- Tuesday, June 19, 2018 9:55 PM
Skopje, 19 June 2018 (MIA) – Macedonians and Macedonian language were some of the words we heard being frequently used by the residents of the small Greek village of Psarades on Lake Prespa. In informal conversations with MIA's team reporting from Psarades on Sunday, they uttered the words rather coyly but with a joyful sparkle in their eyes as they welcomed guests from Macedonia who were there to attend the name agreement signing.
This past Sunday, Psarades (or in Macedonian: Nivici) hosted the formal event during which Macedonia and Greece signed the agreement to settle the decades-long name dispute. Top officials from the international community attended the ceremony.
Locals were exceptionally kind and hospitable towards the delegations, the teams of reporters—nearly 60 crews from Macedonia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Albania, including reporters from leading media outlets from all over the world—and towards anyone who came to town to witness the signing. They told us they hadn't seen 'this many people flocking to the village for years.'
Psarades is a small fishing town located in the southernmost part of Lake Prespa, close to the borders with Macedonia, Albania, and Greece. It sits in a peninsula of a long, narrow bay. With around 70 residents, the village rarely hosts significant events like the one on June 17. To prepare for the guests, however, the locals had done the best they could.
The journalists reporting from the event, which took place amid heightened security measures, were restricted to a small area of the village, which covers 16 square kilometers in total.
Several police checkpoints had been set up from the Medzitlija border crossing to the village, and police were letting through only vehicles that had permits to be there that day.
Every journalist was thoroughly checked and scanned by police officers before being allowed to approach the location where the signing took place.
A stage was set up on the lake's shore. Close by was a tavern, which was a part of a house. On the top floor of the house, a mother with two small children—the only children in the village—looked on.
Once a year, Psarades hosts an art colony. The MIA reporter talked to one of its regular participants, a Greek man named Philipos. He refused to have his photo taken, but he was willing to tell us his story.
He lives in nearby Florina, i.e., Lerin. But on Sunday, he came to Psarades to witness the historic event in person.
It is high time, Philipos said, that we solved the issue and that the two nations lived in peace. It is time that conditions were created to strengthen cooperation and networking between young people through art and culture.
"In four to five years, all this fuss about the agreement, both in your country and in mine, will settle down and will be forgotten. We must acknowledge and support each other. People must live their lives and focus on important things, and the politicians in each country must stop taking advantage of this dispute," Philipos said.
He told us the population in the municipality of Prespa in Greece had been significantly reduced after the 1946-49 Greek Civil War with most of them emigrating to other countries. Now, only 1,600 residents live there. He said people have continued to move out of the village even after the war, especially young people in pursuit of a better future.
The residents of Nivici, i.e., Psarades, speak Macedonian. The MIA team tried to talk to them in English, but they said they preferred to communicate in Macedonian.
They identify themselves as Greeks and Greek citizens. Some of them told us that the agreement signing would help alleviate tensions between the two countries and improve communication between their citizens.
Many towns in the area have been abandoned. Only 70 people currently live in Psarades, which in the past had been populated by hundreds. Young people are few in the village, most of its houses old and decaying.
The settlement, however, can boast a 19th-century church dedicated to Virgin Mary. The church has been preserved as cultural heritage.
After the Greek Civil War, Psarades lost a significant portion of its population and remained isolated behind the border. The closest border crossing with Macedonia remains closed, according to a resident.
The Markova Noga-German border crossing has been unused for over half a century after it was closed in 1967.
During his first meeting in the series of renewed name talks with Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev in Davos in January, Greek PM Alexis Tsipras pledged the border crossing would re-open.
"We hadn't seen anyone arriving here by boat from the other side for 40 years," locals said.
The Macedonian delegation, led by PM Zoran Zaev, arrived in Nivici by boat. After the Foreign Ministers Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kotzias signed the agreement, the two delegations crossed Prespa Lake—once again by boats—to get to the other side, where the Macedonian village of Otesevo hosted the second part of the celebration.
Most of the residents approve of the deal, taking the view it will improve cooperation and trade.
Still, some of them were reluctant about the name solution although Greek politicians had vigorously defended it in the media.
"Let's see what happens," some said. "We're simple people, so we're not exactly sure what's going on. But we'd like to see if things get better in practice."
Psarades lives from its tourism and fishing. Ecotourism was blooming before Greece's economic crisis, as many tourists were drawn to Prespa's beautiful nature and the regional cuisine. Locals hope that the name deal may renew that interest.
MIA's team talked to Greek journalists attending the event, as well. They said that people who live in these parts of Greece—Florina (Macedonian: Lerin), Kastoria (Kostur), Prespa, Orestida, and Grevena—are Greek citizens who speak Slavomacedonian, as they called it.
Many of them, after the Civil War, left for the nearby socialist countries, never to return. Using the language is still taboo, Greek reporters said.
According to them, locals were repressed and discriminated against if they spoke Macedonian because it was considered an insult and a threat to Greek national sentiments. The situation has changed, however, over the past few years.
Asked if they thought the name deal could promote the use of the language, Greek reporters said that all Greek citizens have the right to speak whatever language they want.
Locals would undoubtedly profit if the border crossing were reopened, the journalists said, but sometimes, they said, people are afraid of change. These villages are isolated, they pointed out, and the more isolated people are, the more close-minded they may be – choosing the status quo over progress.
However, every person we spoke to after the name deal signing ceremony in Psarades hoped things would change, and that people from the two countries would grow closer and work together, especially in areas such as music, culture, and art.
Photo: Frosina Naskovik
Tr. by Bisera Altiparmakova and Magdalena Reed
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