American Hellenic Institute President Nick Larigakis: Congress should back ally Greece on 'Macedonia' name issue

Guest Commentary

The American Hellenic Institute agrees that it is time for Congress to act on the name-recognition issue of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). We have long called on Congress to adopt legislation urging the FYROM to cease its use of propaganda that violates provisions of the United Nations-brokered Interim Agreement between Greece and the FYROM and that further urges the FYROM to work with Greece to find a mutually acceptable official name under U.N. auspices. In the recent past, such legislation has had strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.

We believe Congress can right a wrong on U.S. policy toward Greece and the FYROM. The George W. Bush administration negated previous U.S. policy when it recognized the FYROM as the “Republic of Macedonia” on Nov. 4, 2004. The decision ignored historical truths recognized by the United States for decades. When Marshal Tito fashioned the puppet “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” from the southern Yugoslav province of Vardarska-Banovina in December 1944, he did so to foment disorder in northern Greece to further his plan to communize the Balkan Peninsula and gain control of the key port city of Thessaloniki. “Macedonian” nationalism was a product of Tito’s fabrications. In December 1944, the United States vigorously opposed the use of the name “Macedonia” by Tito. Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius Jr., in a circular airgram, stated: “This Government considers talk of Macedonian ‘nation,’ Macedonian ‘Fatherland,’ or Macedonian ‘national consciousness’ to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic nor political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece. The approved policy of this Government is to oppose any revival of the Macedonian issue as related to Greece.”

In a Dec. 6 guest commentary for The Hill’s Global Affairs blog, United Macedonian Diaspora President Metodija Koloski raises the FYROM’s contributions as an ally of the United States to bolster his position. In addition to Greece being one of three nations allied with the U.S. in every major international conflict of the 20th century, Greece’s contributions to NATO are significant and immense:

  • Despite its well-documented economic crisis, Greece is only one of three NATO countries to maintain the 2 percent minimum standard for military expenditures;
  • U.S. Naval Support Activity (NSA) Souda Bay, Crete, successfully implemented joint USN/USAF reconnaissance missions and air refueling support for Operations Desert Shield/Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom;
  • In Libya, 400 U.S. Marines deployed at U.S. NSA Souda Bay, Crete, were “part of contingency planning to provide the president flexibility on full range of option regarding Libya” along with the amphibious assault ships USS Kearsarge and USS Ponce. Tens of thousands of civilians were also evacuated to Athens;
  • In Afghanistan, tens of thousands of aircraft use Greek airspace, including 30,000 allied flights during one, two-year periods. Greece offered personnel for training and security purposes and donated equipment, transportation services and millions of Euros;
  • In Egypt, American citizens evacuated to Athens during the Arab Spring;
  • Counterterrorism and counter-piracy missions took place in the Mediterranean Sea and off the Horn of Africa, in Operation Active Endeavor and Ocean Shield; and
  • Peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

In addition, contrary to Koloski’s assertion, it is the FYROM and not Greece that has followed a long-term policy of extreme nationalism and provocation against Greece in conflict with European values under the administration of FYROM Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. For example:

  • Gruevski renamed Skopje’s international airport “Alexander the Great;”
  • Gruevski named that nation’s main highway after “Alexander the Great” to the dismay of European Union (EU) officials. (Note: This highway project is partially financed by Greece, which pledged $75 million as part of its Hellenic Plan for the Reconstruction of the Balkans.); and
  • Gruevski renamed Skopje’s main stadium after “Philip II, the Macedon.”

After making a commitment to cease use of the “Sun of Vergina” per the interim accord, the FYROM reintroduced this Hellenic symbol as the symbol of its country in television advertising spots currently running internationally, including in the United States.  

On June 21, 2011, the FYROM erected a 40-foot statue of Alexander the Great in the center of Skopje. The controversial project cost $13 million amid a 30 percent unemployment rate.

Gruevski’s actions are a breach of the U.N.-brokered interim accord, erode efforts to build trust and good neighborly relations and do not embrace policies compatible with EU or Euro-Atlantic standards. The propaganda promulgated above, in which the FYROM claims portions of Greek territory and usurps Greek national identity and culture, demonstrates its unwillingness to find a solution.

In contrast, Greece has offered a major compromise of accepting a compound name that will distinguish the FYROM from both the Greek and Bulgarian part. 

While Koloski cites Greece’s economic crisis as a cause for concern, he conveniently omits that tensions are running high among the FYROM’s ethnic communities amid a political crisis that led one EU diplomat to say, “The EU considers Skopje has taken a step backwards.”

Koloski also bemoans a three-year economic embargo on the FYROM in the 1990s. However, he fails to offer that in 2012, Greece was the biggest source of foreign investment in the FYROM, at 12.3 million Euros.

So, yes, it is time for the U.S. Congress to take sides in the name-recognition issue — not in favor of Greece or FYROM, but in the best interests of the United States. The immediate settlement of the name issue that is mutually acceptable to both Greece and the FYROM will allow the United States’s strongest ally in the Balkans, Greece, to be the driving force for the FYROM’s membership to NATO and ultimately the EU. This will create stability for U.S. interests in the Balkans.

Larigakis is the president of the American Hellenic Institute, a nonprofit Greek American public policy center and think tank that works to strengthen relations between the United States and Greece and Cyprus, and within the Greek American community.