The vital importance of Thessaloniki warm water port, Imperial Russia and Soviet Russia

Although the first official declarations regarding the «recognition of the supressed members of the Macedonian nation» and calls for modifications to territorial boundaries were made during the 1920s, the Macedonian question was said to be in discussed in communist circles even earlier. To understand the Comintern’s policy one must consider that the Soviet Union saw itself as the expander of communism, similar to the expansive intentions of Imperial Russia before the 1917 revolution. Russia and Catherine the Great had supported the Greeks in the early years of nationhood, sharing a common religion, later the Russians supported the Bulgarians against Greek interests, with whom they shared common Slavic blood and religion as well.

The statement of the Russian Tsar Nikolaos in 1854, while addressing to the British Ambassador of Petroupolis, Hamilton Seymour:

«A strong Greek kingdom or Greek nation is against the interests of Russia’s southern gates»

On several occasions the Russian army threatened Constantinople (Istanbul) and Macedonia herself, always however being kept in check by the other great powers. In this way Imperial Russia used Bulgaria for its own expansionist aims. After the Turkey’s defeat in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–78, Russia managed to have the treaty of San Stefano signed by the Turks, on March 3, 1878, which created a Greater Bulgaria was created with borders including the largest chunk of Macedonia, an outlet to the Aegean and on Thessaloniki’s doorstep; the Russians were thwarted by the great powers who rejected San Stefano and replaced it with the 1978 Treaty of Berlin the same year which deprived Bulgaria (and indeed Russia an outlet to the Aegean). In 1870 the Bulgaric Exarchate was founded with a Sultan’s Decree, and in 1872 the schism of the Bulgaric Exarchate occurred. On 21/2/1878 (3/3/187 , Russia obliged the Othoman empire with the signing of the Saint Stefan treaty. Tsar Nikolaos had given his ambassador in Constantinople, Ignatiev, the order:

«Not a span of earth to Greece»

Thus the Russians were deprived again of access to the Aegean as they were denied previously, by the Crimean war, access to the straights of Istanbul and the prospect of a warm water port. Throughout Russia’s history much of its efforts were concentrated on the aim of one day acquiring a warm water port (Vladivostok in the far East freezes over completely in the winter as do all ports in the West as well). In the hey day of the Soviet Union the Russians tried to gain a warm water port on the Indian Ocean by invading Afghanistan but once again failed. The huge strategic importance of Thessaloniki and its port, once called the ‘dual capital’ of the Byzantine Empire and the hub of Balkan trade made it a target for the great powers and for Russia and the Soviet Union especially. Salonika port would have been a priceless possession for the communist bloc which never managed to possess a warm-water port during the length cold war.

In this way it can be said that the cloak of Russian imperialism in South East Europe was initially support of Greece and later Bulgaria and in much the same respect the cloak of Soviet expansionism was Slavic Macedonism. The Comintern addressed the age-old Macedonian question with its decision to promote the ‘plight of the Slav Macedonians as a suppressed people in Macedonia and the Slav speakers of Northern Greek Macedonia’ rather than the plight of the Bulgarians.

The beginning of communist involvement in the Macedonian question – the interwar period; the Comintern and Balkan communists

The Comintern, otherwise known as the ‘International Communist Organization’ or the ‘Internationale’ was founded in March 1919, in the midst of the «war communism» period (1918-1921), by Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), which intended to fight «by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and for the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the State.» The Comintern played a vital role in the establishment of communist parties all over Europe and in the Balkans as well during the interwar period. The Comintern funded and coordinated communist parties and even had the power to dispel people from a local Balkan party should they feel they are not acting in the revolution’s best interests. Thus the Comintern can be described as the foreign affairs organ of the Soviet Union.

The Balkan Communist Federation (1919-1939) was a communist umbrella organisation in which all the Balkan communist parties were represented. It was dominated by the Soviet Union and Comintern requirements. An important feature of the Federation was the Macedonian question. The Federation was the successor of the earlier Balkan Democratic Federation and the Balkan Socialist Federation. The Balkan Federation would have included Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey. The manifesto of the federation stated that,

«The nations of southeastern Europe possess all the cultural conditions for autonomous development. They are related economically. They should be related politically. Socialism will therefore uphold with all its influence the idea of the solidarity of the Balkan nations. «.

