Hundreds of thousands of Greeks protest against government compromise with use of the term Macedonia in the name of neighbouring country, on the seafront in Thessaloniki before statue of Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, January 21, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.About five years ago, I found myself in the curious circumstance of boarding a ship from the Greek port of Patra to Italy, in a battered van full of Greek punks. Van and driver happened to be Macedonian. Predictably, we were stopped by the coast guard. His treatment of myself (the only woman among ten men) and the driver, was horrible. Refusing to speak to the driver, the person in charge of the van, he returned our passports, saying: “Tell your friend he needs to change the number plate. This one is not admitted in Greece”.
Of course it is not true. Greece has obligations to acknowledge all internationally approved plates. But this was not the point. As a foreigner, I was really struck by his hostility, although I knew its source. Just ask any Greek man or woman the name of their north-western neighbour, and you will get various answers. The one that always impressed me was “Skopja”, literally the lands of Skopje.
These days I find myself compelled to speak up about this delicate phase of a troublesome dispute concerning what is, ultimately, just a name. A name, though, that has drawn around 200,000 people (500,000 according to the organisers) onto Thessaloniki's streets after about a month of media coverage and, it should be emphasised, one that is busy helping to stage the Golden Dawn comeback if straw-ballots are to be believed.
Rudimentary knowledge of ancient history tells us that Macedonia is an historical region roughly consisting of the present area of Greek Macedonia, with Thessaloniki as its administrative centre; the Macedonian Republic (former Yugoslavia); and part of today’s Bulgaria.
Now, it would be just foolish, geopolitically speaking, for Greece to crave for historical Macedonia to be re-established under Greek jurisdiction. And, in fact, this is also not the case, because, as Konstantinos Mitsotakis, one of the most important right wing Greek politicians of all time, once said about Slavophones in Greece: “I was so happy to get rid of them, I would never want them back”.
No, another point is at issue. When in 1991 Macedonia declared its independence from the Yugoslav Federation, where it was once named the “Popular Republic of Macedonia”, for the first time a sovereign state took the name of Macedonia, and this same name has a vital importance for Greek national identity. This vital importance is all down to glimmers of the past, as historian Marcel Detienne brilliantly explains:
“Mythideologies, that make up the armouries of national and identitarian histories, are complicated; (...) there are some almost mythical words in Europe: the dead ones, our ancestors; the land, the soil, the fatherland; the blood, our heritage, our sacrifice” (Detienne 2005)
Macedonia combines all these mythical terms: it is our ancestors’ territory, where our Greek blood was poured and, no matter how ‘Game of Thrones’ it sounds, contemporary international politics has to deal with it.
Alexander III of Macedon, born in Pella, currently Greek Macedonia, is the most important referent for Greek mythideology. Accordingly, he was a fairminded, cultured king who united an extremely broad territory (the Mediterranean portion of which corresponds with Ottoman Empire) singlehanded, spreading Greek culture and language “to the ends of the known world”. Moreover, he performs his function of original ancestor of the Greek Nation-State to this day, and in an even more important sense, he is completely unrelated to any kind of classical dispute between city-states. Indeed, he imposed peace on them via the Corinthian League of 331 B.C.
This same unifying aspiration animates Greek ethno-nationalist thought, with the Great Idea, still supported by Golden Dawn and other radical right wing parties, of unifying all the Hellenophone territories under a single state with Constantinople – as the Greeks still refer to Istanbul – as its capital city. This irredentist project, in fact, met its tragic end in Asia Minor’s catastrophe of 1922, where more than one million Anatolian Greeks either met their deaths or lost everything.
Therefore, it is not difficult to see that Alexander’s heritage, both in terms of identity and territory, is not at all a secondary matter. In the very middle of its economic crisis, in August 2014, the entire media was full of the announcement that Alexander’s tomb had been discovered in the archaeological site of Anfipoli, in the Central (Greek) Macedonian area.
This news thrilled the Greek people. Prime minister Antonis Samaras immediately sped to the location and gave a moving interview to the press. Regardless of the historical improbability of this being the real tomb of Alexander the Great, a massive investigation has been undergone and is still in progress to seek confirmation for some sort of gorgeous evidence that could relate these matters to Alexander, showing just how much people “want to believe it”.
This chasing after aboriginal confirmation seems trivialising compared with the territorial dispute about the name “Macedonia”, until we see it literally bursting into our vision in front of us when citizens take to the streets dressed as a Macedonian phalanx of soldiers, and chanting slogans related to Alexander the Great, as occurred during the Macedonia march in Thessaloniki.
