Greek ire


GREEKS have been through hard times recently, thanks to the financial collapse of their country and the tough austerity imposed on them. It might therefore be thought they had enough in the way of troubles without seeking to add another in the form of mass protest over the name of a neighbor state.

On the other hand, so great has been the economic humiliation resulting from the false accounting of past governments with the help of leading US investment bankers, that maybe the ordinary Greeks feel they need an external cause to get themselves riled.

The issue is of course Macedonia, which gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. The northern Greek region with its capital in Thessaloniki is also called Macedonia. The large Syntagma Square protest in Athens this weekend was prompted by the announcement that the country’s left-wing government was on the verge of ending its long-running dispute over the name of the state of Macedonia. The fact that it is unclear what the deal might be, did not stop the crowds from taking to the streets. They are furious at any compromise and are dedicated to the idea that whatever its neighboring state wants to call itself, that name should not include the word “Macedonia”. Anything less, claimed the protesters, and there was a clear threat of the annexation of the Greek province at some future date.

The speeches to the weekend crowd in the Greek capital dwelt upon the glorious history of Greek Macedonia, particularly of Alexander the Great and his father Philip II of Macedon. One speaker said that as descendants of the conquering armies of Alexander who had marched as far as India and Egypt, it was unthinkable this region might be threatened by a Slav neighbor that had appropriated its name. Unfortunately this comment is complete bunkum. Some fourteen hundred years ago the Byzantine provinces of Greece were completely overrun by Slav invaders who held them for more than 200 years before asking to be taken back by Byzantine empire. Few Byzantine Greek males are likely to have survived the original invasion — the Slavs were brutal even by the standards of the age. It is therefore highly unlikely that there are more than a few corpuscles, if any, of Macedonian blood running in the veins of modern Greeks.

“Macedonia” is the state name recognized by the United Nations but elsewhere including in the European Union, the inelegant “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — FYROM) is used. It would seem likely that the compromise that the Syriza Greek government is about to announce still includes the name ”Macedonia”.

The organizers of Sunday’s Athens demonstration claimed that 1.5 million people turned out. Police said the crowd was only around 140,000. Media pitched the number at no more than quarter of a million. But this is a significant figure in terms of 2011 anti-austerity demonstrations, the largest of which was around 300,000. The concern must be that this highly emotive but deeply flawed and shallow issue is being exploited by far-right groups to win supporters to their bigoted and xenophobic cause. Right now, the hard-pressed Greeks, who are for instance apparently now being made to pay their taxes for a change, feel the need to be mad about something. The naming of Macedonia is sufficiently irrational to fit the bill.