The origins of the Macedonian question



At our northern borders there is a new state which now goes by the name of ‘Republic of Macedonia’. But what is the truth behind this, and how did we arrive at the provocative recognition of this name by the United States a few days ago? What is the ‘Republic of Macedonia’, and how does it relate to historical reality?

The facts are very different from what some people believe and would have us believe.

Until the end of World War II the area that is now the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was part of the Serbian state. It was called variously Old Serbia, Southern Serbia or Vardarska Banovina (Province of Vardar), and its inhabitants were known as Southern Serbs. None of those who were later to create the People’s Republic of ‘Macedonia’ were talking about a Macedonian nation or Macedonians then. All this changed at the Congress of Jajce in Bosnia on 29 November 1943. The Anti-Fascist Congress for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (partisans of Tito) decided that the country should be organised on a federal basis. One of the federal regions was the People’s Republic of ‘Macedonia’. It was at this moment that the seeds of an artificial nation-building attempt were sown, a nation which was given a Greek name and Greek symbols.

The invention of FYROM belongs to General Tito and his expansionist zeal. His principal aim in relation to the Macedonian issue was to keep and assimilate Yugoslav Macedonia within the Yugoslav federation. This was in response to the threat posed by the fact that the majority of its inhabitants considered themselves to be ethnic Bulgarians. His secondary aim was the expansion of Yugoslavia towards the regions of Bulgarian and Greek Macedonia. He and his followers worked systematically towards this aim, giving the People’s Republic of ‘Macedonia’ a separate political identity and a distinct language, within which it was imperative to minimise and obscure the major similarities with Bulgarian, and they constructed a new Macedonian history. The message given out during the whole of this period was that after World War II only a part of Macedonia had been liberated – the Yugoslavian part.

Between 1950, when Greece and Yugoslavia established diplomatic relations, and the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, any reference to the Macedonian issue by authorities in Skopje was brushed aside by the central Yugoslav government, who claimed that Skopje was acting independently.

During the same period the Yugoslavs used the Church in their campaign, and Tito personally authorised the establishment of an ‘Autocephalous Church of Macedonia’. This was in the face of intense opposition from the Serbian Patriarchate, and it caused the spiritual unity of the Orthodox Church of Serbia to fragment. The Holy Synod of the Serbian Church defied pressure from the regime when on 15 July 1967 it decided to sever all liturgical and other ties with the schismatic church leadership of Skopje, since the latter had unlawfully and unilaterally split from the Mother Church and therefore constituted a schismatic religious organisation.

This position was also adopted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the other Orthodox Churches. Since then there have been many attempts at reconciliation from the side of the Serbian Church. The continuing problem and the failure of any attempted talks are explained by the fact that the representatives of the so-called ‘Macedonian Church’ refused to give up their claim to an Autocephalous Macedonian Church.

Another major problem is the stifling hold the state has on the Church of Skopje; the Church is used in the service of the state for nationalistic purposes which are incompatible with its spiritual mission.

The decision of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church of 15 September 1967 will therefore remain in force until the Macedonian Church is ready to accept the proper order of the Orthodox Church.

Perhaps today the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the directly affected Serbian Church and the Greek Church together represent a powerful lever for bringing about a solution to the twin issues of the Church and the name. The lack of Church recognition has been a headache for the secular authorities of FYROM for the past 40 years, because of their isolation from the rest of the Orthodox Church. They have sought this recognition through all manner of promises and other means, but they have failed to achieve it.


November  1990

The trigger for the revival of the Macedonian question was the election of the first post-Communist multi-party parliament in Skopje on 11 and 25 November – the first free, multi-party elections held in the region after 1938. The event heralded a number of new developments.

January 1991

The first president of the republic was Kiro Gligorov, elected on 27 January 1991. 

Απρίλιος 1991

On 15 April in the same year we saw the ratification of the new constitution of Skopje, with amendments to existing constitutional clauses which signified the transition from a socialist republic to a Western-style democracy. The transition was not, of course, without its singularities.

