Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
The term ‘Macedonia’ has become a sensitive issue for Greece due to its ethnic Macedonian population in northern Greece. From 1913, the Greek state has attempted to assimilate the ethnic Macedonian minority of northern Greece. During the Greek civil war there was a mass exodus of the Macedonian-speaking population. In 1944, the People’s Republic of Macedonia (later changed to Socialist Republic of Macedonia) was established as a constituent republic within the Yugoslav Federation. When the Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared its independence in September 1991, Greece opposed this, claiming that the term ‘Macedonia’ implied territorial pretensions on Greece’s northern region also named ‘Macedonia’ (note: prior to 1988, the region ‘Macedonia’ was officially known as Northern Greece). The sensitivity over the name ‘Macedonia’ was due to the ethnic Macedonian minority in northern Greece who renewed calls to be granted minority status.
The area inhabited by ethnic Macedonians (also known as Slavo-Macedonians) constitutes the Republic of Macedonia and the borders of south-western Bulgaria, northern Greece and eastern Albania. In 1872 religious control over the Orthodox population of Macedonia was divided between Patriarchate Greeks and Exarchate Bulgarians, and at the turn of the century the region was populated by members of many ethnic groups speaking a common language closely related to Bulgarian. In 1872, when the Bulgarian exarchate became an independent church, the Greek state (through the Patriarchate) and the Bulgarian state (through the Bulgarian exarchate) exercised massive pressure on the Macedonian-speaking population to remain loyal or join their respective churches. In 1903 the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO, founded in 1893) proclaimed independent administrations in two areas of Macedonia, expecting to receive support from the European powers for an independent Macedonia. This was not forthcoming, and IMRO was crushed, leaving Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia to struggle for the territory.
When Macedonia was divided in 1913 (Greece acquired most of the territory, Serbia one-third and Bulgaria only one-tenth) the majority of the population were Bulgarophiles; yet ethnic Macedonians, regardless of which state they lived in, became the victims of discrimination or assimilation policies established in all three states.
In 1913, some 15,000 ethnic Macedonians became victims of ethnic cleansing by the Greek army in Aegean Macedonia. In 1924 Greece and Bulgaria signed the Kalfov–Politis Agreement, placing the ‘Bulgarian’ minority in Greece under the protection of the League of Nations. However, from 1925 the Greek government considered the minority to be Greek.
Greece’s northern and eastern border is today approximately as it was fixed in 1913, but the demography has changed markedly. After World War I between 52,000 and 72,000 ethnic Macedonians left Greece for Bulgaria, and 25,000 Greek-speakers came to Greece from Bulgaria. They were resettled in Greek Macedonia and given land often formerly cultivated by the local peasants. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Turkey after a bilateral treaty between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
Following the civil war in Greece (1946–9), 35,000 Communist ethnic Macedonians went into exile and were stripped of citizenship; land was distributed to ‘nationally minded’ Greeks who were resettled in Macedonia. Those who continue to assert a Macedonian identity still cannot return. These rapid demographic changes were complemented by compulsory assimilation, including name changes, school closures and the prohibition of the Macedonian language in public and in the home. Greek control of education and job discrimination have encouraged assimilation, making the Macedonian minority increasingly difficult to define.
The independence of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia helped fuel Greek nationalism, and there has been a simultaneous resurgence in ethnic Macedonian minority activism, demanding recognition, although not autonomy or secession. The Macedonian Movement for Balkan Prosperity put up candidates in the 1994 elections and activists were subjected to harassment. In the 1990s, the Rainbow Party was formed as the main Macedonian political movement.
The registration of the party was initially rejected in Greece; however, after pressure from its allies in the European Parliament, the Macedonian activists were able to participate following a decision of the Supreme Court of Greece just 11 days before the elections in 1994. The Rainbow Party officially received 7,326 votes, however the party believes the true number to be much higher. The official number of votes was put in doubt, given that the results for Rainbow were given three weeks after the release of all other official results. Also throughout the campaign (as well as in subsequent election campaigns) Rainbow candidates were treated as foreign agents and were given no coverage in the mass media. Rainbow decided not to take part in the 2004 parliamentary elections, citing shortage of funds and continued isolation by the mass media, which continued to follow the official Greek government position. Rainbow did however, participate in the 2004 elections for the European Parliament, obtaining 6,176 votes out of 6,283,637 total votes cast (0.1 per cent).
According to the Rainbow Party, during the period between the two world wars Greece enacted a number of laws which replaced all non-Greek names of towns, villages, rivers and mountains with Greek names. These traditional toponyms (which still exist in unofficial use among the population) are not given official recognition by the Greek state. Also, during the 1930s the personal names of the Macedonian-speaking population were forcibly changed to Greek ones. One of those was the Filipov family whose name was changed to Voskopoulos. In April 2005, Pavlos Voskopoulos made an application to the local prefect in his home town to change his surname back to his traditional Macedonian family name ‘Filipov’. The application was rejected. The matter was appealed to the General Secretary of the Region who upheld the decision.
The government continues to not recognize the Macedonian language, calling it an ‘idiom’ spoken by persons in the north-western area of the country. Macedonian speakers insist on the use of the term ‘Macedonian’ to describe the language. The term ‘Macedonian-speakers’ generates strong opposition from Greek nationalists, and from the ethnic Greek population as a whole. Although various human rights bodies have strongly recommended the Greek state to take measures for the recognition and the protection of the linguistic rights of the Macedonian-speaking population in Greece, the Greek government continues to ignore such advice.
The signing of the Prespa agreement in 2018 between Greece and Macedonia, with the latter agreeing to be renamed as the Republic of North Macedonia, has led to improved relations between the two countries: Greece had previously claimed that the title of Republic of Macedonia represented a challenge to its territorial integrity. The agreement still needs to be ratified by both countries and Macedonia’s Constitution will need substantial revision, so the implications of this development for the treatment and recognition of ethnic Macedonians in Greece itself remain to be seen.