Skopje airports, statues and the Bible

A new dish of Macedonian salad

by Evangelos Kofos

(This is an edited version of an op. ed. published in the Athens daily “Kathimerini”, 3 February 2007)

The renaming of the airports of Skopje and Ohrid to “Alexander the Great” and “St. Paul”, respectively, has triggered an emotional reaction among a segment of the Greek public. Some reacted scornfully considering this initiative by FYROM’s authorities as rather “absurd”, a gift to cartoonists. Others felt annoyed by the falsification and appropriation of what they considered as their cherished Greek Macedonian identity and cultural heritage. These feelings were accentuated by the fact that over the past few years statues of Alexander the Great have been erected in certain towns of the neighbouring country (Shtip, Prilep), as well as at the news that a series of new monuments are in line to commemorate king Philip II, Alexander’s father, and even the Macedonian born philosopher, Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor. Following an unmistakable public expression of dissatisfaction by Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis as well as Deputy Ministers I. Valinakis and E. Stylianides, the once stagnant issue over FYROM’s state name between Athens and Skopje has resurfaced.

It would be clumsy and trivial to start a dialogue over a hint of jitteriness of certain nationalistic circles in FYROM. More important is for the Greek public to comprehend and deliberate over the reasons of this “provocative” action – as assessed by the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn.

Certain sceptics contend that this provocation is nothing more than an addendum to a costless—for Skopje—diplomatic bargaining deal, to be bartered at some future date for Athens’ “capitulation” on the name issue. This is hardly the case. The causes are deep-seated and linked directly to a long-going process in FYROM, especially after its declaration as an independent country in 1991: they aim at reshaping and expanding the historical myth of the ethnogenesis of the “Macedonian nation”.

The traditional theory, shaped in former Yugoslavia since the 1940s, placed the onset of the identity of the Macedonian Slavs—the Makedonci—to the descent of the early Slav tribes to Macedonia (6th century AD). The historical dogma, currently taking shape in FYROM, backtracks the origins of this modern Slav Macedonian nation a full millennium to include the ancient Macedonians (5th century BC). This revisionist historical dogma, is not limited to encroaching upon the identity of a Hellenic people of the classical times. It aims at expanding the boundaries of the historical “taktovina” (fatherland) of the “Makedonci” to include wide regions of Greece and Bulgaria. It is well known, that for decades the classrooms and school textbooks of history in FYROM have been adorned with maps portraying Macedonia’s “geographic and ethnic”, i.e. Slavic boundaries extending all the way to Mount Olympus and Chalkidiki, in Greek Macedonia as well as to the Pirin district of Bulgaria. Now, by claiming the patrimony of the Ancient Macedonians, the boundaries of “Greater Macedonia” assume a much wider historical and cultural dimension in time.

This “improved”, triplex revision, redefining the fatherland’s identity, the time span of the ethnogenesis process of its people, and the historical heritage of land and peoples, consists of two equally important dimensions: First, it provides the emerged Macedonian independent state with enlarged “ancestral” lands (regardless of the fact that these lands are integral parts of Greece and Bulgaria). Second, it enriches the Makedonski nation with a plethora of renowned historical figures and events. The expanded historical pantheon seeks to include Alexander the Great, King Philip II, Aristotle, (4th century BC), and the first European Christians who accepted the preaching of St. Paul during his visit to the Macedonian cities of Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Beroea, (lst century AD). Similarly, medieval historical figures fall pray to the ongoing “macedonization” process. Among them, a recent addition to the list of eminent “ancestors”, is the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, the “Macedonian” (known also as “Basil the Bulgar- Slayer”), along with the other “Macedonian”, though of a different lineage, Czar Samuel, Emperor of the Bulgarians (10th century AD).

This undertaking, however, does not aim to serve historical accuracy. Instead, it aspires to the formation of a libro d’oro, a respectable passport for the country’s eventual entry into the European Union of 27.

Let’s now address the timely issue of what appears a sudden “epidemic” manifesting itself through the erection of monuments, the renaming of streets, airports, etc., with names of Ancient Greek historical origin. Judging by the recent publications in the European press, dozens of foreign correspondents are invited to FYROM, where besides the generous hospitality they can enjoy, they receive a satisfactory dose of brainwashing about this novel ethnogenetic doctrine.

The reasons behind the renaming of the Ohrid airport to St. Paul were less—if at all—discernible to the Greeks. No one, of course, is contending for the identity of the Apostle, hence the proclamation made by Skopje that the name change pays homage to the ‘Apostle of the Nations.’ Behind this act, however, remain hardly hidden dimensions of the continuous expansion of our neighbours’ historical doctrine.

Over the last years, the historical assertions of “Republika Makedonija” portray the “Macedonskii taktovina” as a country of the Bible, and, specifically, as the first European territory where Christian churches were established. It is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles that while at Troja, Paul witnessed a vision of a Macedonian calling him to come to Macedonia and help his people. He responded, crossed Chryssopoli (present day Kavala) and before arriving in Athens and Corinth preached Christ’s teachings to the cities of Philippi, Thessaloniki and Beroea, where he became accepted by “Judaeans” and “Greeks” alike. (New Testament, Acts, chapters 16, paras 9,12 and 17, para. 4).

Therefore, the name of the Ohrid airport is not so “innocent” after all. Nor can it be considered as an expression of Christian devoutness, in a region mostly surrounded by a Muslim/Albanian population. Notwithstanding that Paul never set foot on the lands of the modern FYROM, the state propagandists in Skopje, by giving the Apostle’s name to the Ohrid airport, attempt to convey two messages: First, that St. Paul’s mission is a cherished religious and cultural component of “their” nation’s patrimony, thus justifying its appropriation for the promotion of their tourist industry. Second, in an indirect way, it provides attractive elements to propagate, shamelessly, their territorial fantasies over the Greek Macedonian regions, visited by St. Paul. Claiming Philippi, Thessaloniki and Beroea as sections of their homeland from the first century AD (that is, five centuries prior to the gradual descent of Slavic tribes towards the south), they aim in what is now a classic equation: If Paul was invited by a vision of a Macedonian to preach the Christian faith in three Macedonian cities, and if Skopje has a constitutional monopoly over the unscathed Macedonian name, then the territory, the citizens and the history of Macedonia through the ages, belong exclusively to them...

In a few words, this is precisely the message conveyed by this new dish of “salade Macedoine”. And, in an indirect way, it reveals the core to the long-standing name dispute between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

*****

Article 7 of the Interim Accord between Greece and FYROM (1995) states the following: “If either Party believes one or more symbols constituting part of its historic or cultural patrimony is being used by the other Party, it shall bring such alleged use to the attention of the other Party, and the other Party shall take appropriate corrective action or indicate why it does not consider it necessary to do so.”

The Greek people, in general, and our Macedonians, in particular, wish to know the steps taken by the Greek government toward FYROM, and, more importantly, how the latter responded. Yet, irrespective of the response, it would be worthwhile to place it in the Greek delegation’s files when the EU embarks on accession talks with Greece’s northern neighbour.

Dr. Evangelos Kofos is currently Senior Advisor-Balkan Area of ELIAMEP and member of the Board of the Research Centre for Macedonian History and Documentation, Museum of the Macedonian Struggle.

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