Macedonians of Greece

Alternative names: Slavophone Hellenes, Bulgarians
Location: In the north of the country in Aegean Macedonia
Population: No reliable estimates; large diaspora in Eastern Europe, Canada and Australia
Religion: Eastern Orthodox Christian
Language: Macedonian, Bulgarian, Greek

The Macedonians are a Slavic people who live in Macedonia, an area in the Balkan peninsula which is today divided between Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The Greek authorities have from the outset of the modern Greek state consistently denied the existence of the Slav Macedonians as a separate people from the Greeks and instead officially referred to them as Slavophone Greeks while the Bulgarians claimed them to be Bulgarians — in common speech the Greek population referred to them as Bulgarians and the notion of them as a separate people, the Macedonians, only really came later in this century, especially after the World War II and the founding of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia in neighbouring Yugoslavia.

The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and after

Assessing population figures is problematic due to the tendency to exaggerate the number of the Greek or Slav populations depending on which side is making the assessment — the Greeks, the Bulgarians or the Yugoslavs. One of the most detailed assessments is a Yugoslav one, just before the Balkan Wars of 1912 (which saw the liberation of the areas from Ottoman rule). Using Bulgarian and Greek sources, it estimates that there were in Aegean Macedonia: 326,426 Macedonians; 40,921 Muslim Macedonians (Pomaks); 289,973 Turks; 4,240 Christian Turks; 2,112 Cherkez (Mongols); 240,019 Greeks; 13,753 Muslim Greeks; 5,584 Muslim Albanians; 3,291 Christian Albanians; 45,457 Vlachs; 3,500 Muslim Vlachs; 59,596 Jews; 29,803 Gypsies; and 8,100 others making a total of 1,073,549 inhabitants.

However, from 1913 to 1926 there were large-scale changes in the population structure due to ethnic migrations. During and immediately after the Balkan Wars about 15,000 Slavs left the new Greek territories for Bulgaria while many Greeks from Thrace, Pirin and Vardar Macedonia moved to be under Greek rule. More significant was the Greek–Bulgarian convention of November 27,1919 which allowed voluntary population exchange in which some 25,000 Greeks left Bulgaria for Greece and between 52,000 and 72,000, depending on which estimate is used, Slavs left Greece for Bulgaria, mostly from Eastern Aegean Macedonia which from then onwards remained virtually Slav free. Most Slavs living west of the Vardar river, especially bordering on Yugoslavia, chose to remain. Greece was obliged to protect its Slav minorities and these obligations were further stipulated in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 with educational rights and guarantees for the use of their mother tongue for official purposes. In September 1924 Greece and Bulgaria signed a protocol known as the Kalfov-Politis Agreement which placed the “Bulgarian” minority in Greece under the protection of the League of Nations which prompted the Yugoslavs to renounce the Greek–Serbian treaty of 1913 in protest. On January 15, 1925 Greece announced that they would not follow the protocol and henceforth treated the Slavs as Greeks. In 1926 the Greek government ordered in decree No 332 of November 1926 that all Slavonic names of towns, villages, rivers and mountains should be replaced by Greek ones.

Up until the Balkan Wars there were in Aegean Macedonia under the control of the Exarchate Church (the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church founded in 1870 which used the Slav vernacular in place of the previously used Greek language) 19 primary schools in towns and 186 in villages with 320 teachers catering for 12,895 pupils in Bulgarian. In addition there were four Serbian schools and some 200 or so other Slav primary schools supported by village communities. All these Slavonic schools were closed and the inventories destroyed while in the Slavonic churches the icons were repainted with Greek names.

