Moving the boundaries

Observations on Macedonia

In 1993 I received a letter so bizarrely addressed I felt compelled to keep it. Despatched through the Bureau de Poste Macédonie, it arrived emblazoned with the stamp: "Recognised by Greece as FYROM. Macedonia does not exist." The sender had mischievously addressed it to me in Athens, "Freece".

The row over the name of Greece's northern neighbour has smouldered on, flaring with a vengeance in the run-up to the Nato summit early this month.

As passions soared, so did the insults: on the eve of the summit, billboards of Greek flags defaced with a swastika sprouted up across Skopje, the tiny landlocked state's capital. Caricatures of a chubby-cheeked Kostas Karamanlis, the Greek prime minister, dressed as a Nazi SS officer, also appeared in the local media.

But why do the Greeks insist on calling the multi-ethnic country above them the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, and its two-million-strong population Fyromian, when the former Yugoslavia disintegrated long ago? After all, if there is a Macedonian language, there can surely be a Macedonian people and a Macedonian state.

But Athens doesn't see it that way. Not only is it blocking Macedonia's membership of Nato until the name row is resolved, it has since threatened, again, to use its right of veto to stop the former communist nation joining the European Union later this year.

The message is that, until the Fyromians accept a composite name that denotes their geographical designation (such as "Upper Macedonia)", Athens will veto their joining any club.

This being the Balkans, the origins of the problem go way back (though not actually to Alexander the Great, even if the Greeks were thoroughly riled after Fyrom named its international airport after the soldier king).

From 1944, when Tito designated the area formerly known as "southern Serbia" the People's Republic of Macedonia, Greece has contended that the nomenclature conveys thinly disguised territorial claims on its own northern province of Macedonia, whose "Hellenism" it says has been indisputable for more than three millennia.

Such perceived irredentism became very real during Greece's bloody civil war of 1946-49, when Tito, with the help of slavophone Greek communists, attempted to create a Greater Macedonia that would have included the warm-water port of Salonica, much coveted by Stalin.

In more recent times, the land-grab fears have been reinvigorated by textbooks, maps, articles and even banknotes depicting the former republic expanding into Greek-held "Aegean Macedonia".

In February, Skopje's prime minister was photographed, under a map that portrayed the state stretching to Salonica, laying a wreath at the tomb of Gotse Delchev, a 19th-century freedom fighter widely seen as the progenitor of modern Macedonia.

Politicians in Athens privately concede that the row is absurd but they know that Macedonia could be a make-or-break issue for any government. The ruling conservatives (with a one-seat majority) have already agreed to accept a "compound" name. Previously, Greeks had indicated that they would not countenance the neighbouring state bearing a title which included the M-word.

Nobody, today, really believes that impoverished Macedonia would invade Greece, the Balkans' pre-eminent EU member state.

But in a region where borders have a habit of changing, and Kosovo's recent declaration of independence has awakened territorial fears, the Greeks have drawn a line - the kind of line that has always spawned troubles in the Balkans.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back