The simplified history that we are all taught, wedded with the necessary myths to wrap up the narrative, is the fertile ground where nationalist populism blossoms.
The agreement aimed at resolving the Macedonia name dispute is not a diplomatic victory for Greece, as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras tried to portray it in his address to the nation on June 12. Nor is it a diplomatic victory for North Macedonia, as Tsipras’s counterpart, Zoran Zaev, tried to sell it.
Contrary to those who believe that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means,” in international agreements there are no victories and defeats. What there is is necessary compromises so that a country can stop living in the past and move into the future, with its many challenges and even more problems.
The triumphant tone of the two prime ministers is understandable. On top of the obvious political benefits that they expect to reap, they are appealing to a considerable section of their respective populations which grew up with symbols such as the sarissas and the helmets of the Macedonian phalanxes, with a black-and-white perception of history taught at school. These people perceive diplomacy along the lines of the military campaigns narrated in the schoolbooks in which the (genuine or imaginary) enemy agreed to unconditional surrender – despite the fact that unconditional surrender was a rather rare phenomenon.
The simplified history that we are all taught, wedded with the necessary myths to wrap up the narrative, is the fertile ground where nationalist populism blossoms. It is not easy to uproot the national myths we grew up with, and for this reason we should have low expectations about the referendum in North Macedonia. We should keep in mind that at least one generation grew up with the ridiculous theories promoted by the Gruevski administration – i.e. that the Slav-Macedonians who arrived in the area in 6th century BC were direct descendants of Alexander the Great. These people believe that giving up their historical legacy to the Greeks would be an act of capitulation and they are ready to set up gallows in their own squares.
Reaching an interim agreement was a success for the two prime ministers and they should receive the credit for that. As for any remaining questions, gaps and gray areas regarding the final agreement, they are natural, and life will inevitably bring even more. The question is whether the two peoples can see the big picture behind the obstacles which are artificially exaggerated by career nationalists.
Wise-minded observers on both sides should stop grumbling. Let’s not fantasize about victories, defeats, triumphs and disasters. The agreement is just a step forward that was long due. There’s a lot to be done and this is what we must focus on for the good of the people – which is supposedly what nationalists on both sides are striving for in the first place.
Published in ekathimerini 16.6.2018