Already the Macedonian question was on the table at the first assembly in 1910 before the Balkan wars; The main platforms at the first conference were Balkan unity and action against the impending wars. In 1915, Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov wrote that Macedonia, «…which was split into three parts…», would be, «…reunited into a single state enjoying equal rights within the framework of the Balkan Democratic Federation.» and that this was «important to settle outstanding national issues.» This independent and united Macedonia would have consisted Yugoslav and Greek Macedonian territory. Naturally the Greek and Yugoslav parties were hesitant about the plan having much more to lose than Bulgarian communists who could only gain in popularity at home from such an outcome and policy.

1935 Resolution of the KKE in regards to a independent Macedonia and Thrace

The Bulgarians, from the beginning, had assumed a leading role in the Balkan Federation. In Sofia, May-June 1922, the question of the «autonomy of Macedonia and Thrace» was raised by Vasil Kolarov and was backed by Dimitrov, the Bulgarian delegate who presided over the meeting. The Greek delegate asked for a postponement as he was reluctant to approve a motion that was not on the agenda. By June 1923, the BCP, under pressure from nationalist forces following a coup when the Agrarian National Union government in Bulgaria was overthrown and Premier Aleksandar Stamboliyski murdered, had to show to the rest of the country that it was strong and at the heart of things, so it campaigned for «a united and independent Macedonia» and pushed for the neighbors to endorse them.

The Russian communists’ successful 1917 takeover and the henceforth influence of the Soviet Comintern over Communist parties in other countries had important consequences. The Comintern saw Bulgarians’ ideas on Macedonian question suited to its own strategic ambitions for its Southern Gates and the pressure from Moscow now meant the Greek KKE and CPY Yugoslav Delegation gradually came to agree to the BCP (Bulgarian Communist Party)’s proposals. In December 1923, Balkan Communist Federation held its 5th Conference in Moscow. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) delegate Nikolaos Sargologos signed the motion for a «United Macedonia» as was wanted by the Bulgarians and the Comintern.

The KKE continued to find the Federation’s position on the Macedonian question difficult, knowing how firmly against the motion the Greek public would be given that it basically asked Greece to virtually forfeit its two provinces of Macedonia and Thrace as well. In June 1924, at its 5th meeting, the KKE recognised «the Macedonian people» and in December 1924, it endorsed the motion for «a united and independent Macedonia and a united and independent Thrace» with the perspective of entering into a union within a Balkan federation «against the national and social yoke of the Greek and Bulgarian bourgeoisie». However, in 1928 it suffered a crushing defeat at the Greek elections, especially in Greek Macedonia. Disentions meant the KKE conference watered it down, just calling for «autodetermination of the Macedonians until they join a Balkan Soviet Socialist Federation». The Yugoslav communists faced the similar problems at odds with Serbinisation policies in their country.

During the war and after however, as the situation became more desperate for the Greek communist guerillas and the scene of the Greek civil war began to set, the communists were reliant of Yugoslav and Soviet aid and therefore became more and more inclined to promote, and fight for, an independent Macedonia, inlcuding Greek Macedonia and Thrace. Tito, the emergent wartime leader of the CPY, managed used the past preparation of the Comintern and BCF to Yugoslavia’s advantage rather to its detriment as it would have been with a independent Macedonia in the Balkan Federation though outside Yugoslav hegemony.

To understand hierarchical nature of communist network headed in Moscow during this period and the inclination of Greek and Yugoslav communist parties to adhere to Comintern policy, one must consider for example these excerpts from the ‘Twenty-one Conditions for the admission to the Comintern’ which were laid down by Lenin at the 2nd Comintern Congress in 1920:

«14. Every party that wishes to belong to the Comintern has the obligation to give unconditional support to every soviet republic in its struggle against the forces of counter-revolution.»
«16. All decisions of the Congresses of the Comintern and decisions of its Executive Committee are binding on all parties belonging to the Comintern»
«18. All the leading press organs of the parties in every country have the duty of printing all the important official documents of the Executive Committee of the Comintern»
«21. Those party members who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Comintern are to be expelled from the party.»
-Vladimir Lenin, 2nd Congress of the Comintern, 1920




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