There were clauses about border changes (in the preamble to articles 3-68 and 74), as well as clauses about the protection of minorities in neighbouring countries (article 49, paragraph 1): ‘The Republic has a responsibility of care for Macedonian people in neighbouring countries.’ Explicit reference is made to citizens of Albania, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, countries which Skopje considers to contain a ‘Macedonian minority’.

December 1991

On 16 December 1991 the foreign ministers of the twelve EC countries met in Brussels for what was to be a historic conference. It was after midnight in the night from Monday to Tuesday, when under severe pressure from Germany the ministers reached the decision to recognise the right to independence of the various Yugoslavian federal republics (Slovenia and Croatia).

On 19 December, just two days after the announcement of the EC resolution, the parliament of Skopje approved a decision to adopt the criteria which the conference of EC foreign ministers had set as preconditions for the recognition of the independence of countries which had emerged from the dissolution of socialist states.

On 24 December, the Badinter Arbitration Commission asked Skopje to reply to a number of questions, which they did by 29 December, outlining their plans for amendments to their constitution, in response to the points raised by Greece.

January 1992

Through this diplomatic manoeuvring, the Skopjans succeeded in bringing about a declaration by the Badinter Commission, on 17 January 1992 in Paris, under heading 6: ‘On the recognition of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia by the European Community and its member states.’

February 1992

One month later (17 February 1992) in Lisbon, the Portuguese foreign minister Pineiro undertook to draw up a set of documents under the same title. The documents called for a change to the contentious articles of the Skopjan constitution, and an end to the expansionist propaganda and the compound denomination of the country. Skopje appeared to accept these conditions. Backstage the names ‘Northern Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonia of Vardar’ were floated. During the same period there were rallies and demonstrations in Athens, Thessaloniki and all the large towns in Greece.

April 1992

On 13 April the Pineiro solution came to an inglorious end. On the same day in Athens, a council of the country’s political leaders was held (with the exception of the Greek Communist Party), at which it was decided that if the Republic of Skopje wished to be recognised it would have to comply with the resolution of Brussels (16 December 1991), and offer constitutional and political assurances on the issues of territorial claims, hostile propaganda activities and, of course, a name which did not include the term Macedonia or any derivative thereof. During the British presidency of the EC (18 June, in Luxembourg), Mitsotakis’s government proposed that the twelve member states should recognise Skopje under a ‘double name’: they should be known as Republic of Vardar outside the country, while internally they could call themselves what they liked. At this point we were perhaps very close to a good solution. However, it did not find agreement, and no progress was made.

June 1991

On 27 June, at the European Summit in Lisbon, Europe supported the Greek position. The recognition of Skopje was conditional on the premise that ‘the name must not contain the term Macedonia’. Pineiro passed the problem on to the British ambassador, O’Neil. The British presidency continued to insist on the issue of the compound name, under the terms set out by Pineiro.

August 1992

On 6 August, in a letter from the Russian foreign minister Vitali Tsurkin to Gligorov, Russia officially recognised Skopje under the name ‘Macedonia’. On 24 August Skopje chose their flag, which showed the star of Vergina.

April 1993

On 7 April 1993, article 817 of the Security Council accepted Skopje under the provisional name of FYROM and without the right to fly a flag. This led to new negotiations mediated by Vance and Owen. Here we can speak of Greek success. In May of the same year the mediators Vance and Owen proposed the name ‘New Macedonia’ (Nova Makedonija) to Greece, and Athens made a counter-proposal of the name ‘Slavomacedonia’. The government in Skopje declined.

December 1993

Six months later (December 1993 – January 1994) came a wave of declarations of recognition, including the United States and Australia who officially recognised Skopje as FYROM. 

February 1994

On 16 February 1994, Andreas Papandreou’s Greek government decided to declare an economic embargo against Skopje. The mediators then began to put on pressure for Greece to lift the embargo. Greece referred the matter to the Court of European Communities. The Court did not approve the call for security measures to be taken against Greece.

