Macedonia — The Last Act

by Stevan Konstantinović

Translated from Serbocroat by Alma A. Hromic

May 28, 2001

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While the West is expressing its apprehension concerning the possible civil war brewing in Macedonia, it is actually already in full swing, bringing both human and material victims. What looks at first sight to be a conflict between two national identities, Slav and Albanian, is much broader in scope; directly or indirectly, all Balkan countries are present here, as are the EU and the USA.

For those who might have trouble finding Macedonia in an atlas, a bit of background is necessary, if for nothing else then certainly for the purpose of making it easier to comprehend all the absurdities of today's political realities in the Balkans.
- Macedonia is situated in the central part of the Balkan peninsula and is vertically bisected by the river Vardar. It is bordered by Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, what is left of Yugoslavia, and one particular part of its border is patrolled by KFOR which currently rules Kosovo. Macedonia, however, is also a name under which parts of Bulgaria ("Prinska Makedonija") and Greece (Aegean Macedonia) are known by. In the formal international relations, thus, the ex-Yugoslav Macedonia often appears under the acronym of FYROM ("Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia") to appease the Greeks, unhappy at what they see as usurpation of their own geographic terminology. Equally fractious is the matter of the flag of this acronymized nation, which is a modified version of the ancient Hellenistic state of Alexander the Great, also known (in this part of the world at least) as Alexander the Macedonian. These modifications make the flag in question look not unlike the Japanese war flag from the days of World War II.

- In the nationalistic sense, Macedonia consists of Macedonians as a slavic ethnic entity, who comprise the majority of the population, and Albanians, largely inhabiting the parts of the country bordering with Albania proper. Macedonians, as a Slavic ethnicity, are not accepted by the Bulgarians as a separate nation; the Greeks look at the appellation "Macedonian" as a regional identity dating from the golden days of Hellenistic Greece; Serbs, right until the formation of Tito's federal Yugoslavia, looked on the territory in question as something they called "Southern Serbia;" Albania has openly laid claim to parts of Macedonia with any resident ethnic Albanian population.

- The first quarrel over the territory of Macedonia started at the beginning of the 20th century, when the united forces of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece clashed with Turkey, the acknowledged overlord of these parts, in 1912. Without making a prior "prenuptial" agreement about the sharing out of the re-conquered Balkan territories, these nations entered a second but this time internecine confrontation that became known as the Second Balkan War (1913). Bulgaria, unhappy with the size of the territory it received, was bent on annexing — by force, if necessary — the valley of the Vardar river, a notion opposed by Serbia, Greece, and its hitherto foe Turkey. The valley of the Vardar (today's Macedonia, in effect) was a part of Serbia at the time and known as Southern Serbia. Bulgaria tried twice, in the context of the first and second World Wars, to grab this territory allied with Germany, without success.

- At the conclusion of World War II the communist regime of Tito decided that Macedonia, in its current borders, should become a separate federal unit of a socialist Yugoslavia. By fiat of the communist party, a number of linguists, led by Blaza Konevski, quickly formed a Macedonian "literary" language, using as a basis for this the dialects spoken in the western part of Macedonia as a way of emphasizing a difference to the Bulgarian language. Tito's secret police in the meantime worked on the split from the Serbian Orthodox Church and created the so-called Macedonian Orthodox Church entity, almost literally overnight. The reconstruction of the area's historical heritage quickly followed, with the national yearning of Macedonians for independence, in conjunction of course with the other ethnic jigsaw pieces of Tito's Yugoslavia, discovered serendipitously in historical documents from both near and distant past. Thus was created a communist "banana republic" with whose existence absolutely nobody seemed to be happy, but nobody was actively unhappy either, so long as Macedonia didn't actually belong to any of the interested parties. Everyone was content to wait for something to happen in the fullness of time so that the existence of the "nation," on its glass ideological legs, could be questioned — which, in fact, is precisely what is happening right now.
For all these reasons, Macedonia was the only republic of ex-Yugoslavia which did not actively seek its independence when the disintegration of Yugoslavia began. When such independence became essential as an alternative to staying under the political and military umbrella of Slobodan Milosevic, the decision was taken with something of a heavy heart by prime minister Kiro Gligorovski. Direct conflict with Serbia was avoided because far greater conflagrations were raging at the time in Bosnia and Croatia; despite the fact that northern Macedonia is home to a large Serbian ethnic enclave, the Yugoslav army pulled out of Macedonia without firing a bullet in anger, and left it to its fate. Milosevic did offer a treaty to Greece, despite the fact that Macedonia lay squarely between the two countries which, with Macedonia out of the Serbian nation, now shared not a single inch of common border. Greece, as member of the EU and of NATO, thought it best to refuse the treaty.

