Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Macedonia and Greece: What is the basis for a reconciliation ?

VerginaA Greek blogger called Omadeon has written a critique of me, entitled ‘Dr Hoare’s Balkan excesses need… anti-nationalist critics’. Well, I don’t admit to any excesses, but I do welcome anti-nationalist critics. Omadeon deserves credit for writing against Srebrenica-genocide denial and for his statement that ‘I think Greece owes an apology to Bosnia, for the one-sided support of Serbia by most Greeks’. He deserves credit too for his rejection of some of the excesses of Greek nationalism.

Unfortunately, Omadeon nevertheless shares the Greek-nationalist blind-spot with regard to Macedonia. He refers to the Republic of Macedonia in a derogatory manner, as ‘Slavo-Albanian Macedonia’, and puts the words ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonian’ in inverted commas when referring to the Republic of Macedonia and the Macedonian nation. He describes the Macedonian identity as a ‘fiction’. He wrote a letter to the New York Times in April 2008 in which he condemned the newspaper for its criticism of Greek policy with regard to Macedonia, asserted the alleged Greekness of Alexander the Great and the ancient Macedonians, and demanded that the contemporary Macedonians change their name to ‘Slav Macedonians’. Above all, he seems absolutely obsessed with telling the Macedonians that they should abandon the identity that they want to have and adopt the identity that he wants them to have, which is a ‘Slavic’ identity’ (‘A SANE attitude, on behalf of Slav-Macedonia, would be the simple RECOGNITION of their ESSENTIALLY SLAVIC national identity; something they have EVERY RIGHT to be PROUD of….’). But a given identity is something that people either feel for themselves, or they don’t. It is not up to Omadeon and the Greeks to decide what sort of identity Macedonians should have.

Consequently, I am afraid that Omadeon, although he appears to be an honest and decent individual in most respects, is very far from being an ‘anti-nationalist’. In fact, his writings on Macedonia highlight the erroneous way in which ethno-nationalists interpret modern national politics. This includes:

1) A belief that modern nations can be traced back, in unbroken continuity, to ancient or medieval peoples: the modern Greeks to ancient Greeks; the modern Macedonians to medieval Slavs; etc.

2) A consequent belief that one has, on the basis of one’s own ethno-nationalist interpretation of ancient and medieval history, the right to accuse other nations of being ‘invented’ or having ‘fictional’ identities.

3) An inability to understand the difference between language and nationality.

In this case, Greek nationalists – on the basis of their erroneous understanding of ancient and medieval history, and of the meaning of modern nationhood – believe that they have the right to decide what the ‘true’ identity of Greece’s northern neighbour should be. Since they erroneously believe that the majority population of the Republic of Macedonia is descended from Slavs who arrived in the area during the Middle Ages, and since they equally erroneously believe that modern Greeks are descended in unbroken continuity from ancient Greeks (among whom they include the ancient Macedonians), they believe they have the right to pronounce that the Macedonians are ‘not really’ Macedonians, that the Macedonian identity is a ‘fiction’, and that they – the Greek nationalists – on the basis of their ‘objective’ reading of ancient and medieval history have the right to pronounce what the Macedonians’ true name and identity should be.

From this, it follows – according to the Greek nationalist logic – that since their own interpretations of history and of the meaning of modern nationhood are the correct ones, then Macedonians who dispute this are ‘nationalists’, and those who support them in this rejection – such as myself – are supporting ‘ultra-nationalism’, which is what Omadeon accuses me of.

In this way, the Greek nationalists turn reality on its head. Macedonia is not threatening Greece or its national identity; the Macedonians are not saying that the Greek language and nation do not exist; or that Greece has to change its name. They are not trying to impose their own version of Greek identity on the Greeks. They are not even denying the right of the Greek inhabitants of Greek Macedonia to call themselves ‘Macedonian’. Yet for the crime of rejecting the Greek-nationalist interpretation of history, and of asserting their own identity, then it is they who become the bad guys in Greek-nationalist eyes. And before you know it, the whole of NATO and the EU have to shape their policies around the Greek-nationalist misinterpretation of history. Such is the world we live in.

Nationalists do not appreciate the fact that, in a democratic world, everyone has to be free to define their identity as they wish; no nation or individual has the right to decide what the identity of another nation or individual should be. Nationalists do not appreciate that there is no one, single, ‘objective’ interpretation of history; historians, archaeologists and others must be free to put forward different interpretations about Antiquity, the Midde Ages and so forth. No group or nation can impose its own version of history on the rest of the world.

