MIRacles No. 13

Joel GAzis-SAx
3 Listopad 1992,
Palo Alto California
Copyright 1992 by Joel GAzis-SAx

"Skopje," my wife's cousin Lila intoned very solemnly after consulting her husband, "has a map. And this map," she continued, "includes Thessaloniki." When we arrived at her hotel a few days before, I immediately noticed the sticker from the Volos Rotary Club. "Macedonia is Greece." "Better not tell them where we've been," I said to Lynn.

The Greek peoples' fears about their northern borders are understandable in the context of history. After gaining Greek Macedonia in 1912, she was forced to fight another when Bulgaria, her ally in the First Balkan War, tried to seize Thessaloniki by force in the Second Balkan War. The post-World War II Civil War found Greece divided against herself with substantial aid for Communist partisans coming over the border from Tito's Yugoslavia. The appearance of a new country bearing a name rich in historical meaning for the Greek people would naturally lead many to recall these events.

Like most of the conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Greek outrage over Macedonia comes as a surprise to Western observers and even to some Greek people. "I used to have many friends in Yugoslavia," the Athenian souvenir shop salesman told me. "They lived in Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia -- but it's called 'Skopje' now." His humorous self-correction was a warning to me. Following the arrest of three Greek peace activists who had the effrontery to suggest that the Mitsotakis government should recognize Macedonia, many Greeks were clearly afraid to even to speak about the new country to the north.

Greeks imagine that the Skopje government possesses a huge army, poised to sweep into northern Greece. The size of the "Republic of Skopje" seems immense. This little country of two and a half million people has grown, in the Greek mind, to a monster of epic proportions. The Republic of Macedonia's Army of 5000 unarmed soldiers (the JNA took the guns when it withdrew) has been identified by the Greek press as the greatest threat to their country's security since the Second World War.

Peace pundits point to the Macedonian situation, declaring that the next Balkan war will be between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia. The average Macedonian, however, already feels the privations of war. No bombs fall on this country, but Greece has succeeded in imposing de facto sanctions on its northern neighbor.

We first learned about these sanctions when we got lost in Skopje on our first day. A man coming out of a government building near an army base gave us a lift in his car. As we approached downtown, he pointed to dozens of parked cars. "No gas." he said. No gas means no fuel for the trucks which carry food and medicines. Macedonia cannot get oil through Serbia because of the sanctions on that country. It cannot get oil through Greece because the customs papers for a Russian tanker now docked in Thessaloniki say "Destination: Republic of Macedonia".

"What's the problem?" Macedonian peace activist Vladimir Milcin asks. He answers himself: "Macedonia as a geographical term is much wider than this place, Republic of Macedonia. It is absolutely true that in Greece is also Macedonia. And in Bulgaria there is also a part of the ancient earth that was Macedonia."

"We are Slavs," he continues. "Our ancestors came to this place called Macedonia in the Fifth Century after Christ. I am not descended from Alexander the Great!" Most of the Macedonian people are puzzled that Greek newspapers should claim that they want to steal this heritage. Guides to the history of Skopje clearly describe many successive occupiers of the area. The Slavs who came after the Greeks and the Romans, these guides explain, produced the modern people who call themselves Macedonians. No claim of relationship to the ancient Macedonians is made by these guides or by anyone I meet.

"I don't understand it," a young Macedonian man tells me. "We used to spend every summer in Thessaly. Now they say we want to make war with them and we can't go." The Greek border is closed to Macedonians and foreigners with Macedonian surnames. One young Macedonian American was prevented from visiting the grave of his father near Florina. By its very existence, the Greeks believe, the Republic of Macedonia resurrects the intention to wrest control of Greek Macedonia and its valuable port of Thessaloniki from their rightful owners.

Vladimir Milcin disputes this. Macedonia's decision to withdraw from Yugoslavia was not, for one thing, inspired primarily by a desire for a greater Macedonia. "The idea of Yugoslavia died here in Macedonia," he notes, the day when -- in Split -- demonstrators killed a Macedonian soldier." Until this day, Macedonia's President Igorovic had shared Bosnia's Izetbegovic's vision of a new Yugoslavia based on a union of independent states. The dream died when Croat demonstrators attacked an armored car crewed by two Macedonians guarding a Jugoslav National Naval headquarters building.

