The Macedonian Question

Yiannis Baboulias

Since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) have been locked in dispute over the name Macedonia. A million people gathered in the streets of Thessaloniki on 14 February 1992 to protest against the former Yugoslav republic’s use of the name. ‘Macedonia is Greek,’ they chanted. The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn was quick to capitalise on the issue. Earlier this month, the two countries at last signed a preliminary deal that would see Greece recognise its neighbour as Northern Macedonia, and thereby open the path towards its joining Nato and the EU. There have been almost daily protests in Greece against the deal, especially in the north, providing fertile ground for a new wave of nationalist and far-right sentiment.

Greek and European officials have meanwhile been pushing the news that the EU-imposed austerity programmes are over, and Greece looks as if it is recovering financially. But while there are hopeful signs on the horizon for the country’s economy, its politics are in turmoil. The Macedonia deal is a flashpoint in the culture wars; public discourse is full of talk of ‘traitors’ and ‘patriots’.

Both Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Zoran Zaev in Northern Macedonia have been accused of treason by ultra-nationalists. Zaev’s predecessor, Nikola Gruevski, and his party promoted for years the idea that their people are the true heirs to the legacy of Alexander the Great and ancient Macedon. Greece saw this not only as a false claim with no historical basis, but also as a sign of irredentism. With Zaev and Tsipras in charge, common ground between the countries was easier to find.

The supposedly centrist Greek opposition leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, opted to join the nationalist wave, to avoid a split in his right-wing New Democracy party. Encouraged by MPs such as Adonis Georgiadis, the ND’s deputy leader, who joined the party in 2012 after leaving the far-right LAOS, Mitsotakis has sided fully with the protesters, promising not to vote for the deal when it comes before parliament.

Extremist elements are stepping in to take advantage of the situation. A party modelled on Italy’s Lega Nord is being formed in northern Greece. Two Russian diplomats have been expelled from Greece, and two others have been barred from entering the country. They are accused of attempting to bribe officials in the north and in Athens, in order to stoke unrest around the deal. Zaev has said that Greek businessmen ‘sympathetic to the Russian cause’ have been paying hooligans to start violent protests.

The hardening of political discourse spells trouble for the most vulnerable. A 16-year-old Syrian boy was shot last week by a farmer in Lesvos, where for weeks the far-right has been agitating against refugees. The Jewish memorial in Thessaloniki has been defaced time and time again. An academic was attacked outside the city’s university by protesters, just weeks after a similar attack on the mayor, Yiannis Boutaris. A social centre was set on fire last month; protesters, goaded on by members of Golden Dawn, were heard chanting: ‘a knife in the heart of every anti-fascist’ and ‘anarchists and bolsheviks, this land doesn’t belong to you.’ In Greece, as elsewhere, a convincing answer against the rise of the authoritarian right has yet to be found.