Saturday, November 27, 2004


That a general location can eternally be stigmatised by the experiences one has in it is beyond doubt. In this writer's consciousness, the Hotel Windsor, situated opposite the Victorian Parliament, is inextricably interwoven with various Greek community campaigns on the so-called "Macedonian Issue." A faithful bastion of our rage as well as our hopes, it 'guarded our rear' as it were, during the mass Greek Community rallies of 1992 and 1994, while in its interior and as a member of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Hellenic Council, I had met with Minister John Pandazopoulos in order to seek advice as to the Victorian Government's policy on the "Issue."
Some days ago, I found myself drawn to exactly this same place, this time at invitation of the "other side," the so-called "Macedonian Human Rights Committee of Melbourne and Victoria," which is made up of youthful members who consider themselves to be "ethnically Macedonian." The reason for my return to the Windsor was to chat with two persons whose arrival and sojourn in Australia has caused grave disquiet within the circles of the Macedonian organizations of the Greek Community. Athanasios Parisis and Pavlos Voskopoulos, or as they are called by the members of the MHRC, "Natse" and "Pavle," are members of the European Free Alliance "Rainbow" (Ουράνιο Τόξο or
" Виножито") whose headquarters are in Florina and whose stated aim as a Greek political party is, the protection and advocacy of the rights of the "ethnically Macedonian" minority within Greece.
I enter the Windsor and sit down at a table among them. As if by ironic coincidence, my eyes fall upon the double-decker silver cake trays deposited upon the table by the genteel Windsor staff. At their peak is a small statue of a silver lion, rampant - the traditional symbol of Bulgarian aspirations in Macedonia. I smile and begin the interview.
Leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions from the matters raised in the interview, I note only that the terms "ethnic Macedonian" "Republic of Macedonia," and "Macedonian language," are recorded as they were used by the interviewees, without this necessarily inferring the acceptance of these terms by myself, or this paper.

Gentlemen, welcome to Australia. What is the reason for your visit here?

Pavlos Voskopoulos: We are here upon the invitation of the Macedonian Human Rights Committee of Melbourne and Victoria, in order to consult with compatriot organizations, that is, organizations of persons who come from the same places as we do. Our aim is to foster closer relations between us and to inform them of the situation of the ethnic Macedonian minority within Greece. Also, we wish to provide assistance to those members of the community whose Greek citizenship has been revoked by the Greek Government.

Are there instances of such revocations? The issue of alleged revocations of Greek citizenship from Greek nationals is not something which is widely known.

P.B: Revocations of Greek citizenship from migrants who belong to the ethnic Macedonian minority have been occurring since 1990. We first became aware of this when quite a few members of the minority tried to enter Greece but were told that they could not as they were no longer Greek citizens. We had a consultation today with the Greek Consul-General in relation to this issue.

What is the stance of the Greek Consulate-General with regards to this issue?

Athanasios Parisis: We had a very constructive discussion with Mr Kouvaritakis. He greeted us with great warmth and we outlined our issues to him. He told us that while such revocations did take place in the past, the policy of revoking citizenships has no longer been implemented these past 7-8 years. With regards to the issue of those members of the minority whose Greek citizenship has already been revoked, Mr Kouvaritakis undertook to consult the Ministry of Internal Affairs for us.
We also had a meeting with the General Secretary of the Victorian Office of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Ian Wilcock. We apprised him of situations where members of the minority were refused entry into Greece, even on an Australian passport.

What does the word Macedonia mean to you?

P.B: Geographically? Politically? Politically speaking, it refers to the neighbouring state.

As a nation?

P.B: How do you define the word 'ethnos', 'nation' or 'race?' From its DNA? The term nation is old fashioned and superfluous because if you ask someone what constitutes a nation, he won't know what to reply. We ethnic Macedonians constitute a linguistic, historic and cultural minority within Greece. However, what constitutes a national consciousness is something that is usually formulated by the country in which someone lives. We need to extricate ourselves from nationalistic definitions. As a party, we are careful to avoid extremes. Nationalism causes violence, war and diminution. What is important is that each person has the right of self-identification. Unfortunately, in Greece, where there is a complete absence of education when it comes to diversity, this concept not understood, let alone respected.

But isn't the concept of a total freedom of self-identification extreme? I can't define myself as something which I am not. If say for example that I am Chinese, would not that be ridiculous?

P.B: Not at all. Each person has the right to define himself as he wishes. We need to abandon this nationalistic view that we all have to fit into a pre-constructed mould. Freedom of self-identification is a basic human right.

