia of Alexander the Great.
So, the name “Republic of Macedonia” is not a phantom fear for Greece. It is associated with immense pain and suffering by Greeks and linked with a plan to take over parts of Greek territory that have a Greek heritage of more than 2,500 years.
The Greek officials spotted the dangers and rightfully reacted back in 1991. The declaration of the “Republic of Macedonia” by the Slavic population that inhabited the area did carry irredentist aspirations, territorial claims and arrogation of ethnic Greek symbols like the Sun of Vergina that was initially depicted on their flag and is a symbol found among the tombs of the ancient kings of Macedonia.
Skopje dropped the Sun of Vergina altering their flag and confirmed that they have no territorial claims against Greece and that they will not practice any hostile to Greece propaganda. They also agreed to a temporary name solution using the constitutional name FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). That was a victory for Greek diplomacy, even if a subtle one.
From that point onwards though things progressed internationally and unfortunately Greece and Greek diplomacy failed to follow.
Staying focused on the name over time, we isolated ourselves while our neighbours in the north managed to get themselves known internationally and get themselves recognised with their constitutional name progressively by the UN, China and the US and basically everyone, apart from us Greeks, ended calling the area Macedonia and the inhabitants Macedonians.
Anyone who has lived abroad knows very well what I am talking about and if you want to test it a little bit more try Googling the name Macedonia or read articles by well-established and popular newspapers and news agencies like Reuters, The Guardian or The New York Times when they write about the Prespes Agreement or report on the name dispute.
Indicatively, “Macedonia agrees to new name after 27-year dispute with Greece”, The Guardian, June 12, 2018 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/12/macedonia-agrees-to-new-name-after-27-year-dispute-with-greece
“Macedonia to rename airport to help resolve name row with Greece, PM says”, Reuters, January 24, 2018 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-greece-macedonia-name-airport/macedonia-to-rename-airport-to-help-resolve-name-row-with-greece-pm-says-idUSKBN1FD2TS
“Macedonia and Greece Sign Historic Deal on Name Change”, The New York Times, June 17, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/17/world/europe/greece-macedonia-name-dispute.html
While we rally to protect our Macedonia and oppose the Prespes name deal, the international community talks about Macedonia, meaning FYROM, changing their name.
So, don’t you think it is time to open our eyes, and ears, and see the bigger picture?
As the former Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs and architect of the Prespes Agreement Mr Nikos Kotzias said, it is the first time in history that a country agrees to change its name without war. It is important to see the opportunities rather than fear the dangers.
Of course, we need to protect our heritage as a nation. Of course, Alexander the Great was Greek. It was his father Philippos, Philip II of Macedon, who united the ancient Greek world. And it was not until the 6th and 7th centuries AD that the Slavs invaded and settled in the Balkans.
Of course, there are a lot of bitter memories associated with the Slavo-Macedonians, a term internationally recognised, and their aspirations to unite under the “Republic of Macedonia” seizing territories that belong to Greece, remembering what was attempted by Tito.
That is why it is important to differentiate things and secure certain facts.
As things are, Macedonia geographically belongs 55% to Greece, 35% to FYROM, 9% to Bulgaria and just 1% to Albania.
It is important to note that the Slavs of Macedonia traditionally had been either without some exact ethnonational name or been self-identifying themselves. However, from the late 19th century, due to both Bulgarian and Greek political propaganda efforts, a Macedonian regional identity started to be developed. In 1945 it was transformed into an ethnonational identity within the borders of ex-Yugoslavia. That is how today we have the “Macedonians” as an ethnolinguistic nation which is even internationally recognised as such by many political and academic authorities.
With the accord that was signed at Prespes, the new name of our neighbours is a combined name that has the term Macedonia and the term North specifying that it refers to the specific geographical area and has nothing to do with the ancient Greek Macedonia and its decedents. Their language, although named Macedonian, is clearly stated that it belongs to the South Slavic languages therefore has no relation to ancient Greece and ancient Macedonia. They are Macedonian citizens (of North Macedonia) and that is their right since they inhabit that area but citizenship is not jus sanguinis, does not give right of blood. If you move to the UK or the US, after certain years you can become a British or American citizen without that meaning that you are English or American.
So, regarding the Macedonian language that is one of our main concerns, and which by the way was already recognised by Greece at a UN conference held in Athens in 1977, with the Prespes Agreement we succeeded in moving from recognising it as Macedonian to clarifying that beyond any doubt it is a language of Slavic origins and has no relation with the historic heritage of the Ancient Greek Civilisation and Macedonia.