What is more, at the equivalent march in Skopje in favor of the Macedonia name usage, we would have seen exactly the same phalanxes and symbols, but red instead of blue according to the background color of the two countries’ flags.
Orthodox Christianity – a bridge
Moreover, when it comes to the Greek side here in question, another key aspect emerges from observing march participants, organizers, and slogans and banners, relating this affirmation of historical identity to a strong current of Orthodox Christianity. This strong identity pillar constitutes a crucial bridge between past and present thanks to a specific historical narrative that has ended up being the cornerstone of Greek historiography.
The father of modern Greek historiography, Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos wrote his masterpiece “History of the Greek nation” between 1860 and 1874, just forty-seven years after Greek independence. It consists in a tripartite history of the Greek ethnos (the word he uses in its original Greek title) from ancient times to the modern era, via the middle ages. This work is interesting for the innovative narrative effects, namely use of a first person plural narrative, so that all Greeks can identify themselves directly with the historical protagonists, and a new genea-logical, “divine-providential” periodization of history whereby every era is connected to the previous and the following by a patriarchal-like genealogy: the ancient ancestors handed a beacon to the Macedonian lineage, anticipating Byzantine Christianity that in turn has generated the Orthodox church. The progeny is straightforward and full of historical pathos. This historiographical digression is useful to comprehend the emotional reaction national history provokes in Greek people, constituting their national consciousness – a consciousness not at all related to the idea of the state as a cluster of laws and institutions, but rooted in a deeper sentiment of belonging – what Herzfeld once called “cultural intimacy” (2005), although the latter sometimes get confused.
“People of our generation”, a friend of mine told me a few days ago, “grew up in the constant fear of our Orthodox nation being in danger from foreign attack, spelling danger for us Greeks.” It is not at all by chance that Golden Dawn’s most effective rhetorical flourishes are those drawing on our “Greek blood” and “Greek ethnicity”. We are not only referring to the widespread campaigns for blood donation dedicated just to Greek people in order not to contaminate the race, accessed only by showing one’s ID card. But it is also not at all unusual to see people who beg on the mass transport system exhibiting the same ID card to prove their Greekness as an incentive to potential donors.
In the cram school where I do my fieldwork in a decentralized municipality of Athens, we have talked a lot about ‘the Macedonian issue’, both with educators and their pupils, and almost all share the same sentiment against the misuse of the Macedonian name. This is how I have come to understand something that was not perfectly clear to me before: that what is considered so risky is that a Macedonia government could advance some territorial claims over Greek Macedonian territory, the land that in which the city of Thessaloniki is embedded, in the name of some putative unification of ‘the Macedonian people’.
It has to be added that the territory of the current republic of Macedonia has been an object of Greek expansionist interests since Greek independence in 1831, in accordance with the Megali Idea project.
Many years afterwards, in an era of political transition (Metapoliteusi), with the socialist party PASOK in power for almost a decade, a general amnesty was promulgated according to which all those made refugees by the Greek civil war (1946-1949) could return to Greece and have their belongings returned.
Perfectly in step with the populist ideology of the party, whose slogan was “Greece to the Greeks”, there was an “ethnic clause” in the amnesty, making it effective only for Hellenophone Macedonians. This was a great disincentive for those Slavophone Macedonians who, in their attempt to escape the war, had found in the popular republic of Macedonia or in other federated republics, a refuge plus a form of ethnic recognition that they had never been able to benefit from before.
Hence, we can sum up and say, firstly that the name Macedonia has strong identitarian implications for both nations. For the former Yugoslavian Republic because it represents a conquered ethnic independence (neither Serbian, nor Bulgarian), for Greece because it clearly speaks about the history of the ancestors and therefore about their identity.
Secondly, the core of the dispute is consequently a matter of ethnic acknowledgment and affirmation for both sides.
And lastly, that the supposed territorial claims are almost irrelevant. This last point is easily deducible from the fact that, when almost two months ago the name dispute came into view again, it was because of a Macedonian request to unblock the access procedures to the EU and NATO, pending for the last twenty-five years precisely because of the Greek veto over the name issue. At the very least it would be controversial to lay the path ahead open to such conflicts through such a request.
As the leader of the largest right wing party, Nea Dimokratia, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said: “The Skopje issue is not just a matter of foreign affairs. It has to do with our national (ethnic) conscience, our history, therefore our identity as Greeks”. And he continued: “We won’t lose the Greeks in order to unify the Macedonians”.
