Macedonians' long history of struggle

April 1, 1992

By Mike Karadjis

Several weeks ago, the Greek community held 50,000-strong rallies in Sydney and Melbourne to oppose the independence of the Macedonian republic — that is, the formerly Yugoslav part of Macedonia. The success of these rallies was largely due to the campaign which said, falsely, that Macedonia has territorial claims on the Greek province of Macedonia.

But while this was just a lie, the Greek government's campaign has a more

subtle side. It has tried to convince the world that the modern Macedonians are simply a creation of the Yugoslav Communist regime in 1945 in order to make claims on Greek territory; that the Slavic population of Yugoslav and Bulgarian Macedonia are not a separate nation from Bulgarians or Serbs; that even if they are, they never called themselves "Macedonian" before 1945; and that they "don't exist" in the Greek part of Macedonia.

Certainly, the ancient Macedonians were Greek in language and culture. But from the seventh century AD, Slavic people entered the region, blending in with the local Greek, Latin and Illyrian peoples. Gradually, they became differentiated into a number of distinct cultures. Those in the Macedonian and Bulgarian regions were close in language, with different cultural influences. Their languages were clearly distinct by the 11th century. The first written Slavic language, Old Church Slavonic, was based on a Macedonian dialect.

Greeks also continued to live in Macedonia. They did not call themselves Macedonian, but, like all Greeks in medieval times, "Romaioi" and, after 1821, Hellenes.

In the 1880s, the Macedonian people rose four times against the Ottoman empire. In 1893, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO) was set up. Greek historians paint this as a Bulgarian front, but in reality it was divided between a pro-Bulgarian wing and the leading wing, which advocated an independent Macedonia as part of a Balkan federation. The IMRO had a socialist orientation.

A mass uprising in 1903 led to a brief Macedonian republic, bloodily suppressed by the Ottomans. Following this, Greek and Bulgarian nationalist forces got the upper hand in Macedonia. This led to the joint Greek-Bulgarian-Serbian attack on the Ottoman empire in 1912, dividing Macedonia between them.

This attack was opposed by socialists from Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey at a Balkan conference in 1910, who called for an independent Macedonia in a Balkan federation.

Who lived in this region? An Ottoman census in 1906 for all Macedonia showed 1,150,000 Muslims, 627,000 Bulgarian Orthodox and 623,000 Greek Orthodox. Even if all Greek Orthodox were Greek, which is unlikely, clearly they were a minority. Even in the part taken by Greece, Greek Orthodox were only 43% of the population according to a 1912 census. On the other hand, Muslims were not just Turks; a large percentage were Muslim Slavs. In the 1920s, Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria carried out a population exchange of some 3 million people. Muslims were sent to Turkey, Greek Christians to Greece, Slavic Christians to Bulgaria. Hence Greeks became a majority in Greek Macedonia.

However, 200,000 Slav Macedonians refused to leave Greece, largely because they did not consider themselves Bulgarian. The official Greek census of 1928 found 82,000 "Slavophones" in Greek Macedonia.

Ironically, documentation of the differences between these people and other Slavs and the fact that they called themselves Macedonian comes largely from Greek sources; "Slav-Macedonians" was a term invented by the Greek Foreign Affairs Department to describe people who called themselves Macedonians (Evangelos Kofos, Nationalism and Communism in Macedonia).

In 1936, the fascist dictatorship of Metaxas took power in Greece. The Macedonians' language was banned with heavy penalties, while mass exile of sections of the population took place. The Yugoslav and Bulgarian regimes followed the same policy, with thousands jailed and exiled, and attempts at Serbian colonisation of the region.

In Yugoslavia this resulted in daily demonstrations by Macedonians throughout 1939 and 1940. In Bulgaria, a guerilla struggle through the 1920s and 1930s was brutally put down.

In the 1940s in Greece, the mass of Macedonians joined the left-led resistance to Nazi occupation. The resistance organisations in Florina and Edessa were largely Macedonian. In 1944, the Slav-Macedonian People's Liberation Front (SNOF) was set up as their arm of EAM, the broader resistance front. There was a Macedonian leader, Keramitzev, in the underground government. When the Stalinist leadership of EAM surrendered Greece to the right in 1945, the new government's "white terror" organised massacres of Macedonians, 7000 of whom fled to Yugoslavia.

In Yugoslavia, Macedonians fought on the side of the Communist-led resistance under the Macedonian General Tembo. They formed their own section of the resistance before the Yugoslav CP officially recognised them.

In April 1942 Macedonian partisans organised an uprising against the Bulgarian occupation army in Yugoslav Macedonia, which was bloodily suppressed. The unarmed Macedonian population then poured into the streets to confront the Bulgarian forces, and were likewise drowned in blood.

Following the end of the Nazi occupation in Greece, the successor of SNOF, the National Liberation Front (NOF), was set up with the aim of "defending the national rights of the Macedonian people within a democratic Greece". From 1946 to 1949 it fought on the side of the Communist Party against both the white terror regime of the Greek right and Bulgarian nationalist groups in the region. By 1949, Macedonians made up 14,000 of the 40,000 troops of this CP-led struggle.

This led to mass exile: 35,000 Macedonians fled Greece in 1949. But unlike Greek leftist refugees who have since returned, the Macedonians are barred from returning or even visiting relatives.

Greeks should recognise that the Macedonians have paid a heavy price fighting for freedom from Turkish, Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian oppression. The chauvinist policy towards Macedonia has been the historical property of the Greek right.

While the left has had an inconsistent policy, it has generally been associated with the Macedonian struggle. Hence this is not an "issue concerning all Greeks", as the Greek right would have us believe. Leftists shamefacedly taking part in the current chauvinist hysteria are reinforcing the equally reactionary "national consensus".

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