Macedonian Human Rights Movement International
Greece Set to Open Borders for Ethnic Macedonian Civil War Refugees

RFE/RL Balkan Report
Vol. 7, No. 19, 20 June 2003


Fifty-five years after the end of the civil war that ravaged his country between 1946 and 1948, Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Andreas Loverdos gave a remarkable interview to the Athens daily "Eleftherotypia" of 8 June. In the first-ever such statement by a Greek official, Loverdos signaled that his government is set to change a 1982 law on political emigrants so that Greek-born ethnic Macedonian civil-war refugees would be allowed to re-enter the country. The announcement came just in time for the preparations for the third international meeting of civil-war refugees, which will take place in the northern Greek town of Florina on 15 July.

The Greek civil war, in which communists backed by Tito's Yugoslavia fought against royalists and anticommunists supported by Great Britain and the United States, marked the "beginning of the Cold War," as the historian Dan Diner put it. During the course of the war some 100,000 people died and more than 1 million persons were displaced.

For the German historian and Balkans expert Stefan Troebst, the war was not only about the question of who will be in charge of the government. It was also about the future position of minorities within Greek society. The royalists promoted a nationalist position, according to which groups speaking a language other than Greek or belonging to a religious community other than the Greek Orthodox Church would at best be tolerated. It was therefore no wonder that many ethnic Macedonians joined the communist guerilla fighters, who promised them greater rights.

During the war, both sides carried out large-scale internal resettlements, the biggest of which took place in 1947, when the royalists forced some 700,000 persons from the northeastern districts to live in other parts of Greece. The war ended in 1948 after Tito's decision to stop supporting the Greek communists; but the end of the war also brought about an emigration wave.

A smaller number of both ethnic Greek and ethnic Macedonian refugees had already left northern Greece for Yugoslavia at the end of World War II. By 1950, some 100,000 refugees -- many of whom were children without their parents -- were resettled, not only in Yugoslavia, but also in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. The largest single group of civil-war refugees -- some 30,000 people -- ended up in Uzbekistan.

From the 1960s, ethnic Macedonian refugees in general were invited to live in Yugoslav Macedonia, where they were given accommodation in the overwhelmingly Albanian-populated towns of Tetovo and Gostivar.

The Greek refugees, for their part, could return to their homeland in small numbers only after the end of the military dictatorship in 1974. A larger re-migration took place after 1981, when the socialist government of Andreas Papandreou issued an amnesty to those refugees who had been sentenced in absentia and stripped of their Greek citizenship.

It was Papandreou's government, however, which in 1982 also issued the law mentioned by Loverdos. As it allowed only ethnic Greek political emigres to return to Greece and reclaim their expropriated property, ethnic Macedonian refugees continued to be barred from entering the country. In the eyes of many Macedonians, the unresolved property question was one of the reasons why Greece refused to recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name when it broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991. That may be why Loverdos in the interview also cautioned against linking Greek concessions on refugee return with its policy on the name dispute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 May 2002 and 2 April 2003, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 6 June 2003).

The overall response in Macedonia was nevertheless positive. "I do not believe that historical injustice can be corrected," Metodija Tosevski of the Association of Child Refugees from Aegean (Greek) Macedonia said. "Thousands of lives have been lost, tens of thousands have been forcefully resettled, and families have been torn apart. However, the new generations of Greek politicians cannot be held responsible for any wrong policy [in the past], and that is why we want to see [Loverdos's interview as] a new beginning for new relations with new people who have other views [than those of previous generations]."

It remains to be seen whether the Greek government manages to lift the travel ban in time for the Florina meeting. Yorgos Papadakis, a journalist for the Athens daily "Express," told "Utrinski vesnik" of 10 June that the government may need more time to change the law on citizenship so that ethnic Macedonian refugees could again become Greek citizens. "I do not believe that this will happen soon. It will take four or five months before the parliament can decide on a new law," Papadakis said. "That is why I do not expect something drastic to happen before October or November." (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz, ub@itinerarium.de)