Macedonia: The nation still trying to make a name for itself
- Credit: AFP/Getty Images
After the bruising name change forced on North Macedonia by its neighbour, GARTH CARTWRIGHT visited to see if things are finally looking up for the young country
The Balkans have too much history: this has oft' been noted and remains a truism across the former Yugoslavia. Here Bosnia continues to fracture due to ethnic divisions the Dayton Accords have allowed to fester; Serbia and Kosovo snarl at one another over their unresolved conflict; prominent Croatian politicians openly embrace the Ustase (Croatia's brutal, pro-Nazi Second World War regime); and the Republic of Macedonia undergoes an unhappy, forced name change to North Macedonia.
Considering how extreme things are elsewhere in these troubled lands president Tito once proudly ruled over, the latter may seem the most minor of problems. But Macedonia, deep in the southern Balkans, has long stood alongside Slovenia as the former-Yugoslav republics that have managed to avoid being consumed by conflict, corruption and nationalist tensions.
That is, until recent years when Macedonian political animosities have flared into violence in the parliamentary chamber and referendums over the nation's name have divided the populace in a manner akin to Brexit here.
Driving down from Belgrade I noted at the border how the sign now reads "Welcome To North Macedonia", this name change having been a tortuous process played out over the past two years. The change from Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia has been brought about by the government of Zoran Zaev in an attempt to broker a 'peace' deal of sorts with a surly neighbour.
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Since the collapse of Yugoslavia at the start of the 1990s Greece has made trouble for Macedonia over one issue: its name. Within Greece's boundaries there is the region of Aegean Macedonia - this being part of the ancient Macedonia that Alexander the Great hailed from - and Greek politicians have employed extreme cynicism in making their public believe that the Republic of Macedonia's name signalled intent to invade and land-grab (so reuniting Macedonia - the Balkan wars of early 20th century saw the region known as Macedonia carved up several times: today, alongside Aegean Macedonia there's Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria and a sliver north and south of the Debar in Albania, all once part of ancient Macedonia).
This 'threat' from an impoverished, small (population less than three million) nation has played well to a Greek public looking for an enemy to lash out at (Turkey's size and military prowess being something they'd rather forget).
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These same politicians - and all the main Greek parties play this game, it being both easy and lucrative to bully the little neighbour directly north - vetoed Macedonia's attempts to join Nato and get on the EU's entry list.
Greece, it must be noted, also bullies Albania and Bulgaria (to lesser extents) over ancient borders/conflicts and refuses to recognise any ethnic minorities in its lands: Greek citizens claiming Macedonian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Turkish, Vlach and Roma ancestry find such identities ignored and they are instead corralled as Greek alongside the rest of the populace.
The next time you hear a Lexiteer claim the UK should leave the EU because of the way poor, little Greece was treated by big, bad Germany during its debt crisis (due to high military spending, massive cronyism and a reluctance to collect taxes) politely suggest they take their head out of the sand.
The fractious process of getting public approval for the name change saw Macedonia receive its first serious UK media coverage since the brief - and thankfully peacefully resolved - conflict that broke out there in 2001 between the government and Albanian separatists.
It's understandable that the UK media would pay attention to this small nation as it struggles with a divisive referendum result - ironically, one undertaken in the hope that Macedonia will be welcomed into the EU. Right now this appears unlikely with the Netherlands and France vetoing both Albania and Macedonia's moves forward: this is due seemingly to mounting frustration over Albanian criminals moving freely through the Schengen nations and an understanding that, just as Brexit's puppet masters played up anti-eastern European sentiment, so too could Farage's allies across the EU.
If the former communist states were initially welcomed into the EU with haste, due to the new markets and cheap labour they would provide, there now appears a desire to say 'enough where they came from'. All of which makes things extremely difficult for the current centre left Social Democratic Union government. The name change has gone ahead without violence - or even large demonstrations against - but it is unpopular.
Everyone I spoke with felt uneasy about it. Some conceded that the deal being achieved without conflict was a rare and positive step for the Balkans. Others said that if it lead to future prosperity then the slight would be worth it. Others raged against the Greeks for forcing the issue. None displayed much enthusiasm. Understandably, having to acquiesce to a bully always tastes bitter.
And Greece's behaviour towards Macedonia has been that of the ogre: Greek border guards were notorious for refusing to allow entry to anyone who, when asked where they came from, answered "Macedonia". The correct answer to gain entry was "Skopje" (Greek politicians have long referred to the Republic of Macedonia as "Skopje"). And it was in Skopje, Macedonia's capital, that I began my week-long sojourn.