Population exchanges

Larger population exchanges took place between Greece and Turkey following the Greco-Turkish war of 1920-22. The peace treaty of July 1924 stipulated that the Greek and Turkish populations of Turkey and Greece respectively were to be exchanged, except for the Greeks of Istanbul and the Turks of Western Thrace. Again, as so often in the Balkans, religion was the criterion used to define “Greek” or “Turk” which resulted in many non-Turkish Muslims (Slavs and Greeks) emigrating to Turkey and conversely Turkish-speaking Christians to Greece. In this exchange some 390,000 Muslims (mostly Turks) emigrated to Turkey and over 1,200,000 Greeks left Turkey of whom some 540,000 settled in Aegean Macedonia along with about 100,000 more Greek refugees who had come before 1920. Thus there was an influx of over 600,000 Greek refugees into Aegean Macedonia while the Turkish and Pomak population outside of Western Thrace mostly emigrated. The official Greek census of 1928 recorded 1,237,000 Greeks; 82,000 Slavophones; and 93,000 others although this census almost certainly exaggerated the number of Greeks.

The position of the Macedonian minority worsened in the period 1936-41 under the Metaxas regime which viewed the minority as a danger to Greece’s security and large numbers (Yugoslav sources allege over 5,000) Macedonians were interned from the border regions with Yugoslavia, and night schools were opened to teach adult Macedonians the Greek language. The repression was further stepped up after the beginning of the Greco-Italian war in October 1940, despite the numbers of Macedonians fighting loyally in Greece’s armies, with, according to Yugoslav sources, some 1,600 Macedonians interned on the islands of Thasos and Kefallinia (Cephalonia).

After the defeat of Greece by the Axis powers in 1941, Bulgaria occupied the eastern portion of Greek Aegean Macedonia, excepting Salonika which was occupied by the Germans, and a small part of the western portion. The remainder was under the Italians. In the portions under Bulgarian rule the Bulgarians imported settlers from Bulgaria and acted such that even a German report of the time described the Bulgarian occupation as “a regime of terror which can only be described as ’Balkan’ “. In Kavalla alone over 700 shops and enterprises were expropriated and large numbers of Greeks expelled or deprived of their right to work by a licence system that banned the practice of a trade or profession without permission from the occupying authorities. The Bulgarians acted with such ruthlessness that the Greek population, many of whom were previously emigres from Turkey and who were understandably hostile to being once more ruled by a foreign power, became bitterly anti-Bulgarian. Thus Bulgaria, in the brief period when she finally controlled some of the areas in Aegean Macedonia she always claimed, succeeded in alienating the populations under its control in Aegean Macedonia while losing influence to the Yugoslavs in Western Aegean Macedonia.

The Greek Civil War 1943-49

Another product of the brutal Bulgarian rule was that the Greek population became more violently opposed than ever to the idea of a “United Macedonia”, incorporating the areas of Macedonia in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria as well as in Greece, which, up until the change of line of the Comintern in the mid-1930s to Popular Fronts following Hitler’s rise to power, had been the Greek Communist Party’s (KKE) policy. This line, which was always unpopular with rank and file Greeks, was resumed by the Communist-controlled resistance movement The National Liberation Front, EAM, and its military wing, ELAS, and in 1943 EAM-ELAS tried to organize resistance in Aegean Macedonia. Tito’s aide Vukmanovic-Tempo, who was very successful in Yugoslav Vardar Macedonia, set up SNOF, the Slav National Liberation Front, which comprised Macedonian Slav Partisan units allied to ELAS but this provoked prolonged resistance from non-Communist Greeks especially from a movement called “The Protectors of Northern Greece” (YVE), and relations between ELAS and SNOF were strained.

The Greek Civil War which began in earnest in late 1946 (after a brief “First Round” and “Second Round” in 1943-4) between the Communist controlled ELAS and non-Communists supported by Britain and later the USA, saw the exodus of many Slavs and Greek Communist Party members fleeing to Yugoslavia. The last round of the civil war which lasted until 1949 saw SNOF reformed as NOF (National Liberation Front) and up to 40% of the Communist forces comprising of Macedonians. However the struggle at the top of the KKE between Nikos Zachariades and Markos Vafiadis, who had close links with Tito which even survived the initial Stalin-Tito break of 1948, which ended in Markos’ retirement due to “ill-health” in January 1949, was followed by an attempt by the KKE to set up an anti-Tito NOF but by now the war was virtually lost for the Communists and only gestures remained. On 1 March 1949 “Free Greece”, the communist radio station, broadcasted a declaration of an Independent United Macedonia which was not recognized by the USSR or its allies and only caused alarm in the rank and file of the KKE. On July 1949, Tito closed the Yugoslav-Greek frontier.

