“THEY started it”.
That’s the catchcry from members of the Macedonian community in Melbourne accused of erecting “racist” signs and defacing the Greek flag with phallic symbols.
News.com.au revealed on Wednesday how ugly tensions had flared in Melbourne. Signs reading “Greeks are Turks”, “F*** Greece for unfairness” and “F***ing racists” appeared on freeway bridges and Greek Orthodox churches last week.
A prominent member of the Greek Australian community, Chris Moutzikis, said the signs were “disgusting” and had been erected by “bigots” and “racists”.
But the Macedonian community has fired back, claiming they’ve been persecuted for too long and that Greek Australians are not the innocent victims.
“Racist slogans, you say?” one member of the Macedonian community wrote to news.com.au. “I find it racist when someone says Macedonia is Greek when clearly we’re not.”
The Macedonia issue is complex but at its most basic is about the dispute over land in the Balkan Peninsula that is half the size of Tasmania but home to some two million people.
It occupies a controversial place in Greek and Balkan history, subject to claims and counter-claims about identity, history and culture.
The greater Macedonia was divided following the end of the Second Balkan War and the signing of the Bucharest Treaty in 1913. Macedonians say they’ve been persecuted ever since.
The Republic of Macedonia was formed when it seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991. More than 130 countries, including the UK, US, Russia and China recognise the Republic of Macedonia by its constitutional name.
But Greece insists it has the rights to the name because Macedonia is already a region in the country’s north.
In Macedonia, people speak mostly Macedonian, a Slavic tongue, or Albanian. That’s entirely unrelated to the Greek spoken by Greek Macedonians.
The debate is continuing at a diplomatic level where leaders of both countries have shown a willingness to compromise. But increasingly, the conflict is being fought in communities overseas, including in Melbourne.
Peaceful rallies have been held — including one where leaders of the Greek community addressed crowds on Sunday. But ultranationalist sentiments have found their way into the mainstream.
Video of a Greek flag being burned was shared by a pro-Macedonian group on Facebook. But they say Greece started it with a sign on a building in Richmond.
Most say the back-end-forth is unhelpful and not a representation of either community.
Many members of the Macedonian community were angered when a giant poster was erected on a building in Swan St, Richmond. It advertised the rally at the Greek Consulate in Melbourne and featured the words, in big bold letters, “Macedonia is Greek”.
A similar sign was hung from the same bridge over the Eastern Freeway where a defaced Greek flag was later spotted.
“The Greeks started this tension,” a user wrote on social media, pointing to the Swan St sign. The sign has since been removed.
Another sent pictures of the burning of a Macedonian flag with the words “Remember” and “This is your karma, bitch”. It’s not clear where or when either picture was taken.
A “proud Macedonian-Australian”, who was born there and now lives in Perth, told news.com.au he was disappointed in the actions of a few ultranationalists.
“I condemn hatred in any way, shape or form and wholeheartedly agree that as a democracy, we as people should have the right to voice our concerns, and it should be done so in a peaceful manner, free from hatred and racism towards others.”
He said he experienced discrimination growing up in Australia as early as primary school.
Another Macedonian-Australian wrote that “ultras are doing wrong but we as a people are fed up with how the Greeks have treated us for a very long time.”
Another Macedonian who asked to remain nameless told news.com.au “a lot of the signs erected around Melbourne are not there because of the Macedonian people”.
“We see those signs and are equally angry at people erecting signs of hate.”
The woman said her family “comes from the region that was split by the Bucharest Treaty and that is in Greece” and that she still sees the “tears in my father’s eyes” over the name dispute.
On Monday, the Macedonian Coalition wrote on Facebook: “Calling all Macedonians everywhere you live, Australia, Canada, Germany, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania and the Republic of Macedonia, this is your last call, there will be no more chances after this if we lose our identity, our name and our culture.
“I don’t want the next generations to grow in a world where culture is history and family is irrelevant.”
The group told news.com.au Macedonians are frustrated and that’s why the issue is boiling over.
“What we are seeing though is that Macedonians have had enough. The issue had basically become non-existent in Australia and the latest occurrence have brewed up old tensions. Denying a person’s identity would do these types of things.”
But Mr Moutzikis said attacks on Greek Australians had to stop.
“Those putting up offensive signs should leave the issue to people with sense and good will to find a solution,” he said.
A #March4Macedonia rally has been organised for Sunday, March 4. Mr Moutzikis urged members of the Greek community who were considering attending a counter-rally to think again.
He said he “condemned such idiotic behaviour”.