IT DOESN'T MATTER WHO IS BEARING THE GIFTS JUST BEWARE
longest unresolved diplomatic dispute in the South Balkans, that over
the name "Macedonia," has recently returned to the spotlight.
Since the final province to break away from Yugoslavia announced itself
as the "Republic of Macedonia" ten years ago, the
Greeks have been adamant in refusing to recognize this name; the
northern province of their country, after all, is also known as Macedonia.
Greek economic boycotts and political influence were enough to force
the UN to name the new country officially as FYROM the "Former
Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." This solution has never enjoyed
much support on either side of the border, and various initiatives
to resolve the name issue have been sporadic and unsuccessful. Now,
however, there is a potential "breakthrough" in the works yet one which is dangerous on theoretical grounds, and also comes
packed full of dubious "bonus offers" for Greece's northern
THE PROBLEM BEING...
At first, there would seem to be no problem with naming others as they would have themselves be named. After all, isn't this the very essence of cultural tolerance and the rights of national self-determination? In fact, using this principle, I'm sure that the Greeks would be extremely thankful if we were to refer to them as "Hellenes," and their nation as "Hellas" wouldn't they?
NOMINAL RELATIVISM VS. PRAGMATISM
The answer, of course, is no. While it is undoubtedly more accurate linguistically, and the Greeks take pride in being Hellenes first and foremost, they aren't going to just throw away the name on which all of their tourism, marketing, and export in short, all of their relations with the rest of the world depends. The name "Greek" was foisted on them from without (it derives from the Latin graecus), and is therefore a misnomer, a lexical relic of a specific period in the history of European civilization. It is also somewhat derogatory, and not very accurate. Yet this accident of history has endured to become the accepted term for English-speakers (and therefore, for the world). As with human life and history, the life of languages is often messy, violent, and utterly random. Yet the twin histories are inextricably intertwined, propelling and limiting each other at every turn.
THE END OF FREEDOM IN LANGUAGES
we get into this, let's explore the type of "solution" offered
by the ICG. To follow their logic would mean to, in effect, rename
the entire world in the process violating the sovereignty and rules
of every language on the planet. Would we English-speakers be prepared
to rename Germany as "Deutschland"? How about "Kartveli"
instead of "Georgia"? Indeed, would it not be the utmost
sign of respect, to call these peoples as they call themselves?
THE DEATH OF LANGUAGE, AND THE DREAM-WORLD OF HISTORY
Calling everyone in the world as they call themselves would mean, first of all, the utter violation of the structure and freedom of every language under the sun. It is also, however, a disavowal of the human history that is inextricably intertwined with each of those languages and this means the conceptual universe surrounding each name. It would mean forgetting the received history that messy, disorderly and oftentimes bloody account of how certain proper nouns were forged on the anvil of power. In the case of Macedonia, if the Slavic Macedonians were to receive their language's name (Republika Makedonija), and the Greeks theirs (Makedonia), then who would lay claim to the Macedonia conjured up by history books, artworks and archaeological museums? Because that, my friends, is what is really at stake here. Not territory, but an ethereal and elusive sense of spirit, haunting the land like a baleful yet irresistible ghost.
POWER-SHARING OF NAMES
Partisans on both sides of the Macedonia issue, however, will find they have some unexpected bedfellows. For this Macedonia the Macedonia of poetry and conquest, of heroism and gold is just as much the product of the Western intellectual tradition, from the Renaissance to the present day, as it is the property of those who live there today. To the extent that it is a conceptual object, and not just a piece of territory, Macedonia (as it is recognized and imagined) has been partially created, sculpted and shaped by the literary and scholarly works of British, French, German and other thinkers.
resolves even so far down as a single letter. For though both Greeks
and Slavs pronounce the word "Macedonia" with a hard "k,"
in the English transliteration it is pronounced with a soft "c."
Built into the public awareness over a period of hundreds of years,
this incorrect pronunciation is ironically today proliferated by both
Greeks and Slavs. Most of them use the English-standard pronunciation
when speaking with foreigners out of a desire to not confuse them
with too much accuracy.
