by Basil Gounaris
The calls for the repatriation of people deported or forced to emigrate during warfare have always found a listening ear in the West. This is a fact well known by all the organisations of Egejski Makedontsi (i.e. Aegean Macedonians), Slav-Macedonian ex-Greek citizens, residing in F.Y.R.O.M., Australia or elsewhere since the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. As one is informed from the "Macedonian Information Liaison Service" (MILS), "Vecer" or "Nova Macedonia" the UN, the OSCE, various NGOs and the governments of Greece, both F.Y.R.O.M. and Australia are constantly and heavily bombarded by letters, petitions, leaflets, and booklets submitted by Egejski Refugee organisations requesting the unconditioned repatriation of all those "who were forcefully evicted from their land" and the return of their state confiscated property.
Amidst endless negotiations about the future name of F.Y.R.O.M. -due to Athens' steady refuse to accept a Skopje-owned monopoly of the name "Macedonia"- the "unconditional" return of persons who define themselves as "ethnic Macedonians" would be a contradiction in terms. As recent progress has shown the question is not without a solution, but still a lot of relative issues must be clarified in advance.
Slav-speaking peasants in Western Greek Macedonia were indeed the backbone of the Communist led Democratic Army in the last year of the Greek Civil War (1948-49). Either communist by belief or forcefully conscripted, in any case they were compelled to leave the country along with the retreating communist fighters of the "Democratic Army" in 1949. In their ranks were World War II collaborators of the German, Bulgarian, and Italian occupation armies, as well as Slav-Macedonian communist activist of the Civil War. The latter were inspired either by the Yugoslav dream to annexe Greek territories or by the prospect of a united Macedonian state within a Balkan Communist Federation. All had to flee to avoid persecution for high treason.
In the early stages of the Cold War this was a serious and real charge no less real than the fear from the Communist North most Greeks felt. A Slav-Macedonian activist in Greece, Mr Papadimitriou, has claimed once in "Moglena", [No.73 (June 1992) p.10] that Slav-speaking partisans declared themselves "ethnic Macedonians" only to conform with the Communist Party line and should not be blamed for this. If true, then Greek Governments should have been more hesitant to reallocate their land, more tolerant for their crimes, and more receptive to petitions by these refugees to return to Greece and be reinstated in their properties. Only veterans now residing in F.Y.R.O.M. can verify if they had actually been black mailed by the party.
How many Slav-speakers fled away?
Greek bibliography generally accepts that 30-35,000 plus some 14,000 children, out of 28,000 moved across the border by the "Democratic Army". "Nova Macedonija" (see MILS 5.7.1996) mentioned 65,000 political refugees, a much cited specialist Dr Risto Kirjazovski, an Egejski himself, talks about 80,000 refugees (MILS 26.1.1996). Other Slav-Macedonian sources give different figures: the "Association of the Aegean Macedonians" in Bitola claims 100,000; a similar association in Poland cites 250,000; in the electronic list "Makedon" even the figure of 300,000 was once mentioned. The evaluation of these sources is easier, if we take into consideration that in 1940 the total population in all three prefectures of Florina, Kastoria, and Pella, Slav- and non-Slav-speakers together, was 275,000; 55,000 of them were interwar refugees from Asia Minor. In 1951 the total population of the same prefectures, which were heavily involved in the War, was 234,000. Apparently the discrepancy is due not only to a tendency of exaggeration by certain Slav-macedonian nationalist or refugee organisations, but also on account of including as Egejski mixed marriage families and descendants born in F.Y.R.O.M. or other countries (Australia, Canada, etc.).
Regardless of numbers it is more interesting to assess the views of some of these refugees towards a solution of the Macedonian Question. According to MILS some Egejski are distinguished members of Slav-Macedonian society in F.Y.R.O.M. and the diaspora, they have formed associations and their annual conferences are addressed and sponsored by president Gligorov and other officials of F.Y.R.O.M. (MILS 24.3.1997). Found usually in the extreme nationalist side, they have been known to oppose strongly Albanian educational rights and the request for a university in Tetovo (MILS 12.12.1994). They wave proudly the banner of United Macedonia (which includes vast parts of Greek and Bulgarian territories), they still use in Australia and elsewhere the "Sun" found in Vergina (Greece) as their national emblem. All in all they are against any reconciliation, even against the new visa formula facilitating their visit to Greece.
This hard line, punctuated by much used "historical" rhetoric against the Greek presence in "their home land" inevitably puts the question: Do the Egejski (or their descendants) really want to return to Greece and for what purpose? The answer has been coined internationally by Chuck Subetic in "The New York Times": the real issue is "Real Estate" (3.11.1994). If so, the question is how much land are we talking about? Risto Kirjazovski has cited 2,000,000 acres which belonged to 30,000 families (sic) (MILS 29.1.1996). "Nova Macedonija" wrote (5.7.1996) that 12,000 dossiers had been submitted by 1991 referring to 6,000 hectares and 5,000 buildings which had been confiscated. It is also mentioned that, between 1985 and 1990, 120 petitions had been submitted to the F.Y.R.O.M. Ministry for Justice concerning 25,000 hectares of land. Again it will suffice to say that 2,000,000 acres equal to 90 per cent of the present arable land in Greek Macedonia, not to mention that in 1940, the total arable land in the region was less than 1.5 million acres. But even if Kirjazovski or "Nova Macedonia" were right after all this would imply a family allotment of 50-70 acres, indeed a vast property by all Greek standards. Either they are grossly misinformed or the Communist Army was manned exclusively with landlords!
Land is not what the Egejski want, at least not the first generation of them. Property can't be that much important for veteran Communist partisans. Had they, the Communists, won the Civil War, they would have confiscated the land to build collective farms, very much like what happened during the same period in Tito's Yugoslavia. What is never told in international fora is that their properties for 50 years now have not been in the hands of Greek gendarmes, civil servants or people with "healthy national consciousness", as they claim, but in the hands of their very close relatives, who know well and say it in public that the land question will not be solved on their expense.
A much more honest and simple answer to their real motives would be nostalgia. But then, why pursue such exaggerated claims speaking of "hundreds of thousands of refugees", and "millions of acres", deny the visas offered according to a recent agreement between Athens and Skopje, if the real purpose is "only to visit the ancestral graves"? Do such arguments facilitate rapprochement? Certainly they do not. Nostalgia for home, village, and grave is only one side of the coin. However, the other is justification for a lost cause, a lost war, a lost youth, for separation, segregation, sometimes for a whole life spoiled beyond the iron curtain in exchange for new identity and ideology.
Unfortunately this mentality remains well entrenched among some Egejski activists and various political groups in F.Y.R.O.M. and the diaspora. Moreover it is retained as a "vision" by the official state authorities which continue to teach schoolchildren that the ethnic boundaries of their nation extend to the Aegean littoral and Mount Olympus. This national ideology cannot be altered over night. Although flexible diplomats from Athens and Skopje can get round emotive issues and eventually get the job done, some Egejski do not appear ready to come to terms with present realities. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that the Greeks would be in no mood to accept back persons nurturing maximalistic views, by-products of a 50 year old nationalism and irredentism.