The post-war period

During the World War II and the ensuing civil war the Slavs of Aegean Macedonia had enjoyed language rights such as education in Slavonic which had been denied them before except for the brief appearance of a Slavonic primer, Abecedar, in September 1925. In the period after the civil war the Macedonians were, not surprisingly, seen as potentially disloyal to the Greek state and steps were taken to try and remove such “undesirable aliens” from the sensitive border regions with Yugoslavia. In 1953 decree no. 2536 was enacted to colonize the northern territories “with new colonists with healthy national consciousness” — the anti-Macedonian element in this law was evident by the exclusion of the Turks in Western Thrace from such measures. In this period it was forbidden for Macedonians to use the Slavonic forms for their names and henceforth only Greek forms could be used for official purposes — a measure with obvious parallels to recent Bulgarian measures against its minorities. In the early part of 1954 the Papagos government resolved to remove all Macedonians from official posts in Aegean Macedonia. In the border regions with Yugoslavia peasants were not allowed to move from their villages and in 1959 in the villages around Lerin, Kostur and Kajlari, the inhabitants were asked to confirm publicly in front of officials that they did not speak Macedonian. Such measures led to many emigrating to Australia or Canada.

Since the civil war, the official denial of a Macedonian minority in Greece has remained constant regardless of the government in power and the military dictatorship of 1967-74 saw a worsening of the minority situation with many Macedonians interned or imprisoned. The return to democracy in Greece saw an improvement with the abandonment of official terror. However the education system and the lack of job opportunities for those who declared themselves to be Macedonian in any branch of the state bureaucracy have greatly aided assimilation into the Greek majority and the Greek authorities have apparently been successful in achieving this aim. It is noticeable that Macedonian nationalism appears much stronger in emigres from Aegean Macedonia, not merely in Yugoslavia but also Australia or Canada, than in the area itself. The massive dilution of the Macedonian population by emigration on the one hand and influx of Greeks on the other combined with the experience of the civil war has made the aim of some kind of Macedonian state incorporating Aegean Macedonia merely a dream shared by few.

Successive Greek governments have continued to show hostility to any idea of Macedonian nationalism within Greece or without, both in relation to the Socialist Republic of Macedonia in Yugoslavia and the large numbers of Macedonians who fled Greece in the civil war. The property of these refugees was confiscated by the Greek government by Decree 2536/53 which also deprived them of their Greek citizenship. The Greek government later enacted a law so that the property would be returned to refugees who are “Greek by birth” — i.e. to those who renounce their Macedonian identity and adopt Greek names. Greece also has consistently denied entry visas to these refugees except in a few cases to attend funerals etc. but even then with difficulty.

After Andreas Papandreou and his Greek Socialist party PASOK came to power in Greece in 1981, Skopje’s Kiril i Metodija University was taken off the list of foreign academic institutions whose degrees are recognized by Greece as the instruction at the university was in a language, Macedonian, not “internationally recognized”. Greece has repeatedly refused Yugoslavia’s initiatives to bilaterally abolish visas and while Serbs, Croats or other Yugoslav nationals have few problems, special proof is reportedly needed from Macedonian entry visa applicants that they were not born in Aegean Macedonia. Papandreou himself has explicitly denied the existence of a Macedonian minority in Greece and stated that he would not accept any dialogue on this matter. The fall of the PASOK government in June 1989 has not at the time of writing resulted in any significant change.

(See also ; Macedonians of Bulgaria)