Macedonia: it’s not just the name

By Aristide Caratzas

The dispute regarding the official name by which the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is known appears to many policy makers to be anything from arcane to trivial. Yet its mishandling during the last 15 years, and especially in the last few months, has had political consequences for some of the world’s major players and has increased tensions and the potential for instability in the Balkans – referred to by historians and diplomats as Europe’s “soft underbelly”.

The case in point is the unprecedented defeat of a United States president at a NATO meeting – the much touted Bucharest summit in April of last year. President George W. Bush proclaimed the US’ “strong support” for the Republic of Macedonia’s bid for NATO membership, only to have it denied under the threat of a veto by the Greek government. Nor did the NATO Secretary-General’s visit to Athens and Skopje – the capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – following the NATO summit, increase the likelihood of a positive result, while the mediation process currently under way under the direction of US diplomat Matthew Nimetz finds progress elusive.

Given the complexity of the situation it is useful to consider some of the elements of this case that make it much harder to resolve than the cursory (and sloppy) assessments that some foreign policy “professionals” have suggested. Until now some of these professionals, especially those based in Washington, have approached this process mechanistically, hoping somehow that the implicit threat of American displeasure would sway the Greek government. Although Greece has caved in many times in the past, there is little flexibility on this issue; After repeated polling over many years, it has become clear that more than 85 per cent of the Greek public consistently demands a hard line on the issue.

This writer remembers a meeting in mid 1992 between Nicholas Burns, then State Department Spokesman and later Ambassador, and a group of Greek-American leaders. In answer to a question about the precedent affecting the European border system that would result from the recognition of the Skopje regime under the name of “Macedonia” (it then had explicit claims on Greek territory not to mention the history that is outlined below), Burns slammed his notebook shut and refused to discuss the implications. Some of the Greek-American leaders appeared more annoyed with the questioner than with Burns’ evasive little tiff. Yet this question has, as does the entire dispute regarding the name of the tenuous state, its foundation in the settlements following World War II: in short, in recent history.

In trying to understand the issues that are thrust upon the stage of international affairs, it is ironic that diplomats, other foreign policy professionals and political scientists often opt to ignore history. But it is treacherous to wade into the Balkans – where human experience has been recorded for millennia and folk memories are long – and not to be sensitive to recent historical traumas.

To be fair, much of the discourse of those most immediately involved has related to realities of the 5th-4th century BC, or cites mythological ethnogenetic constructions, which may be obscure to diplomats and policy makers. Many Greeks argue their case by making reference to 4,000 years of the Hellenicity of Macedonia; while the Skopje regime’s mythology increasingly expands its symbolic pantheon to include Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, even though the Slavic culture and language, which are the axes of its purported identity, appeared a little more than a millennium later.

Yet the history that matters most, even if it largely has been ignored so far, refers to recent events, those taking place before, during and after World War II. In the Balkans these fall into three major categories:

  1. the unresolved issues regarding ethnic and linguistic minorities before World War II;
  2. the Axis occupation and policy of collaboration with minority groups; and
  3. the successful shift from collaboration with the Nazis to alliances with Communists by some of these minority groups.

In order to set a broader historical context, one only needs to recall the use of ethnic minorities by the German National Socialist regime to destabilise Eastern Europe in the 1930s. In practice that meant that the Nazis encouraged the Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia and the German minority in Poland in order to put pressure on those states. These minorities were encouraged to make allegations of, what we would today call, human rights violations against the Czechs and the Poles: this provided the justification for the interventions that led, first to the collapse of the Czech state, and then to world war, when the Germans attacked Poland.

In Greece, after the Germans invaded in 1941, they established occupation zones for their forces and those of their Italian and Bulgarian allies. In Macedonia (the Greek province only used that name at the time), the German High Command under Field Marshal Siegmund List approved of the presence of Slavophone “liaison officers” to be attached to the occupying forces. These were mostly Bulgarian officers, linked to the nationalist VMRO group (Slavic for “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization”), whose agenda was to mobilise and co-ordinate the activities of the Slavophone inhabitants in Macedonia for the benefit of the Axis occupiers.

The leader of VMRO was Ivan “Vancho” Mihailoff (also known as “Mihailov” in some the literature): he was a major figure in the history of southeast European extremist nationalist movements, though little studied even by experts. By 1930 Mihailoff had prevailed in the bloody power struggles (which included dozens of assassinations and other terrorist acts) for the leadership of VMRO.

VMRO’s main goal had always been the creation of an independent “Macedonian” state; it had built an extensive network in Bulgaria, which was used to provide financing for the organisation and an operational base from which the offensives into Yugoslavia and Greece were conducted.

Mihailoff had close links to Ante Pavelic, whom he assisted in the formation of the Ustashe (the Croatian Nazis, whose ardour and cruelty embarrassed even their German allies) and, with Heinrich Himmler, to whom he introduced the Croat leader.

Mihailoff co-operated with Pavelic in the spectacular assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Marseilles in 1934. The triggerman, Vlado Chernozemski, a close associate of Mihailoff, had been attached to the Ustashe on his order for the preceding two years. Between 1941-1944 Mihailoff settled in Zagreb, using it as his base of operations.

