New-Greek nationalism and the «Macedonia» controversy- Written by Nikolaos Parmenopoulos*

The rising of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as an independent state after the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has led to a dispute between Greece and FYROM over the right of the new state to use the name of Macedonia , a dispute  still unsolved.

All Greek governments have refused to recognize the new state as ‘Republic of Macedonia’   claiming that this national symbol is part of Greek history   and national identity.  Although this view is criticized as ‘strange’ or even ‘hysteric’ by other nation states and most of the foreign press,  it   is supported by all major   political parties and  the majority of public opinion in Greece.  On the other hand,   it seems that FYROM encompassing a population of Slavs, Albanians, Muslim Turks and other minorities and facing external pressures of neighbour countries needs the national myth of a glorious past such as the ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great to succeed its coherence as a nation.

 The name of the new state has become an issue of international policy as Greece insists to make use of its right to vote against the entrance of FYROM in international bodies with that name. It is worth noticing that there are not territorial or other differences between the two states and many Greek businessmen have already expanded their works in Skopje. The controversy over   the ‘name’ is rather an expression of the significance of national myths for the reassurance of nationalism in the age of globalisation.

The genesis and development of Greek Nationalism

The understanding of the specific historical and geo-political context within which Greek national identity was constructed is a basic prerequisite to our understanding of the specificity of the relationship between Greece and its national ‘others’ (Tsoukalas, 2002:29, Blavoukos, 2002:8).

During the eighteenth  century, the time of national awareness, Graikoi (Greeks) or Romioi (Romans) as they were called, were poor peasants living at this southern-east  edge of Balkan Peninsula which that time was part of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire (Mazaouer,2000;  Tsoukalas, 2002:38). Although the   ruins of temples were reminders of a glorious civilization developed in their territory long ago, it was the power, the traditions and rituals of the Eastern Orthodox Church with its accommodation within Ottoman administrative and political system that determined their everyday lives  (Blavoukos,2002:9; Mazaouer,2002:102).

The founding myth  of the Greek nation-state was the glorious idea of ancient Greece  which   has been largely imported from Western Europe where Hellenolatry provided the basis for the construction of the Eurocentric Orientalistic discourse’ (Tsoukalas, 2002:31). What modern Greeks have to prove was ‘the historical continuity of the nation’ which ‘was not obvious’ (Tsoukalas, 2002:28).

With the emergence of an Independent Greek state in 1830s, a national identity which could function as a unifying force giving coherence to the new state was necessary. For historical reasons there have been two contradictory tendencies working simultaneously in Greek society: the forces of tradition which is anti-western, parochial, clientistic and static and the forces of modernity inspired by Enlightenment and its liberal ideals (Blavoukos, 2002:17; Tsoukalas, 2002:30; Diamantouros,1983) The solution came from a hybrid version of Greek history, the Helleno-Christian’ synthesis, an ideological construction which made possible the harmonious coexistence of the new administrative structures and the pro-existing society and institutions with its ottoman roots (Tsoukalas, 2002:39). .

A complex relationship was created among Greece, Europe and its neighbour countries with contradictory elements and syndromes of superiority/inferiority. On one hand, Greece was regarded as the pioneer of European civilization thus, essentially European. On the other hand, modern Greeks  were constructed by Europeans   from an ‘orientalist’ position, as exotic, less civilised, less developed  and with oriental character ‘others’. ‘Situated along the imaginary dividing line between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarity’ and lying between the two  different archetypes of Hellenes and Romans, Greeks felt free to  chose western or oriental  behavioural patterns and cultural  features depending on the circumstances’ (Tsoukalas, 2002:42). This ambiguity was supported by the Orthodox Church which was in tension with the Catholic Western Church.  In addition, the Ottoman Empire and later Turkey in the Muslim word of the East   represented an external ‘other’, a continuous ‘threat’ for the nation.  Greece is also a Balkan country but Greeks felt different from their neighbours Slavs. Although they shared the same Orthodox Christian faith with most   of them, classical antiquity and Greek language were the cultural resources that differentiated Greeks from other Christian populations under the rule of Ottoman Empire.

 Furthermore, Greece was a small, weak country located at the cross-roads between East and West which during its history   has experienced attacks, occupations and several foreign interventions. All these factors created a feeling of insecurity in Greek psyche combined by a feeling of distrust towards the foreign element and exacerbated such feeling of being a ‘brotherless’ nation (Blavoukos, 2002:17; Tsoukalas, 2002:29).