THE SPOKEN WORD: GREEK PARADIGMS
related example is that of the English adoption of Greek words, a
process which began at least 450 years ago, and which has been influenced
by two things: phonetic changes in the evolving English language,
and academic innovations and trends. I'm using Greek as an example
here not so much because of its relation with the Macedonia question,
but because it is the foreign language with which I'm most familiar.
The reasons for this divergence transcend merely the natural differences of tongues; they go way back to the 16th century, and the historical accident of Erasmus, the Dutch scholar who attempted to reconstruct the accents and cadences of the Ancient Greek language. Despite his industry and influence, Erasmus' conjectures have not been definitively proven, and his system is almost completely at odds with the way Greek has been spoken for at least the past 1,500 years. This is not the place, of course, to delve into the intricacies of the Erasmian pronunciation just to say that we tend to take the words we speak for granted. Yet every language has a very specific "history" in terms of the existence, reason and rationale of its linguistic forms. And this is intimately involved with human history, politics and rhetoric. We cannot investigate the one without stumbling across the other.
YET IS THE PROPOSAL ALREADY JUST AN ARTIFACT?
The "Republika Makedonija" proposal will most likely remain just that, since Greek diplomats are doubtful that the name will fly with their constituents. Yet even if it doesn't go forward, the ICG initiative will go down in history as a sign of the times that is, as an idea symbolic of the rather antiseptic and superficially rational way in which Western diplomacy is conducted at the turn of the 21st century. The tacit assumptions inherent to the proposal (some of which we have already pointed out), are unique to our currently predominating worldview, an unblinking, Americanized one, and one that always professes to be seeking parity and justice.
Yet all people, and not just thinktanks and governments, play a part in the greater human drama that decides the fate of language the most important locus of power. In this light, the ICG has boldly taken the initiative by attempting to forcibly alter the history of the word "Macedonia"; in doing so, the ICG also becomes another of those historical accidents, like Erasmus or Amerigo Vespucci, the influence of which cannot be understood outside of the context of its own time. If not a chapter, the ICG has earned itself at least a sizable footnote in the long and unfinished history of the word "Macedonia."
TILTING AT WINDMILLS
partisan quality of the debate over the word "Macedonia"
has left both sides incapable of addressing the issue, beyond the
limitations of "us versus them." Scholars of both Greek
and Slavic persuasions construct grand empires of scholarship, attempting
to "prove" that the heritage of Macedonia belongs exclusively
to their own side. Yet in their zeal to capture a distant past Macedonia
for the service of the present one, they let the Macedonia of the
future slip away.
'DELIBERATE ANACHRONISM,' APPLIED TO NATION-STATES
a successful resolution of the Macedonia crisis, all parties will
have to seek out other ways of re-imagining their past, present and
future. The difficulty derives not so much from their specific case,
but from the fact that all names are by nature poetic, allusive, and
vague. Names stir the emotions; they invoke both nostalgia and rancor.
And the names of nations, like their flags, serve to rally the population
to a common cause even if (as in Nazi Germany) the cause leads
straight over a cliff.
IN ANY CASE...
It is more than ironic that people so allegedly fired up with patriotism and nationalistic pride are arguing not over what they call themselves, but over the what the rest of the world calls them. Why the need for external validation? Because at the end of the day, for those making the highest decisions, nationalistic fervor is just another cynical pretense with which to manipulate the people; a famous name with a tortured and complex history is, after all, most useful as an economic commodity. Which may, in the end, work out as a greater benefit to the prosperity of the Macedonian peoples.
POSTSCRIPT: BONUS OFFERS WITH THE ICG'S PROPOSAL
While this truly deserves a separate article, we cannot leave off without at least a mention of the other hidden surprises Slavic Macedonians would get along with the Republika Makedonija name. First of all, they'd win halfhearted recognition from Greece, which would still be free to use its own preferred name, Ano Makedonia ("Upper Macedonia"). Second of all, they'd get the enforced blessing of a NATO presence through September 2002 if not longer. Third, they would have to rewrite their elementary school textbooks to give a lot more credit to the Greeks, as regards the history of ancient Macedonia. Finally, they would have the honor of being listed in the UN register under the "R" section, rather than the "M" section. It is left to the reader to judge the relative merits of the deal.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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