‘The government was banning the use of a language that didn’t exist’: Why some descendants of an ethnic minority in Greece still keep their identity secret
Today, the country of North Macedonia lies just to the north of Greece. But until 2018, the country wasn’t called North Macedonia.
Eugenia Natsoulidou, 67, introduces herself as a Greek citizen.
She was born and still lives in Edessa, a city in northern Greece, but has worked all around the country in the hotel industry. Her best friend is Greek, and like many Greeks, she speaks impeccable English — in her case, due to living in Chicago for three years in the early 1980s.
But she always had questions. “‘Why doesn’t grandma speak a word of Greek? Why does grandpa struggle to speak a few words in Greek? Did they come from another country?’
“My mother told me, ‘No, no, they are from here, but don’t ask. You’d better not ask.’”
Natsoulidou spent her teenage years in Italy, and kids there had questions. She was tall, blond, and blue-eyed: Was she really Greek? Of course she was — that’s what she’d been told all her life. When someone told her she looked Slavic, she said, she almost cried. She had to be Greek.
Shortly before she turned 30, she finally learned the truth: She might be a Greek citizen, but ethnically, she was Macedonian.
First, a bit of terminology and history.
Today, the country of North Macedonia lies just to the north of Greece. But until 2018, the country wasn’t called North Macedonia. They called themselves Macedonia and spoke what they called the Macedonian language, a Slavic language like Polish, Croatian or Russian. Greece objected to this, because there was a region of Greece — right across the international border — that they called Macedonia and that they considered to be the true Macedonia.
Macedonia was originally a kingdom during the time of Ancient Greece, lying mainly in the territories of modern-day Greece and North Macedonia. Alexander the Great, the most famous king of this ancient Macedonia and, indeed, of Ancient Greece, ruled over an empire extending all the way to India.
The modern-day country of Greece is only roughly 200 years old. It owes much of its existence to support by other major European powers, who were taken by the idea of a Christian country (at the time, Greece was under the control of the Muslim Ottoman Empire) that could trace its heritage to the Ancient Greeks — and that included the kingdom of Macedonia.
So the prevailing Greek view was that by calling itself Macedonia, that country to its north was stealing its heritage, said Axel Sotiris Walldén, a former Greek official at the European Commission who has written numerous books on the Balkans and on Greek foreign policy.
It didn’t help that nationalists took control of that country to the north in the 2000s, said Anastasios (Sakis) Gekas, an associate professor of history at York University who specializes in modern Greek history. They renamed their main airport Skopje Alexander the Great Airport, and circulated new maps claiming that parts of the Greek region of Macedonia were actually theirs.
In June 2018, Greece and North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement, on the shores of the lake with the same name that straddles the two countries. At first deeply unpopular in both countries, it meant that the country of Macedonia was now the country of North Macedonia but that they could continue to call themselves Macedonians and say that they spoke Macedonian.
Relations between the two countries have improved. Greece stopped blocking North Macedonia’s bids to join NATO and the European Union. But the agreement completely overlooked one group of people: ethnic Macedonians living in Greek Macedonia, the northern provinces of Greece next to the border.
Petros Karatsareas, a senior lecturer in English language and linguistics at the University of Westminster in London, England, is ethnically half-Greek and half-Macedonian. Something funny would happen whenever he posted anything about this minority online.
“My grandmother’s sister would ring my grandmother and tell her to tell me to take those posts down …because the police would come to my house and I would lose my job in London. This is the scale of the trauma and fear they lived under in terms of using the language … that even post-2010, she thought it would have real repercussions for my life!” said Karatsareas.
Life was not easy for ethnic Macedonians who lived in Greece for much of the 20th century. During the dictatorship of the 1930s, speaking Macedonian was banned. Policemen would go so far as to listen at windows to see whether Macedonian was being spoken in homes.
Right after the Second World War, many ethnic Macedonians fought for their own independent state and ended up on the losing side during the Greek Civil War. Many of them, like Karatsareas’s great-aunt, fled north after their side’s defeat, not only into North Macedonia but also into the rest of Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe.
Even if such persecution was no longer officially sanctioned after the 1950s, there was still a climate of fear, said Natsoulidou. The tax authorities might contact you more often, and teachers might beat their students.
But the government considered there to be no such thing as the Macedonian language in Greece, because Macedonia was part of Greece and everyone in Greece spoke Greek. In other words, the Greek government considered the Macedonian language (in Greece, at least) to be the Greek language and the Macedonian people to be Greeks. (The only Macedonian language they recognize is that that is spoken in North Macedonia, and the Prespa Agreement leaves the situation somewhat ambiguous.)
“You have this very ironic situation where the government (historically) was banning the use of a language that didn’t exist,” said Karatsareas. Outside of Greek Macedonia, most Greeks don’t even know about the existence of this ethnic minority.
Florina is a quiet town on the mountainous border between Greece and North Macedonia; it’s the largest of any size near Lake Prespa and within striking distance of a ski resort. Its proximity to the border means that ethnic Macedonian culture is relatively strong here.
Last year, a local judge gave the Centre for the Macedonian Language permission to operate in the town. This past week, the public prosecutor challenged that decision, on the basis that no such language exists in Greece, but also on the basis that the centre presents a danger to the Greek state.