The Helleno- Christian version of nationalism adopted proved successful because was appealing to Greeks feelings for the following reasons. Firstly it was based on pro-existing traditions, cultural symbols and community ties and secondly it was able to differentiate Greek people both from the Muslim world especially Turks in the East and the Slavic ethnicities in the North of the country. But identities are never fixed and are changing over time.  Greek identity due to its contradictory elements is characterized by ambiguity and flux.

The period of the Cold War, Greece was geo-politically put on the west side of the curtain which divided the West from the East and separated Greece from its Balkan neighbours (Tsoukalas, 2002:43). During the post-war period the increased mobility brought Greek and European cultures closer. Since 1974, after dictatorship and the normalisation of political life, Greece gradually changed becoming a democratic and developed country. The assertion of Greece in EU in 1981 was seen as a paramount factor for consolidating democracy, political stability, external security and modernization (Ioakimidis, 2002:3).

In recent years,  Greece’s accession  to the EU and through it its  interconnection with the global markets   had  as a consequence  deep social changes  and have  affected the way in which ‘ national identity’ is produced. The Europeanization process within the context of global economy has worked towards the modernization of the country   and has made Greeks feel more Europeans (Ioakimidis, 2002:15). On the other hand, the pressures in order the country meet the demands of EU together with migratory pressures from neighboring Balkan  countries after the  opening  of the borders  in the North have created  national anxieties and xenophobic reactions in part of Greek society.

The contemporary  ‘Macedonia’ controversy between Greece and FYROM  must be seen in its  specific historical and political  context characterized  through centuries by the collapse of Ottoman Empire, two Balkan Wars, shifting boundaries and nationalist  conflicts  among the   diverse ethnic and cultural  groups in the  Balkan Peninsula . In this context it is not surprising that after the disillusion of the Yugoslav federation the diverse ethnicities found themselves in conflict from which  new  nation-states based primarily on primordial feelings emerged such as Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and recently Bosnia. In FYROM this struggle took less violent form.  The new state which consisted by diverse ethnicities such as Slavs, Albanians, Turks and other Muslim minorities searched   its international legitimacy as an independent  nation  in    non-slavic cultural  tradition’(Kofos, 1999:13) claiming a ‘Macedonian’ national  identity. FYROM had to invent its own history and tradition appropriating another’s nation history and ancient Macedonia and the myth of Alexander of Great presented the most appealing narrative.

However, the ‘Macedonian question’ is not new and at times it has taken a variety of forms. The geographical region of Macedonia after the collapse of  the Ottoman Empire was  divided in three nation-states: Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Since the 1940s ‘Macedonism’ had been Yugoslav Macedonia’s dominant nationalist ideology aiming to unify the diverse Slav and Muslim ethnicities into ethnic ‘Macedonci’( Kofos,1999:1). Official Greek policy   did not raise any objections to this name usage,    because they shared the view with their western alliances that Yugoslavia was ‘a useful buffer state’ against the former Soviet Union (Kofos,1999:1).

Prior to the mid-1980s there was little serious debate in Greece about the various aspects of the Macedonian issue. After the dissolution of the Yugoslav federation and the turmoil in the Balkan Peninsula in the 1990s, the ‘Macedonian question’ began seriously to preoccupy Greek politicians, the media, academics and the general public. Greek’s foreign policy supported from the majority of political parties, the Church, the Army and many intellectuals was marked with a nationalist flavour. Greek governments of both the conservative New Democracy in power from 1991 to October 1993 and the ‘ patriotic’ socialist PASOK   from October 1993 to 1995,  were strongly opposing the recognition of the new state  with the name  ‘Macedonia’, promoting the slogan ‘ Macedonia is Greek’. Their opposition was departing from the wide believed assumption that the ancient Macedonia was part of the Greek heritage and history. National pride has been emphasised in political  and  mainstream media discourses  in order to manipulate the feelings of Greeks  in a period of economic and political crisis. 

The popularization of this slogan   supported to the Greek public the misleading perception that there is only one ‘Macedonia’, the Greek Macedonia and no other nations had the right to use the Macedonian name either as a cultural-ethnic or a geographic-regional term (Kofos, 1999:3). This nationalist discourse was successful in mobilizing Greeks at home and Greek Diaspora. By mid-1992 Greece has gained most of its position within the councils of the EC/EU where the ‘Macedonia’ controversy was discussed. But when in 1994,  the recognition of FYROM by EU countries and the USA became known  Greece government decided an embargo on FYROM.

