Mouzalas’s Macedonian trouble: a small change in the Greek society?

Akis Gavriilidis (interviewed by Boris Georgievski for the DW)


1.The Greek migration minister Yannis Mouzalas was asked to resign after calling the neighboring country «Macedonia». Why is it forbidden or unacceptable to use this name in Greece?

This is a very simple and justified question, but to answer it in a satisfactory way is an extremely complicated affair, believe me –if it is possible at all.
As is known, in the beginning the official line of explanation was that the use of this name is a “theft” of “Greek cultural heritage” and that it is a tool for “irredentist claims”. But, after so many years, I hope nobody seriously believes any more that some army is likely to invade Northern Greece and annex it to the Rep. of Macedonia.

My impression is that, whatever the initial causes have been, from a certain point on, these were almost forgotten, and this issue established itself as a matter of “mutual/ self-censorship” within the Greek society (and diaspora). It was considered an easy way for anybody to display their “patriotism” and present themselves as preferable from their opponents, political, ideological, artistic or otherwise, without any cost (as they thought).

2.Does the uproar that Mr. Mouzalas statement caused suggest that this is a sentiment shared by the majority of the Greek public or it is provoked and maintained by a small nationalistic minority?

It is not doubtful that most Greeks still share the refusal to accept the name “Macedonia”. But my impression is that, this time around, something has changed, or is starting to change. People who demand the resignation of Mouzalas are not a small minority, but their discourse is not accepted any more as a self-evident truth: the violation of the “red line” is not an absolute argument that closes the debate, but is weighed by many as one element among others. The fact that this minister apparently has been doing a good job under very difficult circumstances, is accepted by many as an equally important element to consider.

3.The majority of Greek politicians and media often relate to the neighboring country simply as “Skopje” or “the others”, to the people as “Skopjans”, and to the language as “Skopjan language”. How did these substitution terms become a part of the official narrative in Greece?

In order to explain that, I have written extensively in scientific reviews and publications over many years, trying to draw from psychoanalytic and linguistic scholarship. I encourage the reader to refer to these writings for a fuller picture. With a danger to oversimplify, I note here the following: as soon as the prohibition of the “bad name” was installed, there was a need for a substitute. The solution to use the part for the whole, the capital city for the country, was conditioned by one precedent: during the 1910s, (that is, precisely the decade when a large part of Macedonia was annexed to Greece), there came the “National Divide” between the followers of the modernist politician Elefthérios Venizélos and King Constantine respectively. For several months, two different governments existed, one in Athens (the “normal” one) and another in Thessaloniki under Venizélos. For these, the names “the state of Athens” and “the state of Thessaloniki” were –and still are- used. So this background was somehow repeated when it came to determine a second Macedonia that suddenly appeared somewhere else.

4.One of your theses is that the accusations of Greek nationalists against the Macedonian nation construction are a projection of their own activity which led to the formation of the Greek nationhood in the 19th century. Can you elaborate on this thesis?

As I alluded before, these accusations were linked to an internal split. Indeed, it is a well-known thesis in psychoanalysis that we hate in the other what we don’t like in ourselves. Following Freud, Lacan and Zizek have pointed out that we usually hate in the others what we consider as an obscene enjoyment that they stole from us, and this is one reason for national mistrust and hatred.

In the same way as more or less everywhere else, in Greece too the nation state was created through a centralized administrative effort to homogenize populations that until recently did not consider themselves as part of the same “imagined community”. This effort included occasionally physical extermination, and almost constantly compulsory changes of pre-existing names of people and places, and educational indoctrination. Like more or less everywhere else, people in Greece are willing to see this “artificiality” only in the activity of others, not of their own. This is why the theories of Benedict Anderson and other theoreticians of the so-called “constructionist” current in social sciences are extremely unpopular in Greece; sometimes these theoreticians are accused as “foreign agents”, “servants of globalization” etc.

5.One the main arguments in Greece is that both the Macedonian nation and its language are «artificial» and «invented». The same disqualification can be heard in neighboring Bulgaria, too.  Would that mean that the other nations and languages in the Balkans are «natural» or «real»?

In Greece, indeed, there is a diffused popular impression that the Greek language has existed, if not since the beginning of time, in any case for several millennia. The Greek speaking cyberspace is full of absurd theories about the “magical qualities of our language”, its “godlike perfection” etc. A positive thing is that the scientific community, and most of all linguists, are very critical and try to contradict these irrational theories; but they are met with suspicion and sometimes with curses and threats.

6.It seems like a contradiction but in the last 7 years the nationalist government in the Rep. of Macedonia invested a lot of recourses into building a new identity for its people based on the myths of ancient history and Alexander the Great; which at the same time replicates the myths on which the modern Greek state is formed. From this point of view it looks like the conflict will continue to escalate in the future?

There is no determinist way to define whether a certain event will produce a given effect in the future. I have the hope that, possibly, this replication and this excess of history may lead to a saturation and, hence, to a distancing; people may consider this too much and become critical. As far as I know, social scientists and parts of the public in the Republic of Macedonia are not very enthusiastic about these projects. In Greece too, the ongoing crisis has made some to insist even more on ancient glories, but others on the contrary begin to question this insistence on the past and turn it to ridicule. Sometimes both tendencies exist within the same persons or groups.

7.As with many other Balkan conflicts this one is also strongly connected to unresolved historical issues, as both sides claim they have the “historical truth” behind them.  Why is it so important to prove the “exclusive right of ownership“ over a name?

This too is a long story. I think that this ultimately has to do with the construction of the first nation-state in the Balkans, namely Greece, and the fact that this, in order to come to being, had to confront itself with Eurocentrism and the idea of the West as a superior civilization and a model for everybody else in the planet to follow.

This idea of superiority was to a large extent based on the claims of Western European nations that they were the heirs of ancient Greece, which was conceived as the most perfect human society that ever existed.

The revolutionaries of 1821 against the Ottoman Empire soon realized that, if they managed to install a link between themselves and this ancient civilization, this would be a formidable asset for them to get accepted between the “advanced nations of the world”. However, this claim was not accepted by everybody without objections, as the first enthusiastic Westerners were soon disappointed when they travelled to the Peloponnese and Attica to help the descendants of Pericles and Leonidas and they only met Balkan peasants and warlords.

This is why, the construction of the Greek nation involved a great deal of performativity; everybody felt obliged to act in ways that were considered conform to the glorious past and convincing in the eyes of the “civilized Europeans”, on whom the existence of the new state depended.

This performance is never perfect, so there is a great deal of self-criticism and even self-derision. In modern Greece, it is much easier to find people critical against the Greek state, willing to admit it is a failure, a make-believe state, than critical against the idea of the hierarchy of cultures and societies. Rather than contesting this idea itself, most people prefer to stick to the classification idea, and try instead to find other peoples around them who are lower in this classification, such as the Turks, the Albanians, the “inexistent Skopjans” etc. who are worse and more backwardly than us.


First publication (in Macedonian)



  1. A technical remark: the Greek language, in its various forms, has indeed existed for several (at least 3½) millennia. «Several», like French «plusieurs», only means «more than 1 or 2». Of course, every literary language, including Modern (and Homeric) Greek, is to a certain extent artificial; in the case of Standard Macedonian or of Bahasa Indonesia or of Modern Hebrew, this is more obvious than in the case of, say, French or German, but the difference is mainly one of degree.

  2. Imagination is not the contrary of accuracy.
    Εvery language, literary or otherwise, is artificial, and every impression about the unity of a language is false. Every language is many languages. This is true for the Greek languages no less -probably much more- than for any other.


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