Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
"Out of Exile" - Ethnic Macedonian Refugees to Return Home to Greece After More Than 50 Years

by Aleksandra Ilievska

The Greek government has announced it would try to right some of the wrongs committed against ethnic Macedonian political refugees who were exiled from Greece after the Greek Civil War of 1946-1949.

In a new age of European Union standards of human rights, the government will allow those refugees to return home after 55 years in exile, Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos said in an 8 June interview with the Greek daily Eleftherotypia.

Approximately 60,000 ethnic Macedonians--28,000 of them children between two and 14 years old--were expelled or forced to flee from Greece after the Greek Civil War. Stripped of their Greek citizenship and their properties confiscated, the expellees were not permitted to return to Greece for even a brief visit unless they denied their own ethnic origin and declared themselves "Greek.”

A few days after Loverdos' 8 June interview, Greek Foreign Ministry spokesperson Panaiotis Beglitis confirmed the government's decision. The spokesperson said that Foreign Minister Yorgos Papandreou wants the political refugee problem resolved as soon as possible and has managed to come to an agreement on the return with opposition parties and local authorities in northern Greece.

The agreement is expected to be a hot topic when, between 15 and 20 July, thousands of the refugees--now living in the Republic of Macedonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Canada, the United States, and Australia--are expected to come to the northern Greek town of Florina (Lerin, in Macedonian) to attend the third gathering of Macedonian political refugees.

The first two such gatherings were organized in the Macedonian capital of Skopje in 1988 and 1998.

The preparations for the third world reunion of the refugees in Lerin (Florina) began immediately after the second reunion in 1998 ended. In the words of Georgi Donevski, the executive secretary of the organizational committee of the reunion, the intention from the beginning was to organize the third gathering in northern Greece.

"I have to admit that Greece's decision to open its borders this summer came to us as a cold hand on a fevered brow,” Donevski said in a 20 June interview with TOL.

The exiled Macedonian emigrants hope they will be able to enter Greece this summer without visas--a measure likely to only be temporary.

Asked if the Greek government was considering the possibility of eliminating visas altogether for the citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, Loverdos told Eleftheroptypia, "We are trying to find a solution to the visa problem in any way we can. I consider it a high priority that we immediately resolve such problems.”


Until 1912, Macedonia--a territory much larger than the present-day Republic of Macedonia--was part of the Ottoman Empire. During the first Balkan War of 1912, it was liberated from Turkish rule with the help of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The following year, however, the three liberators sought repayment for their assistance, fighting each other in the second Balkan War of 1913, and partitioning Macedonia.

The northern part, also known as Vardar Macedonia because it stretches along the valley of the River Vardar, was annexed by Serbia. The eastern part, or Pirin Macedonia, became part of Bulgaria, while the southern part, Aegean Macedonia, stretching along the northern coast of the Aegean Sea, was annexed by Greece.

When the Republic of Macedonia (Vardar Macedonia) proclaimed its independence from the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) in 1991, Greece perceived it as an expansionist claim over its territory based on the fact that the state of Macedonia bears the same name as Greece's northern province. Considering the size and military capacity of the Republic of Macedonia, many believed Greece's fears to be out of place.

According Loverdos, the recent decision to open the borders to the ethnic Macedonian refugees has nothing to do with the name dispute.

"We do not consider this [political refugees] a subject of our bilateral relations. I repeat that the only unresolved issue in our bilateral relations is the question of the name,” said Loverdos, calling the political refugee problem a "thorn” in Greek-Macedonian relations that must be "uprooted.”

"Our own disposition is to offer a solution, and in particular, not in the distant future but immediately,” Loverdos said.

In his view, a technical solution should be found for these people to be able to return after 55 years of exile.

"This will not become, however, a prelude to the resolution of the name dispute,” Loverdos warned.

Speaking about Greece's policy toward the Western Balkans, Loverdos said that one of the priorities of Greek foreign policy is to improve the country's relations with its neighbors.

"I truly believe that FYROM [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the name Greece and other countries use to refer to Macedonia, at Greece's insistence] as a strong, European-oriented country, will be of benefit to the region. It is a viable country, and we must strengthen its existence in any way we can,” said Loverdos.


In 1982, Greece passed a law on repatriation of political refugees that were "Greek by genus.” The recognition by the senior Greek official that Greece had discriminated against the ethnic Macedonians by leaving them out of the 1982 repatriation law received much attention in Macedonia.

