Recognizing `Macedonia' Defies History

COMMENTATORS on international politics do not like being taken by surprise, so they tend to foresee the worst. Few thought Yugoslavia would stay together, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet empire. But few if any foresaw the horrifying brutality and scale of the consequences in Croatia and Bosnia. The experts do not want to be caught napping again, so they are already identifying the scene of the next catastrophe. We are now being warned that the most likely candidate is the ex-Yugoslav republic t hat Tito called Makedonija. The people being blamed for a prospective catastrophe are the Greeks.

The Greek government is regularly accused in the Western press of being tiresome and obstructive over the recognition of this small, land-locked territory on its northern borders, which has declared itself independent of Yugoslavia.

The de facto government of the ex-Yugoslav republic, with its capital at Skopje, sought international recognition as the Republic of Macedonia. After a cursory discussion in the Council of Ministers of the European Community (EC), 11 members were initially persuaded to agree, but Greece dissented. From the first, the Greeks made it clear that their objection was not to recognition but only to the name of Macedonia.

Some weeks later, at a meeting of heads of government, the Greek prime minister explained the grounds of the objection. The other members accepted his arguments and agreed that the new state could be recognized, but only under a different name. Given that the decision was finally unanimous and was reached by a process of reasoned argument, what was tiresome, difficult, or obstructive about Greece's conduct?

What was the Greeks' case? Simply, it was that the former Yugoslav republic of Makedonija was nothing but an invention of Tito's as a bridgehead for the penetration and annexation of Greece's northern province, which is the real Macedonia with its capital at Salonika. Tito's Makedonija did not ever exist as a name on any map 50 years ago. But after 1945 Tito began openly talking of a Greater Macedonia that would include not only his small, artificial province but also the major Greek province that he cal led Aegean Macedonia. He pursued this policy not only by state-controlled propaganda but also by semi-clandestine warfare.

During the Greek civil war of 1946-49, the communist-led Democratic Army was supported from Tito's territory by military supplies, training, and recruits, and by safe harbors north of the Greek frontier, which the Greek National Army was debarred from crossing. By the end of the civil war, half the manpower of the Democratic Army were Slavs recruited either from Tito's Makedonija or from the Slav-Macedonian minority in Greece. The rebel government set up by the Greek communists contained two Slav-Macedon ians.

There is no doubt that if Tito had had his way, Greater Macedonia would have been established with its capital as Salonika, the port on the Mediterranean that Stalin also desired. The republic of Makedonija would have sunk back to its minor status, and its nominal capital of Skopje would have remained an insignificant country town. Skopje as a capital would have been absurd, for when Macedonia was last geographically united, under the Ottoman Empire, Skopje was not even in Macedonia; it was the capital o f the neighboring Turkish vilayet of Kossove.

If one consults a map of southeast Europe before the Balkan wars (the Harmsworth Atlas of 1910), the boundaries of Macedonia in the Ottoman Empire are clear. Those boundaries were breached by two Balkan wars and reconstituted on the lines that the original anti-Turkish alliance (Greece, Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria) had reached by force of arms. No final settlement of the frontiers could go unchallenged on ethnic grounds; not for nothing did the French adopt the word macedonie for fruit salad.

But the frontiers have not been substantially changed since 1913, despite several efforts. The outcome is unmistakable on the map of southeast Europe: Only a very small segment of historic Macedonia now lies within the borders of Tito's Makedonija, and an even smaller one in Bulgaria.

The Greeks' objection to the misuse of the name of Macedonia is therefore well founded. It is all very well for the experts to claim that the petty new state presents no threat to anybody. That could be as fatally optimistic as the expectation that the disintegration of Yugoslavia could be peacefully managed.

The optimists should not forget that both Serbia and Bulgaria have had historic claims on Greek Macedonia, however ill-based. It was from Belgrade and Sofia that the last assault on Greek sovereignty was launched. Are the present incumbents of power in Belgrade and Sofia today more trustworthy? They too have potential claims against the ex-Yugoslav republic, whereas the Greeks have none apart from the usurpation of the name.

It would be naive to suppose that in accepting the Greeks' argument the EC was yielding to a tiresome and obstructive partner. It was simply exercising prudence and common sense. If a catastrophe is coming in the ex-Yugoslav republic, it will come anyway, not because its wish to choose a provocative name is frustrated.

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