The launch of the 12th census in Albania's history has been met with distrust and accusations from Greek minority organizations, even from voices from Athens, who, citing international human rights conventions, say that Albanian legislation does not meet European standards for the declaration of ethnicity.
The Greek side mostly criticizes the legal provision that punishes with heavy fines anyone who declares in the census a nationality other than the one declared in the national register of civil status. The provision in question has been established in the law to avoid self-declaration on financial matters of another nationality from the real one.
This provision has been criticized by Athens, which says it violates human rights by preventing them from self-declaring their nationality. But does Greece allow the self-declaration that Albania wants to allow?
Successive reports from the United Nations confirm that it is not. Greek legislation is criticized in these reports. In the 2011 census, Greece did not include the question of the nationality of its citizens at all, but only the question on citizenship. From this, according to the last census in Greece, 91 percent of the residents have Greek citizenship, 4 percent have Albanian citizenship and 5 percent have other citizenships.
Not only that, but Greek legislation does not recognize minorities based on ethnicity. The only minority it recognizes is the religious minority, which are the Muslims of Thrace, who are identified as Turks by nationality. As for ethnicities, for Greek legislation...everyone is Greek.
To illustrate with concrete examples the repressive Greek policy towards minorities, we are recalling a report published in February 2019 by the BBC. The report was made shortly after Greece and North Macedonia signed the agreement on the name issue.
Invisible minorities in Greece - Slavs - Macedonians
With the ratification of the agreement that gives Macedonia a new name, Greece has indirectly recognized the existence of a Macedonian language and ethnicity, but still continues to stoically deny the existence of the Macedonian minority in its territory. Will this attitude change now?
Mr. Fokas is 92 years old. For years, he has kept as an inseparable part of himself a cane with an ivory head, bought in Romania by his grandfather, a century ago. His mind and memories are fresh, despite the years behind him.
A long-retired lawyer, Fokas speaks formal Greek fluently, but still has a distinctive accent. His mother tongue is Macedonian, related to Bulgarian and spoken in these parts of the Balkans for centuries. In his son's house, in a village in the north of Greece, he tells me the painful history of the Slavic-speaking minority, never known.
From the beginning of the narrative, he makes it clear that he feels both Macedonian and Greek patriot. There is reason for him to emphasize his loyalty to his nationality: for almost a century, Macedonians in Greece have been the object of constant oppression, persecution and denial by all Greek governments and rulers.
Today, the country's status as a member of the European Union prevents Greece from outright banning this minority from speaking its native language, but continued persecution has had its effect. Macedonians feel scorned if they speak their language in public. By the Greeks, their language is simply called "local", without any other definition.
They have disappeared from the history books, have not been included in population censuses since 1951, when they were defined as "local Slavic speakers" and their existence is barely mentioned in public, as much as the majority of Greeks they don't even know they really exist.
This "disappearance" was one of the main causes in the long clashes between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece. The clashes seem to have been marketed under the name of the Republic of North Macedonia, the state that until the ratification of the Prespa Agreement was known by official Athens simply as Skopje.
When he spoke in the Greek Parliament in the speech where he asked for the vote of the deputies on the pact signed with Zoran Zaev last June, Alexis Tsipras broke a taboo: he spoke about the existence of the Slavic-Macedonians in Greece during the Second World War.
The term "Macedonia" in the official name is enough to imply that even for Greece there are Macedonians, who are people who demand their rights. But this simultaneously raises some difficult questions for Greece and the history of this minority there.
When Mr. Fokas was born, the northern region of Greece, known to the Greeks as Macedonia, had just been annexed by the Greek state. Until 1913, the region was part of the Ottoman Empire, which was in its last throes. Greece and Bulgaria, taking advantage of this weakness, signed a pact and declared war. The pact between Greece and Bulgaria was later broken, and one of the reasons was the Slavic speakers of this region and the territorial claims clashing between the two countries.
It was during this period that the identity of the Slavic-Macedonians was strengthened, as Mr. Fokas quotes his grandfather. "My family is neither Serbian, nor Greek, nor Bulgarian, but Macedonian Orthodox", today the 92-year-old remembers the words of his predecessor.
But, in the end, the Slavo-Macedonians saw themselves divided between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria. In the part annexed by Greece, the greater part was expelled, those who stayed were assimilated with "grace and disgrace". All villages and towns with non-Greek names received new names assigned to them by a specially established committee in the late 1920s. However, even today some minorities use the old names.
In 1936, Mr. Fokas was 9 years old when Greek dictator Janis Metaksa (a Mussolini fan) outlawed the Macedonian language and forced its speakers to change their names to Greek names.
Mr. Fokas remembers it well and remembers the police forces listening to the wails at funerals, or the windows of houses to catch anyone who spoke or sang in the forbidden language. Whoever was caught was severely punished, up to death.
Women who did not speak Greek covered their faces with headscarves to disguise themselves from Greek agents. However, Mr. Fokas' mother was arrested and fined 25 drachmas, an amount too large and unaffordable for their family at that time.