September 1995

The United States increased the pressure for a lifting of the embargo. On 4 September 1995, deputy President Richard Holbrook came to Athens for talks with Prime Minister A. Papandreou and foreign minister K. Papoulias. On the same day Holbrook also visited Skopje for talks with the new leadership there. Holbrook in Skopje, the chargé d’affaires Thomas Miller in Athens, and the State Department spokesman Nicholas Berns, all declared simultaneously that Greece and Skopje had agreed to immediate talks under the aegis of Cyrus Vance, with the aim of signing an Interim Accord.

The embargo was duly lifted, and on 13 September 1995 the Interim Accord was signed in New York by Papoulias and Tservenkofsky. The agreement provides that the current borders be respected; that Greece must recognise Skopje under the provisional name of FYROM; that FYROM must take immediate steps to change the symbol on its flag; that FYROM must declare that the contentious articles in its constitution are not to be interpreted either as a claim on Greek territory or as any interference in the internal affairs of Greece. 

Thus just one day after the elections they dealt the sudden yet premeditated diplomatic blow of recognising Skopje with its constitutional name as ‘Republic of Macedonia’. There were certainly indications that something was amiss, since a short time earlier the United States had signed two inter-state agreements with FYROM, in which the country was referred to as ‘Macedonia’. The first was in June 2003 and concerned the exemption of United States citizens from prosecution under International Law, and the second was on 11 October 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld signed a defence treaty with Skopje.

In the end, as was to be expected, the referendum of 7 November 2004 failed, and the position of Albanians in Skopje was strengthened.

October 1995

On 12 October, the Permanent Conference of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe passed a resolution, with the agreement of Greece, to accept Skopje as a member under the name FYROM.

One would have expected that in the time that has passed since then there would have been positive progress in the dialogue between the two countries, and that at the very least each would have respected the resolutions made. But the government of Skopje has not accepted any discussion on the subject of the name, and Greece for its part has almost allowed the matter to be forgotten.

September 2002

The Interim Accord expired in September 2002, though it was ‘silently’ extended. Since then the USA have been interested only in ending the issue of Skopje, without any thought for the consequences of a rushed decision.

November 2004

Thus just one day after the elections they dealt the sudden yet premeditated diplomatic blow of recognising Skopje with its constitutional name as ‘Republic of Macedonia’. There were certainly indications that something was amiss, since a short time earlier the United States had signed two inter-state agreements with FYROM, in which the country was referred to as ‘Macedonia’. The first was in June 2003 and concerned the exemption of United States citizens from prosecution under International Law, and the second was on 11 October 2004, when Donald Rumsfeld signed a defence treaty with Skopje.

In the end, as was to be expected, the referendum of 7 November 2004 failed, and the position of Albanians in Skopje was strengthened.

Today, December 2004

Today the main thing Skopjens are worried about is the labour market. They have serious concerns about what will happen if their relations with Greece are damaged and investment is restricted as a consequence. It is estimated that in the area around Skopje there are approximately 200 large and small Greek companies in operation, while unemployment stands at 40%.

And what were the Greeks doing during all those years? Did we perhaps simply postpone the problem till a later date, only to find ourselves now at the point where three of the five countries of the Security Council – the United States, Russia and China – have all recognised Skopje as the ‘Republic of Macedonia’? We believe that things are only now coming to a head.

For the time being the European Union seems to support the Greek position, but there are certainly countries who would have no difficulty in proceeding to a unilateral recognition. Slovenia, for example, has long since recognised Skopje with its constitutional name.

The pace of development in the Balkans appears to be very fast, and there remain many unresolved issues. 

  • What will become of the Bosnian question and the move towards Mavrovouni independence from Serbia? 

  • What will happen with the Albanians in FYROM? 

  • What will happen with the perennial problem of the Kossovo plain, and how will the Serbians react to the solution that is put to them? 

What is certain is that they do not want to lose Kossovo, for the see it as the cradle of Serbian culture.

It seems that the difficult times are still to come, and no-one can predict the developments in the Balkans.


December 2004


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