"This decision is a result of the constructive policy of the Greek government, whose new strategy nurtures a European approach in its foreign policy toward neighboring countries. … Only a few months ago, we could not have even imagined that such delicate issues would be raised,” Macedonian Ambassador to Greece Blagoj Handziski said in a 9 June statement.

Metodija Tosevski, a member of the Association of Refugees from the Aegean Part of Macedonia, looks at the development from historical perspective.

"I believe historical injustice cannot be undone. Thousands of lives were lost, thousands were displaced, and families were torn apart. Of course, the new generation of Greek politicians should not be held accountable for the wrong policy of the past. Therefore we want to look at this as a new beginning and new relations with new people that have views different from those of the past,” Tosevski told the Macedonian daily Utrinski vesnik.

On 27 May, Greek Parliament ratified the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) that Macedonia had earlier signed with the European Union--an agreement that makes Greece even more eager to sort out the political refugee problem.

Though it is now evident that Greece has softened its rigid policy toward its northern neighbor, the turnabout has a history that reaches further back than at first glance.

Borjan Jovanovski, a distinguished Macedonian journalist, long-standing analyst of the Macedonian-Greek relations, and former spokesman for Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, says that when Kostas Simitis became Greek prime minister, Greece changed the way it perceives the Balkans and the EU.

"Right from the beginning,” said Jovanovski, "Simitis' government adopted a pragmatic approach, which implies accepting reality the way it is, and part of that reality is the Macedonians living in Greece. Greece wanted to realize the ambitions of its foreign policy, and those ambitions involved becoming a factor in the Balkans and obtaining recognition by the EU that Greece is the leader of the region, which would certainly make the EU hold Greece in high esteem.”


According to Jovanovski, Greece has realized it cannot argue for promotion of human and minority rights elsewhere while turning a blind eye to what is happening in its own backyard. Simitis' government managed to resolve the conflict between Greece's foreign and domestic policy.

Jovanovski also said that Greece could find no way out of undoing the injustice against the political refugees once it discovered that its ethnic Macedonian minority was not politically radical.

"[They] are European-oriented; they understand the European context of minority rights. There are no nationalists among them that would try to take advantage of the granted minority rights to eventually demand the breakaway of Greece's northern province,” Jovanovski said.

Vinozito (Rainbow), the political party of the Macedonian minority in Greece, has been taking patient and very cautious steps over the years to prevent its struggle for greater minority rights from being understood as an attempt to violate Greece's territorial integrity or disrupt its national and social order.

"We do not want separate schools as some ethnic communities in other countries have. We want the Macedonian language to be taught within the framework of the national educational system. We do not want to be separated from Greek society. Therefore we are cooperating with the Greek political parties. We are part of this society, but for the sake of respecting the democratic right of distinction, the Macedonian ethnic minority should be recognized.,” Pavlos Vaskopulos, a member of Vinozito's presidency, told the Macedonian daily Dnevnik.

As regards human rights, the change in Greece's policy toward the Macedonian minority has also reverberated among the public. Macedonians in northern Greece can now more freely use Macedonian, not fearing prosecution.

A tombstone inscribed in the Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet has recently appeared in one of the Macedonian-inhabited villages, while a billboard bearing the name of Vinozito, written in Macedonian, has just recently been posted in the heart of Lerin (Florina).

Greece's implementation of such European values in the Balkans is hopefully a sign that more positive change is to come, Jovanovski said, adding that it is better that the process of change remain a slow and cautious one, as radical changes could instigate resistance.

The agenda of the third world reunion of the refugees foresees visits to a number of towns and villages in northern Greece, the birthplaces of the political emigrants.

What some of the refugees will see, however, will not at all fit in with the pictures that have lingered in their memories for half a century. Many of the villages whose rebellious residents fought for the Resistance--the Greek Democratic Army--against the monarchists in the Greek Civil War were burned to the ground. One of those is the village of D'mbeni near Kostur.

Though D'mbeni no longer exists, its memory is still alive in the Skopje neighborhood of Butel II, where architect Andrej Andreevski created a miniature model of the village with astonishing precision based on a few photographs and his memory.

Andreevski left D'mbeni in 1949 never to return. D'mbeni was then burned and flattened to the ground with bulldozers. Even the village cemeteries were not exempt from the monarchists' vengeance.

Once he heard of the destruction, Andreevski gave up his desire of ever going back. He wanted to remember his birthplace the way he left it. He died a few years ago, but the model in his Skopje home is the only "birthplace” the one-time residents of D'mbeni, now scattered all over the world, can return to.

Aleksandra Ilievska is TOL's correspondent in Skopje.