Is there such thing as a Greek Macedonian?

P.B: Of course. That is what we are. There are many types of Macedonians. Albanian Macedonians, Vlach Macedonians. They all Macedonians.

Adopting your own terminology, are the ethnic Greeks that reside in Macedonia, Macedonians?
A.P: No, these are two separate things.

But how can a people who live in Macedonia not be Macedonian?

P.B: Geographically, they may be. Ethnically, they are not. Let me explain. Take the republic of Moldavia for instance. Moldavia shares a border with the northern province of Romania, which also calls itself Moldavia. Both groups call themselves Moldavians without any problem. That is the same in our situation.

But aren't we confusing things here? All Moldavians identify themselves as Romanians. That is not a situation where two separate peoples are disputing one single name, as in the case of Macedonia.

P.B: Exactly. And we are saying that we have the right as an ethnic minority to identify ourselves as Macedonians. Now, how an identity is created - well that is a separate issue. We are concerned with cultural and linguistic diversity, in accordance with the European standards. The problem of the Greek people is that they are still not mature enough to accept the concept of diversity within their borders.

You just made mention of linguistic diversity. How do you view those persons, bilingual in both Greek and Slavonic, who identify themselves as Greek? In many cases, especially here in Australia, this issue of identity has split entire families.

P.B: Our unchangeable belief is that one's right to self-identification should be respected. These people have the right to identify themselves as whatever they so wish. It is a fact that in Edessa and Florina, there are many villages where Macedonian is spoken. This does not mean that all these speakers have an ethnic Macedonian consciousness. They may have a Greek consciousness, or no consciousness at all. However, we would need to ask ourselves how it is that a group of people speaks Macedonian, without being ethnic Macedonians. You see then, how we now return to the point I made earlier, that a country can create a national consciousness, sometimes by force.

A.P: At any rate, we ethnic Macedonians who speak Macedonian want to preserve our language, as we believe it constitutes a basic element of our identity.

It is generally accepted that your particular idiom belongs to the family of Slavic languages. Why should we then refer to a "Macedonian" language and not a Slavonic idiom of Macedonia?

A.P: The term Slav, or Slavonic is too wide, like the term Saxon. We don't refer to a Saxon dialect of England or Germany. The word Slav also refers to Russians, Poles and Czechs. We are Macedonians and we speak Macedonian. As well, the word Slav carries with it connotations of Pan-Slavism, that chauvinist movement that championed the superiority of all Slavs. We wish to avoid such nationalistic terms of the past, as we do not ascribe to these.

P.B: It is a grievous and ridiculous state of affairs when a country says to you: "I don't recognize the language that you speak." With what right?

Maybe it is a right granted by history…..

P.B: For once and for all we need to unhook ourselves from the issue of history. Let's say that my grandfather was Greek. That doesn’t mean that I am Greek too. We live in the modern age and we should be concerned with avoiding nationalistic disputes, providing human rights to all minorities and the peaceful co-existence of all peoples.

In your party's manifesto, you say that you draw your inspiration from the struggles of the "ethnic Macedonian national movement." How are you inspired and what are these struggles?

P.B: Here we refer to the struggle for national emancipation, from 1870 and the Ilinden movement, the creation of the IMRO, the Vlahov campaigns and the NOF and SNOF movements, that is, all the latter day struggles for the recognition of ethnic Macedonians.
Can't that be seen as a provocation? These "struggles" afflicted Greek populations and left wounds, which have not yet healed. Goce Delchev and the komitaji, as well as those bands that collaborated with the Germans or the partisans in their endeavour to institute a "Macedonian" policy, are considered by many to have been terrorists.

A.P: We always say and have recorded this in our manifesto, that we are against violence. War brings catastrophe. Let me make my position clear by saying that people like Delchev, Macedonian intellectuals were the first to raise the issue of our ethnic existence. We espouse their ideology, not violence. In the case of Delchev, he was a progressive socialist who believed in the redistribution of land to the peasants. Unfortunately and despite their democratic principles, they were the first victims of nationalism, Greek and Bulgarian.

P.B: Anyway, don't forget that Greeks also practiced violence in Macedonia at that time. We choose our heroes for their virtues, but without accepting their wrongful acts. A classic example is Captain Kottas. Was he not also a terrorist?

In your manifesto, you also talk about "injustices of the borders." What are these injustices?

P.B: This question has no place here….This means that Macedonia as a country should have been created sooner and it is an injustice that it was created so late.

