The Greeks and their neighbors, through endless trials and tribulations in their shared history, are accustomed to grand symbolic gestures that are aimed at bolstering the home side’s morale while striking a blow against the enemy. We see this in the seriousness with which symbols are taken. The Macedonia issue has been an especially rich battleground for all kinds of symbol-rattling by both sides. Greece has had to fight a vanguard action since the early 1990s, as the residents of what is still formally known as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia pushed to be recognized as Macedonians – and residents of Macedonia. Nearly two decades have passed, and instead of the two countries managing to work out a mutually acceptable compromise, things have gotten worse.
Until a couple of years ago, the political issue regarding the country’s name may have been a long-running sore in relations between the two countries, but there was still much good will and very extensive trade, commerce and tourism between the two. But the lack of a solution after so many years lead to the growth of extremism. And so, in recent years we have seen our neighbors do things that will embarrass them when they one day see things in their historical context. Among these is the now extensive use of Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon as somehow related to the modern residents of the area north of our border and so on. Even a tribal leader from Pakistan was feted in Skopje as a descendant of the Macedonians, who marched into Central Asia with Alexander in the 4th century BC, as if this made him a brother of the Slav-Macedonians.
With presidential and local elections scheduled for March 22, and with the current government chiefly responsible for the growth of extremism, it is no surprise that things have been getting worse. On March 1 we crossed another line: Buses carrying Greek tourists were set upon with rocks in the town of Ohrid and nationalist slogans – including “Fuck Greece” – were spraypainted on them. The war of words, names and symbols has moved to the throwing of stones and the striking of fear in precisely those whom one would expect to spread the word of peace and cooperation between the two countries – tourists.
But we are repeatedly victims to the same mentality in Greece. What else but symbolism gone mad was the burning of train carriages in ISAP’s Kifissia station by masked hoodlums on March 3? Wishing to make a statement in solidarity with low-paid workers, they destroyed state property (which will be paid for by workers’ taxes) and put out of action the means with which most workers get to their jobs. Nice work.
Milestones&Footnotes in AthensPlus, 6 March 2009