An afternoon in Ohrid

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Name Game

As many of you may know, Greece has blocked Macedonia from joining NATO and the EU because it of the name Macedonia. The Greeks claim that Macedonia is a Greek name that describes a whole region, and that the Slavs of Macedonia are trying to usurp Greek history and lay claim on the part of Macedonia that is in Greece by appropriating the name. Diplomats have been meeting for years trying to work out a compromise and though every meeting promises good progress, in reality it seems like very little has been done. All of this I knew in the abstract, but last week I got to live it when I took a trip with my friend Tracy down to Thessaloniki.

As I've mentioned before, the borders of the countries in the Balkans have been fluid during the last 100 years and have changed many times. The present border between Greece and Macedonia (known formally by the name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia ((FYROM) in the UN because of the dispute) was drawn after WWII. Thousands of Slavic Macedonians were expelled from the Greek side of the line - the politics were running hot and heavy because Tito wanted to establish legitimacy for Yugoslavia and the Allies wanted to keep Greece from going over to the Communists. Even the name of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, has been changed from Saloniki to Thessaloniki to represent that it was now in Greece. So while the countries have coexisted peacefully for many, many years, there are still some tensions, and they come out over the use of the name Macedonia.

The train master above is from Negotino in Macedonia, where Tracy and I caught one of the last trains down to Thessaloniki - the run ended Jan. 1. The train was late - very common - and we had some time sitting with him in his office chatting as best we could in Macedonia. He started talking about the name issue - his name was Risto and how could anyone ask him to change his name? What right did the Greeks have asking the country to change its name? and so on. One thing Tito did was strengthen the Slavic Macedonian identity, and it worked - they are Macedonians! We then took the lovely ride down to Thessaloniki. We were to meet the people we were staying with at IKEA (yes, it's the same one) which was on the other side of town from the train station, so climbed on a bus. It was very crowded and uncomfortable for us with all our bags, so the minute we thought they announced IKEA we jumped off, even though we weren't certain it was what was said. Sure enough, it wasn't the right stop. I asked a very nice woman where IKEA was, and she told me to get back on the bus and continue a little way farther. She then asked me where I was from. "America", I said, "but I'm living now in Macedonia." "Where?" she asked, her eyebrow raising. "Macedonia," said I, in all innocence. "This is Macedonia, you are from Skopje," was her forceful reply. Oops. All throughout our visit, if we said we were from Macedonia we got strange looks and sometimes huffy responses. "We are all Macedonians - how can you take our identity?" Most of the Greeks referred to Macedonia as Skopje, which confused me for a while until I realized they weren't just talking about the town but the whole country. It was interesting to live the controversy and not just read about it.

Going to Greece was like stepping into a whole new world. The towns were gorgeous and not filled with communist functional gray buildings, and despite the economic woes it felt downright prosperous compared to Macedonia. The weather was warm and the Adriatic sparkled. Ahhhh! We stayed outside of town with a lovely, interesting couple - the other pictures above were taken on our walks around the countryside by their home. Across the valley that their home overlooked was Mt. Olympus - we were staying in the valley of the gods. It was a wonderful break from the gray, wintery glumness that had pervaded Macedonia. We met with officials from the American Farm School to talk about possible cross border collaboration - they want us to come back in March to discuss it more. By the way, as part of the Farm School, they have a college, Perrotis College, which has an exchange program with schools back in the States. College students can come, take classes on Greek civilization and culture and optional classes including the Greek Palate, hike Olympus, take a sailing trip out to an island - sounds like a wonderful opportunity. It was a great trip and we met such nice people - I hope we do return in March!


  1. It was a good read in general. Thank you.

    You claimed: " Even the name of Thessaloniki, the second largest city in Greece, has been changed from Saloniki to Thessaloniki to represent that it was now in Greece"

    This is inaccurate. In fact Cassander founded the city and named it "Thessaloniki". The name renamed up to now. The fact that different ethnicities through the centuries used to call the city by their own variations of the name (Slavs still call the city "Solun", Turks use the name "Selanik" and so on) doesnt mean that the locals stopped calling it Thessaloniki.

    Relating to the perspective of the people on the Name.

    The Slavic Macedonians when they say "Macedonian" limit the extend of the word ONLY to themselves.

    Similarly the Greek Macedonians when they say "Macedonian" limit the extend of the word ONLY to themselves.

    To overcome this problem, there is a need in each case to use an adjective in front of the name "Macedonian" like you correctly did. We can have a "Slav Macedonian" and a "Greek Macedonian."

    Its also clear that the naming of the country as "Macedonia" is unfair to the rest.

    I would understand it if the Slavic Macedonians
    incorporated inside the territories of their state, the majority of the Macedonian Region. But they havent.

    Their state -except a tiny part in the south- is outside the ancient Kingdom of Macedon and themselves are the minority of the Region's population.

    Its ironic that from a total of 4.8 million population living in the Region, the minority of 2.1 million Slavic Macedonians wishes to take the name of the Region for themselves and somehow dictate to the rest of 2.7 millions that they shouldnt be called Macedonians.

    On the other hand, thats exactly what Greek Macedonians also try to do to their advantage which is equally wrong.

    Therefore, we are witnessing a loop where no solution is being found. I somehow tend to agree with the claim of the Greek government(s) that the naming of the country as "Macedonia", serves as a vehicle for the Slavic Macedonians to lay claims for the rest of the Macedonian Region.

    To my surprise i had noticed recently in "discussions" between Slavic Macedonians, Greek Macedonians and Bulgarian Macedonians, that the first ones dont hide their intentions about laying claims to the territories of the other two.

    The issue will be solved in my books only by International mediation and the two sides to realize they cant keep everything for themselves.

  2. I am not sure all people familiar with the Macedonian name issue, know about Punjab. The northern land areas of Pakistan and north western land area of India is known as Punjab. There are Indian Punjabi's and Pakistani Punjabi's. There would have been an even bigger problem (there are enough already) between the two nations if one side or the other appropriated the name and defined only themselves as Punjab. Punjab translates loosely as the "land of the five rivers"and was divided on religious reasons -though Punjabs share the same culture, customs and language. Over the years since independence differences have crept in as human beings are always in a dynamic state of growth.
    I have seen many "ethnic Macedonia" maps in the current RM and in the name issue the discussion is side-tracked by the 'but we are Macedonians and why do the Greeks deny us our name' a specious argument. My sympathies lie with the Greek's in their refusal to acknowledge the country north of them as Macedonia, without some sort of qualifier to limit future territorial aggrandizement.