Are the current borders as they stand also an injustice?

P.B: We are not nationalists, nor do we wish to change any borders. We do not believe in irredentism. We respect all political institutions and espouse the peaceful co-existence of all people. However and I'll say it again, the average Greek has not received even the slightest education as to even comprehend these ideas.

You refer in your website, to the "Greek President of Southern Cyprus." Do you have a position on the Cyprus issue?

A.P: You are wrong. We have no position on Cyprus. That reference was made by people whose views we host on our website because they are of interest. In Greece, the Cyprus issue is usually seen from only one viewpoint. We are concerned with dialogue and looking at various viewpoints. For some reason, Greeks practise selective amnesia when it comes to the events of 1950-1970, which led to the Cyprus Issue.

In what ways do you represent your adherents in Greece?

P.B: The democratization of Greece so as to ensure respect for diversity is important. In this, our party can assist. We want to help the Greeks to stop dwelling in the past and on stereotypes. We constitute a voice for ethnic Macedonians, which would not otherwise be heard. Our aim is to maintain our particular identity through cultural activities, publishing a dictionary in our language as well as promoting the basic human right of freedom of self-identification.
How do the natives in Florina see you?

P.B: Look, we are not only in Florina. We are active in many parts of northern Greece. Unfortunately, and I don't know why this is the case, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the wider region look upon us with a fear and suspicion that has been created within them by the Church and State. We have had threats made against us, as well as arson attempts. These people are generally of Pontian descent. We don't experience such problems from the natives. Only when the Greek is educated so as to respect diversity will he be able to approach us and see that we do not pose a threat to anyone.

A.P: It is true to say that in many cases, the Greeks of, let's say the Peloponnese or Athens, display greater willingness to respect our ideas, as compared to the Greeks of Macedonia. Generally-speaking though, such is the nationalistic climate that pervades Greece, that Greeks are not willing to listen to or understand our issues. This is harmful because with this type of attitude, Greece will isolate itself from the European community and the climate of European unification that it inspires.

What is the European orientation of your party?

P.B: Now there is a good question. We are active members of the European Free Alliance, which is comprised of democratic parties situated in E.U countries, which represent ethnicities that have not been emancipated. We decided to contribute to a European political institution so that we can influence the development of our communal, European home. We believe in the creation of a European Constitution, in respect for diversity, the environment and the individual. With regards to Greece, we believe in the recognition of and respect for the ethnic, linguistic or cultural identity of the ethnic Macedonians, Turks, Vlachs, Arvanites and Roma.

What can Europe give you?

A.P: The unification of Europe is an outstanding phenomenon. Nationalistic policies and roles will be flushed out. European institutions need to be strengthened so that Europe can become a true federation, where borders are no longer of importance and policies of aggressive nationalism and national self-interest no longer play a role. For us then, the European Union is an antidote to nationalism.

How are your relations with FYROM? Do you receive any assistance or guidance from there?

P.B: The Republic of Macedonia is a country that expresses itself, just as we do, as ethnically Macedonian. It is important to know that we always proclaim the idea that minority issues do not concern neighbouring countries, only the minority itself. We are citizens of Greece. That is why we visited the Greek consulate here and not the Macedonian one.

A.P: Minorities have the same properties as condoms. They are useful for covering up certain policies or schemes of a country. Once that country realizes those policies, then just like with the condoms, the minority it is supposed to champion is discarded and it is left to its fate. A classic example is Greece, in that it used the Pontian and Asia Minor minorities as a pretext to bring about its own plans for Asia Minor. After the withdrawal of the Greek army though, the minority was left to face catastrophe. That is why we refuse to be anyone's underling.

But hasn't the FYROM government ever approached you?

P.B: They have probably read our manifesto, which excludes such a possibility and they have not ever approached us. This has costs us of course, because we could have sought funding for certain cultural activities and other needs, from the Republic of Macedonia. However, one of our principles is that we do not accept the interference of other countries in our party, especially in the formulation of our policies.

How are your relations with the political parties of Greece?

P.B: Sadly, none of the major parties are prepared to deal with us, when it comes to recognising the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority. This is a result of the lack of education in respect for diversity. They do not see this as an issue. Some of the smaller parties of the left, such as AEKA sometimes do take certain positions on this issue. However there is a closer relationship at a local level. A prime example is the local prefectural elections. In Florina, there was co-operation between PASOK, Synaspismos and Rainbow, resulting in the election of Petros Dimtsis, a member of our party, as a member of the prefectural council. I need to add that on a personal level, there are a few members of both PASOK and ND that are interested in closer relations but these are very few. All these politicians need to realize that all we are doing is promoting human rights and the peaceful co-existence of all peoples.