Nationalists also do not appreciate the fact that all modern European nations – all of them – have very mixed ethnic origins. The modern Macedonians – the majority population of the Republic of Macedonia – are descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, Slavs and others. And modern Greeks are likewise descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, ancient Greeks, Slavs, Turkish-speaking Anatolians and others. Something similar applies for all European nations: English, Scots, French, Germans, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Turks, etc.

There is no such modern ethnic group as the ‘Slavs’ – ‘Slavs’ do not exist as an ethnic group in the modern world, any more than do Angles, Saxons, Franks, Gauls, Visigoths or Vikings. ‘Slavic’ is a linguistic, not an ethnic category. The Macedonians speak a Slavic language, and in that sense they are ‘Slavic’, just as the English and Dutch are ‘Germanic’ and the Italians and French are ‘Latin’. Greek nationalists demanding that the Macedonians call themselves ‘Slavs’ is like someone demanding that the English and Dutch call themselves ‘Germanics’ or that the Italians and French call themselves ‘Latins’. It is up to the Macedonians alone whether they feel their identity to be ‘Slavic’ or not – nobody else has the right to impose such an identity on them.

Ironically, in terms of their genetic origins, non-Slavic-speaking Greece and Albania are more Slavic in their origins than the modern Macedonians and Bulgarians; spoken language is a very poor guide to ethnic origins. But does this mean that the Greeks and Albanians are not really Greeks and Albanians ? Of course not ! Modern nationhood does not derive from ancient or medieval ethnicity, but from a shared sense of identity in the present. Omadeon’s describing of the Republic of Macedonia as ‘Slavo-Albanian Macedonia’ is equivalent to describing Greece as ‘Slavo-Albanian-Turkish-Greek Greece’, or England as ‘Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-Viking-Norman England’. If the people of Greece feel themselves to be Greek; if the people of Macedonia feel themselves to be Macedonian – that is all that matters. Trying to deny the existence of a modern nation by pointing out its ethnically diverse roots, or by reducing it to a number of ethnic components, is the action of a chauvinist. We all have ethnically diverse roots. We should be proud of them.

In an age of globalisation and mass immigration, nations will become more, rather than less ethnically diverse. This, too, should be viewed positively. There are English people today whose grandparents were all born in Pakistan, or in Jamaica. They are no less ‘English’ than English people who claim ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon descent. Black or brown Englishmen and women have as much right as white Anglo-Saxon Englishmen to lay claim to the heritage of English or British historical figures: the Celtic Boadicea; the Norman-French William the Conqueror; the Dutch William of Orange; the Irish Duke of Wellington; the half-American Winston Churchill. In the same way, Alexander the Great is part of the heritage of Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Albanians alike, and of all those nations which have arisen on the territory that he once ruled. Alexander the Great belongs to Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis, too.

Omadeon accuses me of opposing reconciliation between Macedonia and Greece, and of not being even-handed in my treatment of Macedonian and Greek nationalism. I make no pretence at being even-handed: I am on the side of the victim (Macedonia) and against the aggressor (Greece), and will always encourage the national resistance of a victim against an aggressor. Siding with a victim against an aggressor is the only honourable position to take: it means siding with Cyprus against Turkey in 1974; with Croatia against Serbia in 1991; with Bosnia against both Serbia and Croatia in 1992-95; with Chechnya against Russia in 1994 and 1999; and with Georgia against Russia in 2008. There can be no ‘even-handedness’ in treating an aggressor and a victim, or in treating their respective nationalisms. Greek nationalism is threatening Macedonia. Macedonian nationalism is not threatening Greece. The two are not equivalent.

As for the question of ‘reconciliation’, this can only rightfully be based on justice, not on the capitulation of the weaker side to the stronger. The only just compromise between Greece and Macedonia would be along the following lines:

1) The Macedonian nation and language, and the Greek nation and language, exist. Anyone who says they do not is an anti-Macedonian or anti-Greek chauvinist.

2) Macedonia and Greece both have the right to call themselves what they want, and to define their national identities as they wish.

3) The people of the Republic of Macedonia, Greek Macedonia and Bulgarian Macedonia have an equal right to call themselves ‘Macedonian’ and to lay claim to the heritage of Ancient Macedonia and of Alexander the Great, if that is what they wish.

4) Greeks and Macedonians alike are descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, Slavs and others. The common ethnic heritage of the two nations should be stressed, not denied, by those seeking reconciliation.

5) The symbol at the start of this post – the Star of Vergina – is dear to both Greeks and Macedonians and belongs to them both. Two nations that love the same symbols and revere the same ancient historical figures should naturally be friends. 

Anyone who calls themselves an ‘anti-nationalist’, irrespective of whether they are Greek or Macedonian, should have no difficulty subscribing to these principles.

Saturday, 29 August 2009 - Posted by | Balkans, Greece, Macedonia | , , , , , , , , , ,

3 Comments

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