Essentially, Macedonia is being asked to renounce whatever constitutes its ethnic identity in order to be part of a Europe that acknowledges Greece as the cradle of its democracy. Is this the one achievement out of so many that the Greeks, the people most adversely affected to date by EU economic policy, simply cannot lose?
The relationships with Europe and its acknowledgment of Greek identity is pivotal, and a privileged point of view on this issue is readily provided, in fact, by right wing rhetoric together with the impact it has on civil consciousness. There is no very discreet, undercover battle going on between the two Mitsotakis’ progeny, Kyriakos Mitsotakis on one side and Dora Bakogianni on the other. This places in dramatic confrontation the non-identical twin souls of this neoliberal party: the conservative and progressive ones.
Not an issue to ignore
There is a scandalous video from the year 2008 circulating on the media these days where Mrs Bakogianni expresses her approval for the name proposal “Nea Macedonia”, meaning that Macedonia stands for the real, Greek Macedonia and New for the Republic of Macedonia. What is scandalous about this video is that she shows how very little she cares about the name issue.
But it is not an issue that we can afford to ignore. The first time the name issue popped up was in 1991, when the European Community started granting the former Yugoslavian republics independence.
In 2008 a tv show named Fakeloi (files) tried to investigate what had then happened. A clear polarization between Konstantinos Mitsotakis, then prime minister and a young Antonis Samaras, then minister of the foreign affairs, within the same party emerges. It shows Mitsotakis without any real interest in the name issue, but interested in closing negotiations quickly in order for the Greece to benefit from some fruitful economic agreements between the two countries. Greece at the time was in the middle of its modernization process and Samaras, opposing his own prime minister, wanted to give voice to the emotions of the Greek people.
This is why, even though the formal position of the party from that moment on will be opposition to the use of Macedonia’s name, Mitsotakis removed him from his position. The president of the Greek republic Konstantinos Karamanlis (founder of New Dimokratia) appeared before the camera in tears and was heard saying during the same period: “Macedonia is Greek!”. Mitsotakis was then cautioned by his own party to end his political campaign and PASOK, who have always espoused a populist position on this issue, won the election in 1993.
Today, the official and unitarian line of New Dimokratia is the “ethnic” position – this, despite the fact that many members, including Dora Bakogianni, have declared that they won’t take part in the next march for Macedonia, organized for the 4th of February in Athens. The entire neoliberal establishment of the country has adopted the same stance.
It is crystal clear that we are facing two adversarial cultural models, whose roots could be traced to the different concerns about the relationship between the Greek nation-state and Europe. The historian Antonis Liakos argues that, through Paparrigopoulos’ work, a narrative has been established in which the Greek national self is continually self-nourished by its own history. Not at all by chance, indeed, one of the founding myths of Greek identity is that of the Araba Phoenix, perfectly representing the self-narration of a glorious organism that rises from its own ashes, as a pre-existing entity. In this framework the role of Europe in the construction of Greek identity has been reduced to zero. Something of this sentiment is always present when people speak about their ethnos.
But, at the same time, as the scholar of Greek culture Vassilis Lambropoulos has well explained:
“A particularly forceful position is taken by those Moderns who claim that they are the true Greeks of modernity because they do not imitate the Ancients but constitute a radically new Hellenism. Here let us recall German philosophy, French taste, Jeffersonian architecture, Arnoldian “culture,” decadent homosexuality, modernist dance, African tragedy, Latin American film, Odysseus in fiction, Dionysus in theater, Eurydice in opera. Claims about an authentically modern Hellenism put in a very challenging position people who speak Greek, have Greek lineage, live in Greek lands, celebrate Greek traditions and in general embrace this ethnic heritage.” (Lambropoulos 2014)
In this sense, a clash between the two ideologies can be anticipated: on the one hand, a Smithian, modern and mo- dernizing neoliberism; and on the other a conservative and “ethnic” perspective – what the Italian philologist and cultural scholar Furio Jesi has identified as “right wing culture” (1979).
The characteristics he has spelt out as constitutive of Italian neo- fascism are useful for understanding the Greek ethnicist phenomenon too: (1) Every reference to history or foundational narratives consists of a “mythological material” variously manipulated (technicized) for contingent purposes. (2) The “origin” described in these narratives is always invented ex-post. (3) The perpetual evocation of “purity” “ the ancient”, “height”, having a perlocutionary function, has always a kitsch aspect contained in its aim to evoke “spiritual splendor”. In this case, this perfectly describes Greek conservativeness in its exaltation of a self-sufficient ethnic mythideology, a feature not just constitutive of the traditionally right wing but also, and more importantly, deeply embedded in people's common sense.