Meanwhile, the region of western Macedonia in Greece was occupied by the Italians, who were still smarting from their defeat by the Greek forces. They developed a policy of exploiting the grievances of linguistic minorities, of which some members of the Slavophone group proved most responsive.

This was the result of a visit to Rome by Pavelic, who personally persuaded Mussolini and Ciano of the wisdom of such a policy and of the intention of Mihailoff to implement it. Thus the Italians were assisted by VMRO, which sent out agents of its irredentist “Kostour [Kastoria] Brotherhood” headed by a Spiro Vasilieff to Kastoria in order to set up the foundations.

Detachments of Slavophone volunteers were first formed in 1943 and they accompanied Italian units searching for arms from the stores of the retreating Greek forces, which the country people often were hiding.

These volunteers joined the Italian sponsored the “Axis Macedonian-Bulgarian Committee,” which became better known as the “Komitato” (or “Komitet”). It was first founded in the Kastoria by Anton Kaltchev, a Bulgarian officer of Slavo Macedonian antecedents connected to Mihailoff’s VMRO, who enjoyed the respect of the Germans. Soon, a military arm of this organisation was formed and came to be known as the “Macedonian Bulgarian Command,” or less formally the “Ohrana”.

Led by Kaltchev, the Ohrana was able was able to mobilise significant forces, recruited from Kastoria, Florina and Edessa and the surrounding villages, i.e. central and west Macedonia. This probably fielded about 5,000 men by mid 1943. These forces assisted the Italians in operations against the Greek resistance organisations, and in intimidating and terrorising the local population opposed to the Axis occupation.

Mihailoff travelled to Berlin in early August 1943, where he was received by Reichsführer-SS Himmler at the Sichercheitsdienst (Security Service) headquarters: he also appears to have met with Hitler. Mihailoff apparently received consent to create two to three battalions of volunteers which would be armed and supported by the Germans and be under the command and disposal of Himmler’s organisation (i.e. the SS). There is extensive evidence that Himmler’s office followed up in order to implement the terms of this agreement, appointing SS Major (Hauptbahführer) Heider to co-ordinate the arming and equipping the VMRO volunteers.

In March 1944 the village companies of Kastoria, were reorganised into militias, and were armed and prepared for service by the Germans; and Kaltchev’s loyalists based in around Edessa and Florina also were included in this project. After some initial skirmishes with the Greek ELAS resistance forces, beginning on May 4 several VMRO volunteer companies from Kastoria and Edessa participated in the anti-guerrilla “Operation May Thunderstorm”, as part of the “Battle Group Lange,” spearheaded by elements the Nazi 4th SS Mechanised Infantry Division.

The German forces assisted by their Slavophone collaborators launched the last co-ordinated attack against organised Greek resistance from July 3 to July 17. The “Operation Stone Eagle” took place in the northern Pindus area with the objective of containing elements the Greek Resistance forces’ ELAS 8th and 9th Divisions. According to testimonies of the time the objective was partly achieved.

When the Germans withdrew from Greece, and Bulgaria declared war on Germany, the Ohrana and the Slavophone collaborationist effort collapsed. Anton Kaltchev fled Greece, but was apprehended by Yugoslav communist partisans and delivered to ELAS. He ended up in Thessalonica, where he was tried by the Greek government for war crimes and was executed.

It is ironic, but not altogether surprising, that FYROM, the present successor state to the People’s Republic invented by Tito, is ruled by one of VMRO’s factions. While the Skopje regime formally rejects Mihailoff, it has resumed a not-so-couched irredentist, nationalist, extremist, rhetoric reminiscent of the discourse of its collaborationist predecessor namesake. It draws much of its support from the Slavomacedonian diaspora in the US, Canada and Australia. The regime is the ideological inheritor of Ivan Mihailoff, close friend and ally of Anton Pavelic and Heinrich Himmler.

In this reality, borne of a bitter historical experience, is to be sought the reason for the nearly instinctive reaction of Greek popular feeling (cutting across party lines) against FYROM’s claims, whether as to its name or its revived irredentist claims about minorities and properties. The Slavomacedonian collaborators and their children, who fought twice against the Greek state, should no more expect recompense by that state than the children of the Germans of the Sudetenland expect from the Czech Republic or those of Danzig from Poland. When they accept that truth, it will be the first step for a genuine rapprochement with the Greek people.

Realism however dictates that we should not be optimistic in the short term. Hijacking the name of Macedonia, arbitrarily seizing cultural symbols (i.e. Philip II, Alexander the Great, Saints Cyril and Methodius, among others) and now claiming “minorities” and properties in Greece, demonstrates that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsky, heading the present day VMRO and the Skopjan leadership, have inherited Mihailoff’s nationalist extremist vision.

Meanwhile, Bush and those of his supporters in Washington and elsewhere who have been studiously ignorant until now, should come to understand that the Greek people (supported not only by most Greek-Americans, but many other people who experienced the wrath of totalitarian extremists) are not likely to agree to terms proposed by a regime which revives the discourse of its dark past.

[*] Aristide D. Caratzas is a member of AMAC, (Australian Macedonian Advisory Council) the role of which is to promote the truth concerning the Macedonian issue in Australian and international fora.

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edan says:

There’s no secret about success. Did you ever know a successful man who didn’t tell you about it?

F Martin says:

I think you made some good points. There is obviously a lot to know about this.