Bickering in the Balkans Macedonia's Identity Crisis

Greece has blocked the NATO and EU ambitions of Macedonia for the past 18 years over a bizarre name dispute. The ongoing controversy threatens the very cohesion of the diminutive Balkan republic, which holds presidential elections this Sunday.


The village of Achlada, population 400, lies in the shadow of a 2,500-meter (8,200-foot) peak on Greece's northern border. In the café on the main square, a handful of elderly residents silently run chains of wooden beads through their fingers.

At first glance, Achlada, with its snow-white church, looks like a sleepy, idyllic Greek village. During the Ottoman era, however, Achlada was called Krusoradi, named after the Slavic word for pear tree. As a result of the Second Balkan War in 1913, the village became part of Greece and was renamed, coinciding with the partition of the historic region of Macedonia among Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. This part of Achlada's history is barely spoken about.

Strangers approaching a two-story house at the end of a path near the church are likely to encounter suspicious looks. The building has stood empty for more than half a century. According to a local war memorial, the former owner was killed in 1940 during Greece's struggle against fascist Italy. His name was Nikos Gruios, and according to the inscription on the memorial, he gave his life "for his homeland."

This would hardly be worth mentioning, except that Nikola Gruevski, the grandson of the fallen war hero, wrote a letter to the government in Athens in the summer of 2008. In the letter, he demanded official recognition of the Slavic-Macedonian minority in Greece and the restitution of the property of former residents of Slavic origin who had fled Greece after 1945.

The letter was taken seriously, but mainly because of the identity of its author. Nikola Gruevski, the grandson of the hero Nikos Gruios, happens to be the prime minister of Greece's northern neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia.

To be more precise, Gruevski is the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. To this day, this is the official name used for this country of 2 million people -- which it was given in response to Greek pressure -- at meetings of the United Nations, as well as in European Union and NATO accession talks.

The dispute over Macedonia has smoldered since 1991, when the republic declared its independence. Europe's problem child will soon come of age, but the argument over what its name will ultimately be remains unresolved.

According to Athens, true Macedonians only live south of the border, speak Greek and are the descendants of Alexander the Great. For this reason, the Greeks argue, Slavs, who began to settle in the historically significant region only about 1,000 years after the golden age of the Macedonian royal dynasty, cannot simply call themselves Macedonians -- not across the border in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and certainly not in Greece proper. Greek Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis reemphasized this position last summer, when he said: "There is no 'Macedonian' minority in Greece. And there never was one."

Does this mean that the prime minister in the Macedonian capital Skopje must stand idly by while Athens insists that people like his ancestors, including his father and grandfather, could not possibly have existed? Is there is no such thing as Slavs who grew up in the Greek part of the historic region of Macedonia and, despite having had to accept Greek surnames, remain faithful to their native language?

The answer is easy, says Gruevski, speaking at a government building in Skopje: "If the Greeks were to admit that Slavic Macedonians are living in their midst, it would be clear that we should be allowed to call ourselves Macedonians. That's why they won't admit it. But what if we, as a candidate for EU membership, treated minorities the way EU member Greece does?"

Graphic: Ethnic groups of Macedonia

Graphic: Ethnic groups of Macedonia

Gruevski, 38, is generally a robust defender of the Slavic-Macedonian cause. Nevertheless, he is smart enough not to make use of his own family history as an argument in a dispute that has kept UN, NATO and EU politicians on their toes for years. "The underlying problem" -- that of the Greeks' view of their history -- must be resolved, says Gruevski. Greece's long-established Slavic population, most of whom sided with the communists during the 1946-1949 civil war, play little part in that Greek interpretation.

The myth of the founding of modern Greece is based on the idea of a mono-ethnic nation. The country's founding fathers wanted nothing to do with the ethnic melting pot of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, and instead sought to restore the purity and glory of ancient Greece, "a heroic nation, which traces its roots directly back to Pericles and Socrates," as spokesmen for the Slavic minority in Greece remark sarcastically.

Only 100 years ago, however, say Greece's Slavs, the region surrounding the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki might have been characterized by the same attribute that the proud Greeks assign to their reviled northern neighbor today, namely that there are "nuts from a thousand trees" there -- in other words, a diverse mix of ethnic groups. Similarly, Italians refer to fruit salad as "macedonia di frutta."

At the turn of the 20th century, Macedonia was an explosive region and a bone of contention in the southern Balkans, home to anti-Ottoman agitators, assassins and nationalists of every stripe. They used Thessaloniki -- a cosmopolitan port city with a majority Jewish population before World War I -- as their center of operations.


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