"What was very interesting," Milcin explains, "is that all the soldiers were Macedonians or other citizens of Macedonia. That is against the rules of Jugoslav Army" which required that units had to be mixed. One Macedonian armored car crew member was killed and the second almost strangled by the mob. Back in Skopje, officials and Republic citizens wondered if the composition of the units and armored car personnel was an attempt by JNA officers to provoke anti-Croat feelings among Macedonians. They also suspected that the Tudman government hoped to draw them into the war against the JNA. "The idea of Yugoslavia had been buried here at the moment when it was clear that the Army wanted to save the idea of Yugoslavia with guns."

Macedonia's independence referendum came after the Slovenian, Serbian, and Croatian votes. "People here had an opportunity to see what is evil in the countries where nationalists got an absolute victory." Though the Macedonian Nationalist Party won the greatest share of the votes, it could not govern by itself. The week before I arrived, a progressive coalition, comprised of Macedonia's Social Democrats, its Albanian, Turkish, and Roma (Gypsy) Parties, came to power.

Milcin fears that pressures on the new Republic will rob the progressives of their victory and aid the rise of extreme nationalists. When we met him at the Turkish bridge over the Vardar, he told us: "I saw something new which made me very sad today." He led us through the streets of his city to the place and pointed to a freshly painted swastika. "The first one. The young people don't understand what it means."

"All the nationalists of the Balkans are helping each other," he tells me when we reach his apartment. "Tudman helped Milosevic after the demonstrations of the 9th of March. They need each other, Milosevic and Tudman, Macedonian nationalists and Albanian nationalists. They are enemies, but their existence is impossible without the others."

Extremists of the Macedonian National Party told the story "That without war, without fighting, we cannot achieve independence." The resolve of President Igorovic to handle Macedonia's transition to independence nonviolently prevailed, however, and, despite a history of Macedonian grievances against the JNA, the withdrawal of that force was achieved without provocations, deaths, or injuries. The architects of the Republic of Macedonia's new constitution consciously strove to establish the rule of law in their country; to protect human rights, citizens' freedoms, and ethnic equality; to provide social justice, economic well-being, prosperity for all its citizens; and to make a place of peace where all the people of the Republic of Macedonia -- Slavic Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Gypsies, and Greeks, could have a homeland. With its peaceful transition to independence and its respect for human rights, Macedonia, they believed, would have no problem being received into the family of nations.

A commission of the European Community concurred. Macedonia and Slovenia, the members agreed, were the only two states of former Yugoslavia which met all of the conditions for recognition. Then, the European Community voted to ignore the Commission's advice. The EC chose to recognize Slovenia. The Germans successfully pressed to have Croatia recognized as well. The Greeks blocked recognition of Macedonia.

So Macedonia finds itself in a strange place. Though it is not a member of the United Nations, it must observe the sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro. Greece refuses to allow anything marked "Republic of Macedonia" to cross its borders. The lack of recognition by the EC and other member of the international community stops the flow of aid. The two and a half million Slavic, Albanian, Turkish, Roma, and Greek residents plus upwards to 100,000 Bosnians suffer from a lack of food and medical supplies. As Milcin observes, "a poor country gets poorer" and that only helps those who would solve conflict with arms.

Despite the sanctions, we discovered a surprising lack of animosity towards the Greeks. When I told our ride into town that Lynn was a Greek American, he turned around, looked at her, and exclaimed "Good! You will learn the truth about Macedonia!" Ordinary people welcomed us more enthusiastically when they learned Lynn's origins. Lynn describes their attitude as "puzzled": the Macedonians simply cannot understand why, after nearly fifty years, Greece has decided to make an issue of the name.