Greece’s maximalist positions together with the huge demonstrations that took place in Greece and the embargo that followed were interpreted in the EU and the western media who were more familiar with the Macedonian state of the federal Yugoslavia than the boundaries of the ancient Macedonia, as a nationalist move in order Greece to profit from the chaotic situation in the north of the country. In fact, Greek official policy aimed  to defend Greece’s right to its heritage and in addition, to make clear abroad that Greece would not tolerate wartime irredentist yearnings which that time were gaining popularity in the new state ( Kofos,1999:3).

Gradually this inflexible   stance of Greek official policy was replaced by a more realistic approach on the ‘Macedonia’ controversy.  Criticism came from economic and commercial interests particularly in Northern Greece which suffered economic losses and opportunities in the emerging new market of the Balkans and from academics and politicians who began to present more moderate analyses on the ‘Macedonia’ issue, stressing the negative impact of these maximalist positions on international public opinion and on the relations of Greece with its EU partners.

Under these pressures, in September 1995 the two nation-states signed the Interim Accord.  This agreement provided for Greece’s recognition of FYROM under its provisional name and the lifting of the embargo whereas Skopje consented to remove the Greek Macedonian emblem of the star of Vergina from its flag and accepted the interpretation of certain clauses of its Constitution which in Greece’s view where likely to provoke irredentist claims. In January 1996 Papandreou the Prime Minister of PASOK’s government resigned and was replaced by Kostas Simitis a modernist politician who was not associated with the so-called ‘ patriotic’ PASOK and the maximalist claims . An attempt to prepare the Greek public for a compromised solution through negotiations started by political elite and  mainstream media. Thi s effort was supported from the all political powers with the exception of the  extreme right(Kofos, 1999:10).

The removal of the official Greek policy to more realistic positions in recent years did not succeed to reach to a compromise on the name dispute between the two nation-states.   FYROM being successful in promoting its ‘Macedonian’ identity among its population   and has  been recognized with its constitutional name by the USA and most nation-states follows an uncompromising stance on the ‘Macedonia’ controversy.

To sum up, the Macedonia controversy provides an example of the politicization of ethnic and cultural traditions.  The questioning of the Hellenicity of Macedonia and Alexander the Great was perceived by Greeks as a threat to their national identity because it questioned   the unity and continuity of the Greek nation. This defensive   nationalism is different from the nationalism that mobilized Greeks the period of   nation building. In my opinion, it derives from anxieties caused by the pressure from globalised forces and the fact that modern Greece has encountered substantial difficulties in harmonizing its historical heritage with a modern practical identity.

In my view, we should approach the issues of nation and national identity with flexibility. Modernists failed to explain the emotional and unconscious appeal of nationalism. The liberal Western Europe, epitomised by France’s civic state nationalism, has had difficulties with the ‘backwardness’ and otherness of the more ethnic nationalism. The violent ethnic conflicts after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union in late modernity made clear that the ideology of nationalism still appeals to people’s emotions.

In my view, Smith’s ‘ethno-historic’ approach* provides some explanations for the continuing power of nationalism and its reassurance even as reaction to the globalising trends.  Thus, nation- building must be viewed both as a product of modernity constructed or re-invented according to the needs of industrial societies  and the interests of political elite and  also in terms of the citizens’ hopes, needs,   loyalty to the ruling system and desire for a ‘homeland’.

As it regards Greece, the complex process of nation-building has resulted in a Hellene-centric national identity in which the ethno-cultural elements predominate.

To conclude, although the traditional model of the sovereign nation-state has been modified by processes of globalisation, nation-state remains an important articulator of national culture  which in a period of uncertainty and change still offers an appealing grand narrative .

**Smith  opposes the sharp distinction between ethnic and civil nations arguing that «ethno-histories» and traditions continue to shape modern nations, providing a sense of cohesion which often «neither language nor mass education can preovide in highly differentiated modern societies (Smith in Boswell and Evans, 1999:57)

*This essey is part of the research project«New Greek Nationalism and the Macedonia controversy-Representations of «self «and «other» in Greek press» written in September 2008 by Nikolaos Parmenopoulos, (MA) in  Media and Communications.


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