Why the Greek People Cannot Easily Accept FYROM’s Claims

Aristide D. Caratzas
(Trained Historian, is an international policy advisor, member of the board of Diktyo 21, and academic publisher based in Athens and Scarsdale, NY.)

Copyright: www.diktyo21.gr

Note: Published in The National Herald 30 August 2008

The dispute regarding the official name by which will be known the Former [Communist] Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) has appeared to many policy makers from arcane to trivial. Yet its mishandling over the last fifteen years, especially the last few months, has resulted consequences that have raised the political cost for some of the world’s major players and increased tension and the potential for instability in the Balkans, referred to by historians and diplomats as Europe’s “soft underbelly.”

The case in point is the unprecedented defeat of a U.S. president at a NATO meeting, in this case the much touted Bucharest summit in April of this year: President Bush proclaimed the “strong support” of the United States to the Skopje regime’s bid to NATO membership, only to have it denied under the threat of a veto by the Greek government. Nor did the NATO Secretary General’s visit to Athens and Skopje, following the NATO summit, increase the likelihood of a positive result, while the mediation process currently under way under the direction of U.S. diplomat Matthew Nimetz finds progress elusive.

Given the complexity of the situation it is useful to reconsider, or consider for the first time, some of the elements of this case that make it much harder to resolve than the cursory (and sloppy) assessments of some foreign policy “professionals” have heretofore suggested. Until now some of these professionals, especially in Washington, have approached this process mechanistically, hoping somehow that the implicit threat of American displeasure would sway the Greek government. On one level they cannot be faulted, as the latter caved in many times in the past; there is little flexibility on this issue however since, after repeated polling over many years, it has become clear that over 85% of the Greek public consistently demands a hard line.

This writer remembers a meeting in mid-1992 between Nicholas Burns, then State Department Spokesman, later Ambassador, and a group of Greek-American leaders. In answer to a question about the precedent affecting the European border system that would result from the recognition of the Skopje regime under the name of “Macedonia” (it then had explicit claims on Greek territory not to mention the history that is outlined below), Burns slammed his notebook shut and refused to discuss the implications. Some of the Greek-American leaders appeared more annoyed with the questioner than with Burns’ evasive little tiff. Yet this question, as does the entire dispute regarding the name of the tenuous statelet, has its foundation in the settlements following the Second World War, in recent history in short.

In the effort to understand causalities of issues that are thrust upon the stage of international affairs, it is ironic that diplomats, other foreign policy professionals and political scientists often opt to ignore history. Yet history, the word deriving from the root of the perfect tense of the Greek verb for “to know”, literally means “those things that I have come to know,” thus on one level simply is the accretion of particular knowledge of a phenomenon over time.

It is thus treacherous to wade into the Balkans, in which human experience has been recorded for millennia and folk memories are long, and not to be sensitive to recent historical traumas. To be fair, much of the discourse of those most immediately involved has related to realities of the 5th-4th century BC, or cites mythological ethnogenetic constructions, which may be obscure to diplomats and policy makers: Many Greeks argue by making reference to 4,000 years of the Hellenicity of Macedonia, while the Skopje regime’s mythology increasingly expands its symbolic pantheon to include Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, even though the Slavic culture and language, which are the axes of its purported identity, appeared a little more than a millennium later.

Yet the history that matters most, even if it largely has been ignored so far, refers to recent events, those taking place before, during and after the Second World War. In the Balkans these fall into three major categories, (a) the unresolved issues regarding ethnic and linguistic minorities before World War II; (b) the Axis occupation and policy of collaboration with minority groups; and (c) the successful shift from collaboration with the Nazis to alliances with Communists by some of these minority groups.

In order to set a broader historical context, one only needs to recall the use of ethnic minorities by the German National Socialist regime to destabilize Eastern Europe in the 1930s. In practice that meant that the Nazis encouraged the Sudeten German minority in Czechoslovakia and the German minority in Poland in order to put pressure on those states. The allegations of, what we would today call, human rights violations by the Czechs and the Poles, provided the justification for the interventions that lead, first to the collapse of the Czech state, and then to world war, when the Germans attacked Poland.

The defeat of the Axis resulted in settlements that effectively ended the claims by minorities, which had collaborated with it. To cite a few prominent examples: Over three million Sudeten Germans were expelled from Czechoslovakia, many of their leaders were executed and virtually all of their properties were seized. The same happened in certain parts of Poland. In Danzig, the name of which was changed to the Polish Gdansk, the remnants of Germans were expelled and their properties were seized. Similar acts took place in other countries that experienced occupation and collaboration of minorities with the enemy.

In Greece, after the Germans invaded in 1941, they established occupation zones for their forces and those of their Italian and Bulgarian allies. In Macedonia (the Greek province only used that name at the time), the German High Command under Field Marshal Siegmund List approved of the presence of Slavophone “liaison officers” to be attached to the occupying forces. These were mostly Bulgarian officers, linked to the nationalist VMRO group (Slavic for “Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization”), whose agenda was to mobilize and to coordinate the activities of the Slavophone inhabitants in Macedonia for the benefit of the Axis occupiers.