The Macedonian parliament took Greece's fears about her borders seriously enough to amend the constitution to renounce any territorial claims on any of her neighbors and to forbid the Macedonian government from interfering in any other state's internal affairs. (See appendix below) This has not satisfied the Mitsotakis government which continues to demand that the Republic of Macedonia change its name.

The conflict over the name recalls Zeno's paradox of the race between Achilles and the Tortoise. In Zeno's nightmare, Achilles gives the tortoise a head start. But he can never catch up because he must first catch half way up. Then, from that point, he must go half way again. Between Achilles and the Tortoise lie an infinite number of halves. So his struggle to win the race is in vain because no man can cross an infinite distance. Meanwhile, the Tortoise has moved a little further.

Macedonia, it seems, can never satisfy Greece. It keeps trying to meet Greece's demands halfway. Greece insists that Macedonia change the name. Macedonia makes yet another, reasonable concession to Greece, meeting it halfway again. Unless Macedonia surrenders on the name issue and, consequently gives up the identity the Slavic Macedonians have been making for themselves for the past one hundred and fifty years, the Greek Tortoise will continue to lumber ahead, oblivious to the cries of hunger from the north.

As one who believes that any nonviolent means of resolving conflict is better than a violent one, I must invoke my pacifist version of just war. I support sanctions where, as in the case of the technological, arms, and petroleum sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro, the aim is to disempower those forces responsible for human suffering.

Macedonia seeks no war with Greece or any of its other neighbors. It persecutes none of its minorities. "Minorities are normal," says Vladimir Milcin with a shrug. A nation which respects the human rights of all its citizens and makes no war, should never be the subject of sanctions by any nation or community of nations. The sanctions which Greece has imposed on the Republic of Macedonia do not fit the necessary criteria. They are unjust and should be lifted.

Despite the sanctions, Macedonians have still sought to help the victims of the Bosnian war. "This is how we did it," Teuta Cucokova of the Skopje Women's Peace Group explained. "Everybody who could, took children or complete families into their home so that we wouldn't burden the Republic. It's big money to have a few more people in your family!" Tomka Dilevska, another member of the group, put up her Bosnian guests in her summer house.

This action shows another kind of nationalist pride. Peace dogma holds that nationalism is evil, that it inevitably leads to destruction. Being a good citizen is a kind of nationalism that does not necessarily lead to destruction. The Skopje Women's Peace Group (which includes Slavic Macedonian and Albanian members) and Vladimir Milcin's Albanian National Theater represent a vision of a multicultural nation where Slavs, Albanians, Turks, Roma, Vlachs, Greeks, and others can be proud of their ethnic identities and heritages without hating one another.

I am impressed that the people of Macedonia, despite all their privations, still believe that they can convince the Greek people to accept them. As we waited for the train which would take us from Skopje to Athens, we talked to two young men. They, like many Macedonians, watched developments in the relationship between Greece and their country with fear. They expected an invasion any day. I hope that day will never come. The world map is big enough to include a Macedonia that is Greek and a Republic of Macedonia of Slavs, Albanians, Turks, Roma, Serbs, Vlachs, and Greeks. No Macedonian Republican or Greek should die in a war over a name.

As our train pulled away from the Skopje station, one of the young men who helped us with our bags, asked us to deliver what I feel is the most important message of our visit to the newly independent Republic of Macedonia. "Please," he said. "Tell them to make peace for us."


Article 3

The territory of the Republic of Macedonia is indivisible and inviolable.

The existing borders of the Republic of Macedonia are inviolable.

The borders of the Republic of Macedonia can only be changed in accordance with the Constitution, and based on the principle of voluntariness and generally accepted international norms.

The Republic of Macedonia has no territorial claims against neighbouring states.

Article 49

The Republic cares for the status and rights of those persons belonging to the Macedonian people in neighboring countries, as well as Macedonian ex-patriates, assists their cultural development and promotes links with them. The Republic shall not interfere in the sovereign rights of other states and their internal affairs.

The Republic cares for the cultural, economic, and social rights of the citizens of the Republic abroad.

"Peace in the country, peace in the world."

Motto of the Skopje Women's Peace Group