The Greek government is afraid of a possible loss of the hearts and minds of Greek citizens to North Macedonia if a Macedonian minority, culture or identity is officially acknowledged, said Victor Roudometof, an associate professor at the University of Cyprus originally from Greek Macedonia himself. That would threaten Greece’s unity.
Greece — and particularly the Greeks living in Greek Macedonia — is also afraid of demands for houses and property that ethnic Macedonians who fled Greece in the 1940s and 1950s might make. These homes have been in others’ possession for more than half a century, and even though both Roudometof and Walldén believe these concerns are only a remote possibility, they still galvanize public fear.
But perhaps they — and particularly the Greeks living in Greek Macedonia — are most sensitive about their possibly tenuous connection to the region. Greek Macedonia has only been part of Greece since 1913, and most of the Greeks living there can only trace their ancestry in Macedonia back a century.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne and the ensuing population transfer between Greece and Turkey. For the most part, Muslims living in present-day Greece were moved to Turkey, while Orthodox Christians living in present-day Turkey were resettled in Greece. Most of the more than a million Christians who arrived in Greece were settled in Greek Macedonia. Almost half of the population in Greek Macedonia at the end of the 1920s were refugees.
All of the great-grandparents of Christina Flora, a PhD student studying sociolinguistics with Karatsareas, came from present-day Turkey to Greek Macedonia. “My grandmother, her mother tongue was Turkish,” says Flora. “(Her parents) didn’t speak Greek at all when they came from (present-day Turkey), but my grandmother (almost) never spoke Turkish again” in her adult life, the Greek language having quickly taken over in the region.
Many of those who stayed in Greek Macedonia after the population transfer were members of ethnic minorities: not just the ethnic Macedonians, but also Albanians, Sephardic Jews and Vlachs (a group of Orthodox Christians that speak a language similar to Romanian; tennis star Simona Halep is one of their most famous members). It is still common today for people in the region to ask each other about their ethnicity, said Karatsareas.
How do they refer to the Macedonians? They use the Greek word “dopii” – “local.”
The Macedonian language is not the major concern of most ethnic Macedonians in Greece today. The court case against the Centre for the Macedonian Language wasn’t covered much in the news, said Roudometof.
Most ethnic Macedonians are probably more concerned with learning English or German, said Gekas, as those are more useful on the job market.
Macedonians in North Macedonia have other concerns, said Walldén. This is an internal Greek problem, and even though North Macedonia’s dispute with Greece is over, it has a new dispute with Bulgaria to handle.
Many marriages have taken place between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Greeks — both Karatsareas and Natsoulidou are half-Greek. Education is all in Greek, as are television and radio stations (there are no Macedonian-language outlets in Greece, as there is, officially, no Macedonian language in Greece). Army service is mandatory for men, which furthers assimilation and integration.
The language has also been lost with time. Natsoulidou’s grandmother could only speak Macedonian; her mother was bilingual; and for many years, Natsoulidou couldn’t speak Macedonian at all. There are probably no monolingual Macedonians left, said Karatsareas. While the language is likely still strong in some rural villages, Karatsareas believes that most people can only say basic phrases and speak a Macedonian that is highly influenced by Greek.
And nobody knows exactly how many ethnic Macedonians live in Greece. The census doesn’t ask the question, and because of the long periods of persecution, many would prefer to claim that they are Greek or might not even know that they are ethnically Macedonian. There are no famous ethnic Macedonians in Greece today, said Natsoulidou, as they wouldn’t dare admit it.
So where does that leave the community’s future?
It all made sense for Natsoulidou after she learned that she was part-Macedonian. She started researching her roots and her culture, and in 2009, she helped found a non-profit organization in her hometown of Edessa to promote Macedonian as a mother tongue. (As a non-profit organization, she didn’t need to get the permission of a judge.)
In 2018, they started offering Macedonian language courses online. In Greece, Macedonian was only a spoken language. No one could teach reading, writing or grammar, so they found a teacher from North Macedonia. They now offer four levels of Macedonian and subsidize 50 per cent of the course’s cost, so students only pay 35 euros for a 35-week course.
Natsoulidou estimates that this year, 20 students are studying in these subsidized courses, and a further 35 or 40 are taking private lessons — a massive increase in interest from 2018, when they struggled to find a class of just five students.
While most students are working-age adults or the elderly, who learn for nostalgic reasons, young people have started attending music festivals and public events, where bands from both Greece and North Macedonia perform traditional Macedonian songs about rural life, migration, love and death, said Karatsareas. They might not speak or understand the language, but they learn the lyrics by heart and sing along.
“I’m 67 years old and I’m ashamed to go to these festivals because there are schoolchildren — 14, 15 years old!” laughs Natsoulidou.
This wouldn’t have been imaginable before the Prespa Agreement. Persecution of the language meant that Macedonian folk music could be played, but without any singing.
Natsoulidou said she has no family in and no links to North Macedonia, and she dismisses the idea of any independence or secessionist movement: ethnic Macedonians have intermarried and integrated too much into Greek society for that to ever happen.
“Why is it not normal for Macedonians to be friendly with their neighbors?” she asks. “Minorities are the bridges of friendship.”
The court’s decision on the Centre for the Macedonian Language should come very soon.
Originally published by the Toronto Star on February 5, 2023
© Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Ltd. 1996 - 2023