Regarding the Macedonian nationality that is our second main concern, Prespes Agreement refers clearly to citizenship and not to ethnicity. Based on International Law, the terms “nationality” and “ethnicity” are totally different and when signing an international accord, you consult the legal terms and not a common dictionary, nationality is the right term to describe the citizenship rights of these people. The term “ethnicity”, that we actually rally for, is nowhere mentioned in the Prespes Agreement.
Finally, the Prespes Agreement succeeded in including the term erga omnes that we have been trying with no success to include all the past years.
Erga omnes means “against all others” and in essence means that Skopje is obliged with this Agreement to change its name within a specified time and use the new name, North Macedonia, for all correspondence and activities internally and internationally. The transitional period given to Skopje with the Prespes Agreement is five years.
Some argue “why North Macedonia and not Severna Makedonija” which is the name in Slavic and I believe that the Greek PM Mr Alexis Tsipras gave the best answer stating the obvious that North Macedonia is easier to use and memorise and therefore easier to be used in international relations and replace the name Macedonia that is currently used.
I was born in Thessaloniki so I know how sensitive the Macedonia issue is. But it was time to do something and at least now we made some good progress. We have the chance to be the protagonists in the Balkans and we should not sabotage ourselves with micropolitics that are good only for internal consumption.
The bitter truth is that FYROM is widely known worldwide already as Macedonia. If we continue to oppose to solutions regarding the name, we will alienate ourselves further, we will appear as stubborn and we will win nothing in the end while FYROM will have already established themselves as Macedonia worldwide. At least now they have formally committed on certain things and bridges were built for a good neighbouring and cooperation. With the Prespes Agreement they formally abandoned any territorial claims, changed the name of their airport and their main street and even their constitution and in return we will facilitate their participation to NATO which is probably for the better for the whole Balkan area.
Western powers wish a peaceful settlement in the Balkans and wish Balkans to stay as far away as possible from Russian influence and Islamic extremism. Matthew Nimetz, the Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for the naming dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) who has spent more than 24 years working on a solution, appeared somewhat annoyed yesterday, Wednesday 23 Jan, warning about the possible repercussions of a failure to implement the Prespes Agreement. FYROM already made all the constitutional changes that they were asked to do and ratified the Agreement so if anything goes wrong now will fall on our side. The only thing pending now is the ratification by the Greek Parliament.
As Mr Nikos Kotzias correctly pointed yesterday during an interview at Kontra Channel News; in 2011, ICJ (the International Court of Justice) in Hague ruled against Greece and the blocking of FYROM’s NATO bid in 2008. Based on BBC News which by the way published an article titled “ICJ rules Greece ‘wrong’ to block Macedonia’s NATO bid” (note the name Macedonia) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-16032198 “It (ICJ) said Athens should have abided by a 1995 deal not to block Macedonian applications if made under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.” “Greece, by objecting to the admission of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to NATO, has breached its obligation,” ICJ said. “The ruling makes it politically more difficult for Greece to object to any future application by Macedonia to either NATO or the EU.”, the BBC continued.
So really, for how much longer you believe we can continue to veto? And if we decide to veto again in a future scenario, this time we would not be facing the implications of vetoing FYROM’s NATO bid but of defying the rulings of the International Court of Justice.
Many argue that we should have a referendum in Greece regarding the name deal. But how much do most people really know since most media present only the seemingly popular side of opposing the deal? And how many of us have read the 19 pages of the Prespes Agreement? How many of us knew the simple fact that we have been condemned by ICJ back in 2011 and what that means for our future diplomatic negotiations with FYROM?
Greek people have been tormented by poverty, harsh economic measures, pension cuts and instability. When it comes to the Macedonia name dispute it is often seen as a matter of national pride and a means to unite and express a deeper anger. People have been challenged that they will stop gathering and protesting so they continue. It is their way of expressing their unity and urge for action. However, it is the responsibility of the Greek politicians to not exploit these sentiments and use the name deal as a trojan horse for the soon coming elections in Greece, with all the catastrophic implications that this political game might have for the country. Things started to change for the better for Greece both in terms of the economy and in terms of our geopolitical power in the region and we should embrace these changes with optimism. There is no time for inaction, it is time for action if we want to stay in the game and win.