What is remarkable is that, in practice, nobody seems to oppose this discourse, except for the people who radically express an anti-nationalistic position because of their libertarian or anti-authoritarian general predisposition.
None of the “common” people I talked with are openly right wing, or worse Golden Dawn voters, although they share with the far right party at least some of their cornerstones: the idea that Macedonia is actually an invention of Tito’s communists; the treason of NATO in not stopping this usurpation; the unacceptability of the fact that the Macedonian main road and Skopje airport are named after Alexander the Great; rueful resentment at politicians’ procrastination, seen as evidence of occult private interests; pridr in the popular insurgencies of the ‘90s and their total approval with regard to forthcoming marches in Thessaloniki and Athens.
The abracadabra of this phenomenon is the word “Patriotism”. “Patriots” are defined and self-defined as those citizens who paraded in the big march in Thessaloniki and those who will take part in the Athenian one. To be a “patriot” is what people demand of their politicians. Being patriotic means, substantially, being against the use of the name Macedonia outside of Greek boundaries and taking part in this political struggle.
But how can someone estimate the size of a political struggle for a non-territorial issue that, moreover, has no immediate impact on citizens’ lives and that can only be irretrievably played out at diplomatic level? What kind of language can physical presence at a rally, as the only form of agency available, truly express?
The language of the march
The day of the Thessaloniki march, hopefully unaware of the blaze at Libertatia, Zoi Konstantopoulou, former president of the Greek parliament with the first Syriza government and now member of a smaller and more leftist party, has tweeted:
“Today in Thessaloniki hundreds of thousands of citizens have demonstrated. They supported our fatherland’s (patrida) dignity. As it is our constitutional right. And duty. Don’t give up the country to fascists. A country is supported by its citizens. Us.”
These words are really densely evocative: they suggest that there is a deep awareness of being on the slippery territory staked out by fascist rhetoric. They insist that the only way to repair the absence of a left, to resist gifting the country to the fascists, is for the left to start being patriotic, and to embrace the same sentiment that is instilled within the people. There is no possible alternative narrative, because the patriotic stance is communal. It also means, consequently, that far right stances about the Macedonia issue are made respectable and acceptable, even though they are formulated by a fascist.
The issue of this “respectability” is central because it is precisely what allows two different levels of discourse to circle in a locked embrace. And here is where Jesi’s work is so enlightening, identifying this double level as both exoteric (from the greek ekso > out) and esoteric (from the greek eiso > inside). The first uses a simple, flat language, aimed at appearing to accommodate common sense, full of circular argument and a real cultural fetishization: “Greece to the Greeks” or “Macedonia belongs to Greeks”.
The second is an esoteric mystical language for the initiated. It is the language of those who, beneath the words, share a sense of belonging, in a sense a “transcendency”. In this case “transcendent” is not so much the value in question (the Macedonian heritage), but what this value represents in terms of maintaining a specific regime of sensibility, something very common in right wing totalitarian thought.
The two levels are binary but not in opposition: they both contribute to the same culture.
So at last we can see what took place during the patriots’ march in Thessaloniki. The “esoteric” counterbalance to several hundreds of thousands people crossing the city with national flags and banners and some fancy dress recalling our Alexandrian heritage was represented by a “direct action” aimed at communicating a presence among the initiates of the same political arena. This was transcendent because it involved a fullblown inherent morality and self-affirmative stance, namely an attack on all those who are “traitors” to the communal patriotic sentiment.
Finally this was a message aiming to establish a common enemy at large, but in a way that was immediately intelligible to only a few. A vertigo of identitarian affirmation, one concealed within the other, that has to be taken into serious consideration.
Detienne, M., 2005, Les Grecs et nous, Paris, Perrin Herzfeld, M., 2005, Cultural Intimacy, Social Poetics in the Nation-state, London, Roudlege Jesi, F., 2011, Cultura di Destra, Roma, Nottetempo Lambropoulos, V., 2014, https://poetrypiano.wordpress.com
Liakos, A., 2008, “Hellenism and the Making of Modern Greece: Time, Language, Space”, in Za- charia, K., Hellenisms: Culture, Identity and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity, London, Routledge
Paparrigopoulos, K., 1974, Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους, Athens, Εκδοτηκή Αθηνών