How is your relationship with the Prefect of Florina?

P.B: Very good. The prefect is always willing to listen to our ideas and to enter into dialogue. He is one of the few people who understand the concept of respect for diversity and peaceful co-existence.

Recently, your party found itself in court because you affixed a sign to your office that read "Lerinski Komitet." The work "Komitet" reminds one of the "komitata" and the "komitaji." Doesn't this constitute a provocation that disturbs the peaceful co-existence of people proclaimed by you?

A.P: They dragged us off to court because the sign was bilingual, written both in Greek and in the Cyrillic alphabet. How can this possibly be seen as a provocation when half the shops of Thessaloniki, Chalkidiki and Katerini have Russian or Macedonian signs? This is inconsistent. As for the word komitet, it means committee. There is no other word for this in Macedonian.

What about the word "Lerinski?"

A.P: Lerin is the Macedonian word for Florina. There are many place-names that have been re-named by Greece, in order that the historical existence of ethnic Macedonians in the region is erased.

B.P: What you have to understand is that prior to 1988, the term Macedonia, as an administrative term, was never used by the Greek government. Now it wants exclusive ownership of the word Macedonia? But all these things stem from the lack of proper education in Greece, freed from narrow nationalism.

You continuously refer to a lack of education. What exactly do you mean and what would you request of the Greek government with regards to education?

A.P: Children are not taught how to co-exist and accept diversity. The state has a totally different view of what is needful in this area. Lessons like these need to be made compulsory.

P.B: In addition to this, we want the Macedonian language to be included in the curricula of all schools in the regions where the language is spoken. We do not want to create private or separate schools in order to do this, as the Albanians have done in Kosovo. In mixed villages, ethnic Macedonian and Greek, such as Ammochori, this will contribute to mutual respect.

You mean as an optional subject? What happens if a student does not want to learn this idiom?

A.P: Well we are not going to force them. We are not like that.

B.P: No, the learning of minority languages must be compulsory by all children in the areas where those languages are spoken, so that we can rid ourselves of all nationalist and xenophobic complexes. Multilingualism will greatly contribute to this. The same thing should occur in Thrace where the following ridiculous state of affairs exists: The Turks are not taught the Greek language properly, so they have to go to Turkey in order to obtain higher education or a job. Now there is another minority that is not recognized by the Greek state, even though it should be.

But no one disputes the existence of a muslim minority in Thrace.

B.P: It is not a muslim minority. It is a Turkish minority. Our party believes that all the minorities in Greece must be recognised.

How do you view your expatriate community here?

B.P: Expatriate? That sounds nationalistic. You mean our countrymen, our compatriots? We are pleased that they live in a multicultural society that permits them the right to express their diversity. We feel proud of the new generation which is distinguishing itself in all facets of life.

Do your compatriots here share your views?

B.P: There are many who believe in Macedonian expansionalism. This is wrong and that is why we are here, to help them surpass such outmoded and harmful views. We need to unhook ourselves from nationalism, as this does not lead to progress.

Have you had contact with Macedonians, I mean Greeks who come from Macedonia on a personal or organizational level here?

A.P: We haven't got anything in common with the Pan Macedonian Federation or any of those other groups, so that we can talk. We are separated by a vast chasm. Generally, what I observed during my stay here as well as in Canada, was how backward and socially retarded the Greek communities abroad are, as compared with Greek society. The views of the Greeks in Greece have progressed considerably. Here, you still have not been able to surpass certain complexes which have been discarded in Greece. You display no flexibility in your views and you isolate yourselves from enjoying the benefits of multiculturalism provided to you by Australia.

P.B: This is also evident in the type of questions you've been asking us. We didn't expect any others from a Greek. You always ask the same questions. You must learn to respect diversity and freedom of self-identification as it is in these ideas that the future depends.

Is your community here just as socially retarded?

A.P: Yes. I think that you are both on about the same level.

Finally, we learn that Australia will not follow the USA in recognizing FYROM as "Macedonia." What are your comments on this?

P.B: That is a matter that relates to the bi-lateral relations between Australia and the Republic of Macedonia. We don't have anything else to say about this, save as to repeat that all governments should respect the right of self-identification.

This is the English translation of the Greek language interview that was first published in "Nea Ellada" on 27 November 2004