"Slavic-speakers suffered a lot under the Greek regime of Metaxas. 20 people from this village, the heads of big and famous families were exiled to the island of Kos. My father-in-law was one of them. They were tortured and forced to drink until molten resin", the old man recalls today.
When Germany, Italy and Bulgaria invaded Greece in 1941, some of the Slavic-speakers welcomed them. They hoped that the Bulgarians in particular would free them from the repressive regime of Metaxas. The Bulgarians occupied the eastern part of Greek Macedonia from 1941 to 1944. During this occupation, many war crimes were committed against the Greeks, and for this the Greeks wrongly accuse the Macedonian minorities, whom they identify as Bulgarians.
There were Macedonian minorities who collaborated with the invaders, but many others later joined the resistance led by the Communist Party, which at the time supported and promised equal rights to the Macedonian minority. They were also part of the communists in the civil war that followed later.
When the communists were defeated, the reprisals started again against the Macedonians, not only against those who had cooperated with the Germans, Bulgarians and Italians, but also against those who were part of the resistance of the communists and the left.
"Macedonians were the ones who paid the most for the entire bill of the civil war. In this village, 8 people were tried by a military court and executed, eight from the neighboring village and 23 others from the opposite village. They killed his grandfather and grandson, only 18 years old", says Fokas.
At the time, Mr. Fokas was a student in Thessaloniki, but this did not spare him arrest and three years in prison on the island of Makronisos, not because he had broken any law, but because he was the son of a mother who had helped her brother-in-law to escape from the roof of a coffee bar where he was detained.
Most of the prisoners in Makronisos were elements of the Greek left, who were forced to sign statements of repentance for their communist past. Those who refused were forced to crawl over barbed wire, or were beaten with bamboo sticks.
Thousands of communist leftist fighters went into exile at the end of the civil war. Most of them were Slavic-speakers who fled to communist countries in Eastern Europe. During the escape, they took about 20 thousand children with them, either to protect them from the revenge of the Greeks, or to have them as reserve troops for a possible counterattack in the future.
When these massive displacements took place, many villages were left empty, such as Krystallopigi, which is called by the Greeks, or Smërdesh by the Macedonians, near the border with Albania. The biggest evidence that a community of more than 1,500 souls once lived there is the church of Saint George.
In 1982, 30 years after the end of the civil war, the Greek socialist government passed a decree allowing refugees from the internal conflict to return to their homeland. But only those of Greek ethnicity were allowed to return. Ethnic Macedonians who had left were once again left out of their homeland, out of villages and land, and families separated during the war were never reunited.
Father-in-law and brother-in-law of Mr. Fokas who both died in Skopje. However, the 92-year-old himself says that the decree tactically recognized the existence of ethnic Macedonians in Greece, although the state has never officially recognized them. "Those war refugees left behind children, grandchildren and parents. What were they, if they were not Macedonians?", asks Fokas.
Today it is impossible to calculate even approximately the number of Slavic speakers or their descendants in Greece. Historian Leonidas Embiricos says there are more than 100,000 still living in Greece, although no more than 20,000 openly identify as a minority and assimilation has taken its toll, so many others identify as "proud and nationalist Greeks". .
Macedonian has not been banned for decades, but even today the fear of speaking it exists. A middle-aged man from a village on the shores of Lake Prespa in Greece says that the fear has been passed down from generation to generation.
"My parents did not speak Macedonian at home when I was a child, for fear of speaking it in public. They did it to protect me. We no longer remember why we are afraid to speak our language. She is slowly dying. Many years of repression closed this language at home and now assimilation is giving it the final blow", he is quoted by the BBC.
Although it is not forbidden and there is no risk of jail time, speaking Macedonian in these areas can still get you into trouble. Mr. Fokas' son is a musician. He is part of a band that tries to preserve traditions and sings in Macedonian. One day they decided to organize an international festival in the center of the village with other groups, from Brazil, Mexico to Russia.
"After the other groups sang, we gathered and sang Macedonian songs. None of these songs were nationalist or separatist. When we were going to organize the festival the following year and we were expecting our international friends, the local authorities suddenly stopped us from organizing the festival in the center of the village, although those who gave this order organize their political and cultural events in this very center. ", he says to the BBC.
At the last moment, the festival was moved to a field outside the village, with an improvised stage and lighting and among the slush and brambles. "It damaged the image of Greece", says Focas.
"Do you know why the festival and the songs were stopped in the square, but not in the field outside the village? Because there are cafes around the square and the locals would sit there and just watch and listen to the music in peace. But, outside the village, they are afraid to join such an event, because they would attract the attention of the authorities if they did so", says the 92-year-old, who comes out with his son.
The ratification of the agreement between Greece and the Republic of North Macedonia recognizes the Macedonian language and ethnicity. It is a big step for these residents as well, to rid them of the fear of using their mother tongue. However, the pact has also provoked often violent protests, in large part supported by the Greek Orthodox Church.
At the end of this year, Greece will vote for a new government, and the right-wing opposition is trying to turn this movement into political capital, accusing SYRIZA of betrayal. So, for the Slavic-speaking Greeks, who have never asked for more than the right to speak their language, or to freely practice their traditions in the countries where they were born, time to banish fear and come out. , may not have arrived yet.