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Macedonia – what's in a name?

Dragan Klaic arrived in Skopje on the day that Greece vetoed Macedonia's bid to join NATO at the summit in Bucharest.

You have arrived on the worst day for our people, I was repeatedly told in Skopje. Some talked somberly about the worst day in the history of the Macedonian nation and the Macedonian state. These depressed and anxious reactions followed the Greek veto on Macedonia's NATO membership at the summit in Bucharest. People everywhere were glued to the television where journalists were reporting on the summit, Macedonian politicians were issuing reassurances after returning home early "to be with the people at this difficult time," as President Crvenkovski put it, and commentators were debating the consequences of this humiliating and infuriating slap in the face.

View of Skopje by Mister F

I was quite puzzled by this mass eagerness to belong to NATO, projecting some of my own reservations about this organization and remembering its passivity in Bosnia and ill-fated bombing of Serbia in 1999. But the Macedonian public has been persuaded for years that NATO membership will stabilize domestic tensions between political parties and between the Macedonians and Albanians, that it will consolidate the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement on the inclusion of the Albanian minority in the government system, and increase respect for the Macedonian independence among its neighbours. Moreover, entering NATO has been packaged as a shortcut to EU membership when in fact Macedonia, an official EU candidate, has done little to pave the way for accession talks with Brussels. But in order to boost its NATO credentials, the Macedonian government has sent 130 soldiers to Afghanistan, 30 to Bosnia and Herzegovina and 40 to Iraq, a symbolic presence but a significant gesture for a country of 2 million inhabitants and a tiny army.

The Greek veto was less of a surprise. Since Macedonian independence in 1992, Greece has contested the name, claiming that 'Macedonia' belongs exclusively to its own northern province and that a neighboring state with the same name will have dangerous territorial revendications. Under pressure from the US and EU Greece accepted Macedonian membership in the UN as FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) but relations between the two countries have remained strained and small provocations do have a cumulative effect. The fact that the Skopje airport is called Alexander the Great probably does little to mellow Greek intransigence. When I mention this to my Skopje interlocutors, most are quick to agree. They know that NATO entry is dependent on some form of compromise with Greece and that US envoy Matthew Nimetz has allegedly composed a list of 20 possible names for the country that reads like a Gertrude Stein poem, probing the limits of semantics in order to appease the Greeks and give the Macedonians a constitutional name which matches the one they use for themselves. The Macedonian president and prime minister set off for Bucharest with a certain optimism having finally settled on the official name of "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)," the one proposed some years ago by the Greeks to the widespread disapproval of the Macedonians. In Bucharest the Greeks decided to play what they saw as their trump card in a display of obsessive nationalism that Greek politicians of all stripes cherish because they know it guarantees enthusiastic support at home.

The veto provoked much anti-Greek sentiment in Skopje but behind the anger lie anxieties about the country's future. There is a fear that with Kosovo's recent self-declared independence and Albania's (and Croatia's) NATO entry, Albanians in Macedonia will further radicalize their position and come with new demands about the regionalisation of Western Macedonia where they have a compact presence. Moreover, Bulgaria refuses to recognise Macedonian as a language in its own right but sees it as a Bulgarian dialect; borders with Kosovo need confirming, and relations with Serbia will be further strained if nationalists win in the forthcoming elections in Belgrade.

The cabinet of the nationalist Nikola Gruevski (VMRO-DPMNE) is expected to collapse having lost the support of its partner - one of the 2 Albanian parties - over the recognition of Kosovo's independence. Some observe that Gruevski's VMRO-DPMNE and the center-left Social Democratic Union of President Crvenkovski have put their personal differences behind them and moved towards one another in order to pacify Albanian parties and strengthen the international position of the country. New elections seem almost inevitable and are likely to involve coalition-building arithmetic rather than any significant power reshuffle.

As a side show in the midst of all this national disappointment, the Macedonian Parliament is hosting the Forum Europe, a spin-off of the Berlin Soul for Europe initiative that promotes the role of culture in European integration. Foreign officials lecture on civil society, a few Macedonian culture workers air their frustrations with the government and, obviously consumed by worries about NATO and losing their jobs, government officials on the panel slide into a rhetoric of self-defence.

Seeking an escape from this predictable jargon I wander to the real space of intercultural dialogue, the huge market on the northern, predominantly Albanian side of the Vardar river. There, in the immediate vicinity of the former Theater of Ethnic Minorities now split into separate Albanian and Turkish drama ensembles, brisk business is conducted in several languages, cheap goods from round the world are on display, bartering is good humored and compromises are easier to reach than in politics. The old bazaar resists gentrification, old Turkish hamams and caravan sarais converted into cultural facilities are locked or neglected, as is the ugly colossus of the Macedonian Opera. Persistent shabbiness mixes with improvised renovation, the kitsch opulence of a new hotel and heavily neglected public space.

Skopje's skyline suffers from the aggressive, crude architecture of the 1970s and 80s, heavy improvisation after the earthquake and the old Turkish-era small dwellings which resist modernity with surprising tenacity. Monuments to the nationalist and communist heroes scattered around the city centre have recently been joined by a number of Roman sculptures that have been taken from the museums and placed at the entrance of the Macedonian government complex in a move whose ideological underpinnings are difficult to decipher. A new National Theatre is being erected where it once stood before the 1963 earthquake and a Holocaust memorial for the Skopje Jews is being built next to it. A symbol of Albanian assertiveness, the statue of Skanderbeg on his steed makes a militant posture near the bazaar, and contrasts with the humble pose of the Mother Theresa monument in the city centre. Her fame is linked to Calcutta but she was born here in 1910 as a Catholic Albanian and the perimeters of her former house are clearly marked. Nearby, hordes of trendy young people inspect the newly-opened City Gallery shopping mall with its expensive foreign stores. If you can't join NATO, you can always join the Western tribe of shoppers in the old bazaar or a fancy mall.

A careful inspection of the city from the old Stone Bridge reveals what's on the cards for Macedonia, with or with NATO: further up the Vardar on the top of a hill on the northern side, the enormous edifice of the future US embassy is growing by the day, dwarfing all the wasted and crumbling symbolic architecture of Macedonian statehood, a domineering building overlooking all the local twists and tensions and emanating superiority, power and control. This is to become the political arm of the strong US military presence at Camp Bondsteel less than 50 km further north in Kosovo. Behind the name dispute and the accumulating nationalist rivalries, the new masters are securely entrenched while the EU is being allowed to deal with the civil society issues.


Dr Dragan Klaic, a theater scholar and cultural analyst from Amsterdam, lectures about cultural policies across Europe.

Read his article about the riots in Belgrade in the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence. - let's talk european