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Feud Between Greece, Macedonia Continues Over Claim to Alexander the Great
Officials in Skopje said that they were willing to swallow FYROM again as the price of admission to NATO last year but that Greece refused. Matthew Nimetz, the U.N.'s special envoy for the dispute, said recently he was optimistic a compromise could be reached but gave no details.
Leaders in Macedonia, a poor, landlocked country about the size of New Hampshire, warned they may have trouble holding the nation together if Greece does not relent soon. Internal unrest, they said, could easily spread to other fragile nations in the Balkans, such as neighboring Kosovo, where 1,500 U.S. troops serve as part of a peacekeeping force.
"The problem is threatening the fabric of our society," Gjorge Ivanov, the president of Macedonia, said in an interview. "The pressure that Greece is making is destabilizing the whole region."
In the Balkans, it doesn't take much for conflicts to spin out of control. Macedonia almost descended into civil war in 2001 because of fighting between ethnic Albanians, who are Muslim and constitute a quarter of the population, and ethnic Macedonians, who are Orthodox Christian.
Since then, the two groups have shared power under a peace agreement based on the assumption that Macedonia would join NATO. Both sides see the military alliance as a guarantee of internal stability. "It would give us medicine for our hot heads," said Menduh Tachi, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Albanians.
But Tachi said the pact could be derailed if the dispute over the country's name persists much longer. "I don't even want to think of what would happen if we can't resolve it and join NATO," he said. "It would be a Frankenstein scenario."
Macedonians say the name of the country is crucial to developing their still wobbly national identity. Ethnic Albanians say they would revolt if the Slavic Republic of Macedonia was the new name because they are not Slavs. Almost nobody wants another Greek-preferred version, the Republic of Skopje, which ignores everyone outside the capital.
Historically, territory inhabited by ethnic Macedonians has belonged to other nations: Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. Those countries have been reluctant to recognize ethnic Macedonians as a separate people, to recognize their Slavic language as a distinct tongue or even to recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church.
Todor Petrov, president of the World Macedonian Congress, a group founded by Macedonian exiles in 1899, said the country should stop kowtowing to Greece and just call itself the Republic of Macedonia, regardless of how badly it wants to join NATO or the European Union.
In an interview, he accused Greece of "practicing ethnic cleansing and genocide on the Macedonian nation" for the past 100 years. "They're denying our nationality and culture and church and history and our borders," he said.
It is not just Macedonia's national identity that is at stake. The Greek government does not recognize ethnic minorities within its own borders, including Macedonian-speaking residents of northern Greece.
Pavle Voskopoulos, a Greek citizen who leads the Rainbow Party, a group of ethnic Macedonians in northern Greece, said the country subscribes to a myth of a "pure" Greek people who are directly descended from Alexander and others from his era. "This is all about modern Greek identity," he said. "If there is a Macedonia as an independent state, this is a great threat against Greek policy and Greek ideology."
Lacking the clout to force Greece to budge, Macedonia has intensified its glorification of Alexander and other ancient heroes, a campaign that critics in Skopje deride as "antiquization."
The country has renamed its national stadium for King Philip II, Alexander's father, and organized dozens of archaeological digs. Officials also like to needle Greeks that the philosopher Aristotle, who tutored the teenage Alexander, was from the kingdom of Macedonia, not Athens.
Pasko Kuzman, the government's director of cultural heritage, is a driving force behind Macedonia's surge of interest in the past. With flowing white hair, three heavy-duty watches strapped to his thick wrists and a National Geographic fanny pack, he has been described as a cross between Indiana Jones and Santa Claus.
In an interview in his office, sitting next to a wall-size copy of a 13th-century icon of Alexander, Kuzman insisted that Greece had stolen the conqueror's legacy from Macedonia, not the other way around.
"The Greeks are sorry that they are called Greece and not Macedonia," he said. "What else can I tell you?"