A court in the city of Florina in northern Greece approved the opening of a Macedonian language center in a controversial move that several Greek experts say contravenes the spirit of the Prespa Agreement signed between Greece and North Macedonia in 2018.
The non-profit organization called the Centre for the Macedonian Language in Greece is to start delivering free Macedonian language courses online.
The center aims to introduce the Macedonian language to public schools and universities and support the training of local Macedonian language teachers. It will also push for the language’s recognition as a minority tongue by the Greek government, the report said.
Furthermore, it will advocate for the rights of Macedonian speakers in Greece to use their language, including traditional place names in northern Greece alongside the current names of places.
In addition, there will be a focus on documenting local dialects of the Macedonian language, creating a digital database of places in Greece where the Macedonian language is spoken today, and tracking human rights violations and hate speech by authorities against Macedonian speakers.
Former North Macedonia Premier Zoran Zaev, whose government negotiated with SYRIZA, the ruling party of Greece at the time, to rename the then-Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), expressed his delight with the move.
On Facebook, Zaev thanked Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitstotakis and former Greek Premier and SYRIZA leader PM Alexis Tsipras, saying the language center was the result of the new name passage.
“[This brings] joy to all of us who speak Macedonian, to all Macedonians,” said Zaev. “Congratulations to the Center for the Macedonian Language founders in Greece and to all the citizens of North Macedonia and Greece who rejoice in this fine act which is particularly important as another confirmation of the close relations between the two countries.”
One of the founders of the center told BIRN that a significant number of people still speak Macedonian as a first or second language. These speakers are concentrated in the prefectures of Kastoria, Drama, and Kavala.
Centre for the Macedonian Language in Greece proves controversial
Although there has been no official reaction by the Greek government, several experts have criticized the ruling of the Florina court, saying it contradicts the spirit of the Prespa Agreement.
Signed beside the shared Lake Prespa—which is where the decisive treaty got its name from—and ratified by the parliaments of both countries, the agreement went into force on February 12, 2019, when the two countries notified the UN of the deal’s completion, following the ratification of the NATO accession protocol for North Macedonia on February 8th.
The agreement replaced the Interim Accord of 1995 and sees the Republic of Macedonia’s constitutional name changed to the Republic of North Macedonia erga omnes.
Greece has no obligation to allow the operation of a Macedonia language school in the country, said political scientist Konstantinos Holevas in an article published in the Greek daily Parapolitika.
“The Prespa agreement does not contain any such obligation for Greece,” he said. “Article 1.3.c. states that the language of North Macedonia will be ‘Macedonian’. The reference applies only to North Macedonia. No mention is made in the agreement of a ‘Macedonian’ language in Greece.”
Theofanis Malkidis, a lecturer at Panteion University in Athens, said that the decision of the lower court in Florina should be annulled at Greece’s highest court.
Writing in Hellas Journal, he said that Greece’s highest court (Areios Pagos) has recently annulled the decision of lower courts who recognized, contrary to the Treaty of Lausanne, the “Turkish Union of Xanthi” and the “Turkish Union of Komotini.”
Ioannis Anastasakis, a retired wing commander, notes that the Macedonian language has been officially and internationally accepted as South-Slavic unrelated to the ancient Greek culture of geographical Macedonia, as well as its history, culture, and heritage.
Like any other language in the world, the teaching of the Macedonia language is normal and unrelated to the Prespa accord.
Speaking to Newsbomb, he notes, however, that the geographical remit of the Centre for the Macedonian Language is “suspicious.”
“It is envisaged that the focus of the NGO’s action will be in Macedonia and Thrace,” Anastasakis ponders. “The specific geographic focus hides expediency. Why not give access to the whole of Greece, since learning Macedonian will be done online? Why can’t people in Crete or Mani follow the classes?”