When I was young, I had a friend with no name. At his birth, he was supposed to be named Pantelis, after his paternal grandmother. However, prior to his terrestrial corporeal manifestation, two other first cousins had been born and given the same name and for this reason, his mother, without the consent or knowledge of his father, named him Aristogeiton, for the purposes of the birth certificate, this name being that of her great-uncle, who reputedly died in the Sudan. My friend’s incensed father and his relatives refused to acknowledge the existence and validity of the name, insisting upon calling him Pantelis. His maternal relatives addressed him as Aristogeiton and it soon came to pass that his father’s relatives turned on the father, considering him soft, a traitor to the family and stopped speaking to him, though they still referred to his son as Pantelis.
As a result of this dispute, Aristogeiton/Pantelis was not baptised as an infant. His father, being of the opinion that it was at the baptism that one’s true name was conferred, continuously delayed that event until such time as the intrafamilial naming dispute could be resolved. When Aristogeiton/Pantelis was in Year 9, his father, an enterprising businessman, went bankrupt (this was the early 90s) and as a result, his mother took over the family finances and all decision-making. She promptly had her son baptised as Aristogeiton, compelling her reluctant husband to attend the ceremony and it was with this name that my friend was known, until he entered university, whereupon, he changed his name to Trevor, by deed poll.
Though his paternal relatives still call him Pantelis, on the rare occasions that they have contact with him, about a decade ago, Trevor experienced a profound spiritual and personal crisis, at which time, he converted to Buddhism. Now he is known as Dorje, which means “something indestructible that can cut through anything,” in Tibetan and is constantly in a state of admirable placidity, convinced as he is, that there is no self and thus, identity is irrelevant.
Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje provided his friends with hours of activity, as we all scrambled to find suitable names for him. My cruel sobriquet for him was “Macedonia,” as his circumstances were eerily reminiscent of the broader Balkan naming dispute that saw all of us whipped to the most aerated froth of nationalistic frenzy in those early, heady days of its post-Cold War resurgence. Interestingly enough, we never sought to ask our friend which name he preferred for himself. This is because we were too busy debating with each other the proprieties and social consequences of assuming either of his names, in his absence.
The country we refer to as FYROM is also awaiting its official baptism. Since the regenesis of the naming dispute almost three decades ago, however, the vast majority of countries around the world, officially, and unofficially, refer to it as ‘Macedonia’. They do so, not because they are labouring under a misapprehension about the ethnic identity of Alexander the Great, or because they are ignorant of the fact that Slavic peoples first migrated to the southern Balkans in the seventh century CE. Neither are they particularly interested in the manner in which Bulgarian nationalists first coined the phrase “Macedonia for the Macedonians” as the first step in a strategy to grant Macedonia autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, as an ancillary step towards the region’s annexation by Bulgaria. Furthermore, they seem strangely unperturbed when informed that the very fact that a country is calling itself by the name of an ancient kingdom it has no links with, constitutes evidence that that country has territorial designs on its neighbour. To put it simply, the world doesn’t care about history or our pride in it. In a post-modern zeitgeist where no words have no objective meaning and identities are fluid, the vast majority of the world addresses FYROM by the name it wishes to call itself, and looks dourly upon our righteous indignation as being bad for business. In the meantime, two generations of children have been born in independent FYROM, espousing a state-driven “Macedonian” identity.
Whether or not the Greek government agrees to end the naming dispute by recognising FYROM by a compound name that includes the word “Macedonia,” it is likely that the rest of the world will, in normal, as opposed to official usage, continue to refer to the country and its people as “Macedonia,” and “Macedonians,” because brevity is always adopted in language use and the ethnonym is already familiar. Here the case of South Sudan, which, being recently separated from Sudan, has its people always being referred to as the South Sudanese, with no possibility of confusion with the Sudanese of the north, is the exception that proves the rule, because it is a new country, whose ethnic appellation had not, at the time of coinage, entered world consciousness to the extent that the term “Macedonian” has.
Though much of the rage directed by Greek people at the thought of compromise is, as was the case of my friend Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje’s relatives, a reaction at ‘losing’ against what they consider to be a ‘lesser’ foe, the toleration of an ahistorical name-grab by the community of nations and their indifference and insensitivity to history is manifestly unfair. Such indifference, as entrenched by the 2011 International Court of Justice ruling preventing Greece from using its veto to prevent FYROM’s entry into NATO, compromises the Greek people’s faith in the international institutions that are supposed to bring about just outcomes.
The above notwithstanding, much as in the case of the hapless Dorje, the ‘freezing’ of the status quo for three decades, rather than assisting in achieving compromise or the successful prosecution of an outcome favourable to Greece, has merely served to entrench in the popular consciousness, an association of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, with “Macedonia,” much in the same way as the illegally created republic of Northern Cyprus by Turkey, while not officially, is tacitly recognised by most major world powers, for the purposes of all substantive relations outside the United Nations arena.
Keeping an issue ‘on ice’ in the pious hope that somewhere within the future, a panacea for all ills can be found, à la Walt Disney, merely serves to harden the resolve of all sides and trap them into positions where compromise is almost impossible. In this case, the effluxion of time, has, as in the case of the Cyprus issue, not been favourable to the Greek cause.
The Greek people have invested a good deal of time and emotion into the “Macedonian issue” at the expense of other, possibly more vital humanitarian issues such as the plight of the Greek minority in Albania, the continuing occupation of Cyprus, or indeed the social and humanitarian crisis within poverty stricken Greece itself. They more they invest, the less the powers that be seem willing to listen.
The issue is now at the stage where the FYROMian foreign minister is parroting and parodying Greek arguments, stating that the term Macedonia is a geographical one and thus does not belong exclusively to any nation, all along knowing that the world has accepted it, via attrition, as an ethnonym for his people.
The fact that machinations to resolve a decades-long naming dispute have intensified at a time when Greece is politically and economically at its weakest point since the restoration of democracy, should not be ignored.
If it is time for the Greek people to accept that they cannot win every battle, and cut their losses in this matter, this should be done by their elected representatives graciously, honestly, strategically and with full disclosure to the Greek people as to why such a compromise is necessary, or beneficial.
If it is to be done, it must be done in a manner that avoids nationalistic hyperbole but highlights the iniquity of a global political system that has not evolved since the time of the imperial colonialist powers. If the last Greek referendum, whose result was overturned by Greek government at the bequest of foreign interests is anything to go by, the Greek people deserve at least, that much dignity.
Aristogeiton/Pantelis/Trevor/Dorje is fond of quoting this line of Lord Melchett’s from Blackadder: “As private parts to the gods are we, they play with us for their sport,” and he does so with an air of resignation that only the ill-used can affect. It is time to get their hands out of our pockets, if not for good, then at least, just this once.