The leader of VMRO was Ivan “Vancho” Mihailoff (also transliterated as “Mihailov” in some of the literature), a major figure in the history of southeast European extremist nationalist movements, though little studied even by experts. Mihailoff had prevailed in the bloody power struggles (which included dozens of assassinations and other terrorist acts) for the leadership of VMRO by 1930. VMRO`s main goal had always been the creation of an independent “Macedonian” state, it had built an extensive network in Bulgaria, which was used to provide financing for the organization and an operational base from which the offensives into Yugoslavia and Greece were conducted.

Mihailoff had close links to Ante Pavelic, whom he assisted in the formation of the Ustashe (the Croatian Nazis, whose ardor and cruelty embarrassed even their German allies), and with Heinrich Himmler, to whom he introduced the Croat leader. Mihailoff cooperated with Pavelic in the spectacular assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Marseilles in 1934. The triggerman, Vlado Chernozemski, a close associate of Mihailoff, had been attached to the Ustashe on his order for the preceding two years. Between 1941-1944 Mihailoff settled in Zagreb, using it as his base of operations.

Meanwhile, the region of western Macedonia in Greece was occupied by the Italians, who were still smarting as a result of their defeat by the Greek forces. They developed a policy to exploit grievances of linguistic minorities, of which some members of the Slavophone group proved most responsive. This was the result of a visit to Rome by Pavelic, who personally persuaded Mussolini and Ciano of the wisdom of such a policy and of the intention of Mihailoff to implement it. Thus the Italians were assisted by VMRO, which sent out agents of its irredentist “Kostour [=Kastoria] Brotherhood” headed by a Spiro Vasilieff to Kastoria in order to set the foundations

Detachments of Slavophone volunteers were first formed in 1943 and accompanied Italian units searching for arms from the stores of the retreating Greek forces, which the country people often were hiding. These volunteers joined the Italian-sponsored the “Axis-Macedonian-Bulgarian Committee,” which became better known as the “Komitato” (or “Komitet”), first founded in the Kastoria by Anton Kaltchev, a Bulgarian officer of Slavo-Macedonian antecedents connected to Mihailoff’s VMRO, who enjoyed the respect of the Germans. Soon after a military arm of this organization was formed and came to be known as the “Macedonian-Bulgarian Command,” or less formally the “Ohrana.”

Led by Kaltchev the Ohrana, was able to mobilize significant forces. Bands recruited from Kastoria, Florina and Edessa and the surrounding villages, i.e. central and west Macedonia, probably fielded about 5,000 men by mid-1943. These forces assisted the Italians in operations against the Greek resistance organizations, and in intimidating and terrorizing the local population opposed to the Axis occupation.

Parallel to these military and “police” activities Kaltchev also consolidated his control over the Slavophone population of all political inclinations. He interceded with the Germans, for example in order to free individuals, nominally identified with the Left, who had been exiled by the Metaxas government. In addition, he penetrated (leftist) EAM, for a time the major Greek resistance organization, by placing his agents in its leadership ranks through SNOF, its Slavophone partner.

The Italian capitulation and withdrawal from the war in the Summer of 1943 would have left the Slavophone Axis collaborators in Greece without a sponsor had it not been for some prescient moves by the aforementioned Ivan Mihailoff. He and his supporters in the Central Committee of VMRO contacted the Germans directly (without the knowledge of and authority from the Bulgarian government). It appears that Mihailoff’s plans extended beyond support of the volunteer units to setting the foundations for the creation of an independent “Macedonia” under German protection. It was also anticipated that the VMRO volunteers would form the core of the armed forces of a future independent “Macedonia” in addition to providing administration, indoctrination and education in the Lerin (Florina), Kostur (Kastoria) and Voden (Edessa) districts under German control.

Mihailoff traveled to Berlin in early August 1943, where he was received by Reichsführer-SS Himmler at the Sichercheitsdienst (SD= Security Service) headquarters and also appears to have met with Hitler. Mihailoff apparently received consent to create two to three battalions of volunteers that would be armed and supported by the Germans and that would be under the command and disposal of Himmler’s organization (i.e. the SS). There is extensive evidence that Himmler’s office followed up in order to implement the terms of this agreement, appointing SS Major (Hauptbahführer) Heider to coordinate the arming and equipping the VMRO volunteers.

In March 1944 the village companies of Kastoria, were reorganized into militias, and were armed and prepared for service by the Germans and Kaltchev’s loyalists based in and the villages around Edessa and Florina also were included in this project. After some initial skirmishes with the Greek ELAS resistance forces, beginning on May 4 several VMRO volunteer companies from Kastoria and Edessa participated in the anti-guerrilla “Operation May Thunderstorm,” as part of the “Battle Group Lange,” spearheaded by elements the Nazi 4th SS Mechanized Infantry Division.