Skopje was flattened by an earthquake in 1963 and rebuilt in a brutalist style with imposing grey concrete buildings and tower blocks dotting the city. Some of these - especially the Central Post Office - are now venerated internationally while others bear the weary, distressed look of concrete decay.
Now, standing in extreme contrast across the centre of Skopje, are a vast series of neo-classical buildings, fountains and statues (of warrior kings' Alexander and his dad Philip, mums with babies, local heroes, religious leaders and other such nonsense as favoured by autocrats who deem art must serve as propaganda) all erected by the former nationalist government of Nikola Gruevski (who instigated the 'Skopje 2014' neo-classical project then fled to Hungary in November 2018 rather than face jail time after being found guilty of corruption).
The $700 million+ spent on creating buildings and monuments to a 'glorious, heroic' past means much of the city centre now resembles a tacky Las Vegas casino. Kitsch on such an extraordinary level is breathtaking yet it feels more tragic than funny, the monies spent on such folly could have been invested in infrastructure, education, health care, job creation, all manner of things that Macedonia desperately needs.
Both tourism and much local social activity in Skopje is focused around the Old Bazaar area. Here, in a part of the city that survived the earthquake, is the legacy of Ottoman rule, lots of small shops, cafes and restaurants in pedestrianised streets.
Macedonia's connections to Turkey remain strong, the nation being at the crossroads of where east meets west, with much trade and culture shared. I came to Skopje to see the Džambo Agusevi Orchestra perform and Agusevi, a 32-year old Roma trumpeter who leads a ten-piece brass band, tells me that he grew up in Strumica, a city in the south east, speaking Turkish as a first language.
This doesn't surprise me as several other leading Macedonian Roma musicians have mentioned speaking Turkish: it appears many of their ancestors arrived in the Balkans as musicians with the Ottoman army and, being Muslim, they have continued to speak Turkish at home (while also speaking Romany and Macedonian).
During the Yugoslav civil war Bosniacs - Muslim Bosnians - were demonised by Serb nationalists as 'Turks' (when they were actually Slavs whose ancestors had adopted Islam) yet Macedonia has never fallen for such slanders, instead embracing its multiple ethnicities. Not that such inclusivity is always easy - a large, predominantly Muslim Albanian minority (thought to be at least 20% of the nation) unsettles Slav conservatives who like to think of Macedonia as an Orthodox nation: thus the huge, illuminated cross that sits on a hill above Skopje.
Agusevi, who leads one of the great live bands currently operating anywhere, mentions when we speak how easy it is for Macedonian Roma to succeed in a nation where there's little racial discrimination. Unlike neighbouring Bulgaria where the Roma are marginalised and often treated with contempt (and worse).
Indeed, on the outskirts of Skopje is Shutka, a settlement of some 40,000 people internationally known for being the only 'city of Gypsies' in the world. Skopje's Roma community were resettled here after the earthquake and Shutka has its own mayor, radio and television stations, schools (teaching in Romany) and much else.
Today Shutka is densely packed as the population keeps growing alongside refugees from Kosovo - after the Serbs were expelled by Nato's jets in 1999 the returning Albanians' launched a pogrom against several Roma communities - and further afield: once I was surprised to note Africans in a Shutka internet cafe, my friend Demir noted that refugees unable to reach the EU have settled in the community.
If Shutka is Skopje at its most urban then a 40 minute bus ride out of the city takes you to Matka Canyon, a stunning wilderness of waterways and hiking trails. This is where the capital's inhabitants come to breathe - temperatures in Skopje can hit the 40s mid-summer - or else they take a four-hour bus to Ohrid, the beautiful and historic city on the shores of Lake Ohrid. This journey passes remnants of a motorway that Chinese engineers began building under the last government but which is now indefinitely on hold while Macedonia's new government attempts to work out who siphoned off millions from the project (and whether the planned construction was designed properly for rushing traffic from Skopje to Ohrid).
Unfinished business? That could be a metaphor for this small nation packed with remarkable food, drink, music, natural beauty and talent yet bedevilled by problems, both internal and external. With young Macedonians emigrating at an alarming rate while the economy stagnates and EU membership still a distant dream, its unlikely that "and they lived happily ever after" will soon be said for these ancient lands. North Macedonia, as we now must call this youthful nation, could do with a little love and largesse from the west.
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