VMRO also organized three volunteer battalions under its name. They were formed by Slavophone officers sent from Bulgaria to Edessa, where they arrived in June 1944. These officers met with SS Major Heider in order to formalize the implementation of the agreement reached between Mihailoff and Himmler. Thus were formed: The 1st VMRO Volunteer Battalion–Kostur [=Kastoria], headed by Captain Ivan Motikarov, with the strength of about 500 men; they were armed with machine guns and rifles and included one sniper company. In summer 1944 they were assigned to a reinforced company of the 4th SS Police Mechanized Infantry Division, whence, in the words of a military historian “the civilian population was so afraid of this battle group that their very presence in the area was enough to quiet any civilian protest.”

The 3rd VMRO Volunteer Battalion-Voden [=Edessa], headed by Georgi Dimchev and Atanas Pashkov. Dimchev, who was born near Giannitsa (deemed a hero by VMRO) and Pashkov proved successful in recruiting over 800 volunteers not only from Edessa, but Gainnitsa and Goumenissa. They were armed and equipped, and wore on their hats the skull-and crossed bones symbol, which referred both the Slavomacedonian revolutionaries and their new allies, Himmler’s SS. The last to form was the 2nd VMRO Volunteer Battalion-Lerin [=Florina], which saw action in the waning weeks of the Axis occupation.

The German forces assisted by their Slavophone collaborators launched the last coordinated attack against organized Greek resistance July 3-17. The “Operation Stone Eagle” took place in the northern Pindus area by elements of the 4th SS Division, the 104th Jäger Division and the 1st and 2nd VMRO Volunteer Battalions, 12-15,000 men total, with the objective of containing elements the ELAS 8th and 9th Divisions; according to testimonies of the time the objective was partly achieved.

When the Germans withdrew from Greece, and Bulgaria declared war on Germany, the Ohrana and the Slavophone collaborationist effort collapsed. Anton Kaltchev fled Greece, but was apprehended by Yugoslav communist partisans and delivered to ELAS. He ended up in Thessalonica, where he was tried by the Greek government for war crimes and was executed.

Many of the Greek Slavophones who had filled the ranks of the VMRO volunteer (i.e. Axis collaborator) units enlisted in the ranks of SNOF, created by the Greek Communist Party. After Bulgaria aligned itself with the Soviets, this process accelerated. Thus Slavophone collaborators found their way to DSE (Demokratikos Stratos Elladas), the military force of the Greek Communist Party, during the civil war in Greece, 1946-1949. After the communist defeat, most of those who sided with the Axis, later with the DSE, in the name of “Macedonian” nationalism, were never allowed to return to Greece.

Mihailoff survived the war and settled in Rome, where he died in 1990, a year before the collapse of Yugoslavia. In 1950 he published a book in the United States titled Macedonia: A Switzerland of the Balkans, in which he proposed the establishment of what we would today call an independent “multi-cultural” state where the [Slavo-]Macedonians would have the dominant position in this entity, a thesis that paradoxically has been revived by some present-day West European “progressives” and American liberals . Mihailoff wrote in the shadow of the People’s Republic of Macedonia, a communist state that had been formed by Tito in 1945 within the Yugoslav Federation. He devoted the next forty years of his life in guiding the nationalist extremists of the Slavomacedonian diaspora in the US, Canada and Australia.

It is ironic, but not altogether surprising, that FYROM, the present successor state to the People’s Republic invented by Tito, is ruled by one of VMRO's factions. While the Skopje regime formally rejects Mihailoff, it has resumed a not-so-couched irredentist, nationalist extremist rhetoric reminiscent of the discourse of its collaborationist predecessor-namesake. It draws much of its support from the Slavomacedonian diaspora in the US, Canada and Australia, the ideological inheritor of Ivan Mihailoff, close friend and ally of Anton Pavelic and Heinrich Himmler.

In this reality, borne of a bitter historical experience, is to be sought the reason for the nearly instinctive reaction of Greek popular feeling (cutting across party lines) against FYROM’s claims, whether as to its name or its revived irredentist claims about minorities and properties. The Slavomacedonian collaborators and their children, who fought twice against the Greek state, should no more expect recompense by that state than the children of the Germans of the Sudetenland expect from the Czech Republic or those of Danzig from Poland. When they accept that truth, it will be the first step for a genuine rapprochement with the Greek people.

Realism however dictates that we should not be optimistic in the short term. Hijacking the name of Macedonia, arbitrarily seizing cultural symbols (i.e. Philip II, Alexander the Great, Saints Cyril and Methodius, among others) and now claiming “minorities” and properties in Greece as this piece is being written, demonstrates that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevsky, heading the present day VMRO and the Skopjan leadership, have inherited Mihailoff’s nationalist extremist vision. Unless they sober up, they will reap the whirlwind…

Meanwhile, Bush and those of his supporters in Washington and elsewhere who have been studiedly ignorant until now, should come to understand that the Greek people (supported not only by most Greek-Americans, but many other people who experienced the wrath of totalitarian extremists) are not likely to agree to terms proposed by a regime which revives the discourse of its dark past.

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