The Greek protests over the acknowledgment of Macedonia as a national entity were, in the nineties, based on the insistence on changing its name. Greece, a sensitive and traditionalist country, demanded that in formal use the name "Macedonia" was eschewed in favor of something different, or at the very least that "Macedonia" was qualified by prefixing it with "Slavic," or "New," or "Vardar." Quite aside from traditionalism, however, the Greeks were following closely the developments in the Balkans — the potential of a call for the unification of all Macedonians, the demands of extremists that the Greek city of Solun should be ceded to Macedonia to allow the new nation access to the Aegean Sea, and other such developments were worrying. Prime minister Kiro Gligorovski could not use "Slavic" as a prefix because of large numbers of ethnic Albanians in his territory, he could not use "New" because it would have impugned the national dignity of ethnic Macedonians, and if he called it the Vardar Macedonia he would be bowing to giving geographical and regional issues precedence over issues of national identity. The solution, unwieldy and awkward as it was, arrived in the form of that aforementioned acronym — FYROM.

In developing internal politics, aside from the "Macedonistic" option of Kiro Gligorovski which relied heavily on its communist heritage, two further strong political movements began to develop a higher profile. One was represented by those Macedonians who see themselves as scions of the Bulgarian nation and who are led by the current Premier, Ljupco Georgijevski. The other was a number of Albanian political parties that are leaning towards the usual separatist ideas leading to the ultimate unification with Albania proper. It is these two political streams that are part of the ruling coalition in Macedonia.

For a political neophyte the question that goes begging seems to be obvious — why, given their political beliefs, do these parties not come to a peaceful agreement about splitting up Macedonia rather than going at it by way of a war with its inevitable human casualties and the attendant economic disaster which would devastate an already impoverished country?

Taking on the guilt for breaking up the country has hitherto not been something that either the ethnic Macedonians nor the ethnic Albanians wished to shoulder. This state of affairs was influenced by the international community, in the first place by the EU and the USA for whom Macedonia was a Gordian knot which, up until now, it was imperative not to cut, primarily because of Serbia under Milosevic, which became obvious during the NATO aggression. Knowing that in the current scenario the disintegration of Macedonia is possible, Macedonia was the destination of arguably small but nonetheless significant numbers of military personnel from the countries in the NATO pact even during the early nineties. These forces were deployed towards the border with Serbia, and more specifically towards the border shared with Kosovo — and were, in theory, supposed to be a guarantee of peace in Macedonia. It was all covered in the media in terms of strategic moves to counter Milosevic's "pretensions" to Macedonia, although it was obvious to everyone concerned that the greatest danger for Macedonia lay in the separatist yearnings of the Albanians.

During the time of the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia, the number of NATO troops in Macedonia increased significantly. Macedonia was promised financial aid in return for its role in the NATO war and the damages it suffered during that period — but as it usually goes with such promises from the West, they have mostly remained dead letters. Macedonians were hardly helped by the risky and in many respects scandalous act of establishing diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which was supposed to bring up to $200 million to the country's ailing budget.

Macedonia was faced with a staggering number of Albanian refugees from Kosovo, which further destabilized the precarious situation in the country. The Western part of Macedonia, where Macedonian army and police had no access, housed camps for the training of Albanian separatists and the extremists who took part in the battles in Kosovo. The border between Macedonia and Kosovo, despite "patrols" by NATO soldiers, was routinely crossed by armed units of the KLA as well as by smugglers carrying everything from weapons and drugs to what were for all intents and purposes human beings sold into slavery. Albanian political parties in the Macedonian parliament grew louder and more emphatic in their demands for the federalization of Macedonia, while the West remained silent. More than that, after the first open conflict between Macedonian troops and police with Albanian paramilitary units, the NATO personnel stationed in Tetovo evacuated their base and moved, lock stock and barrel, to "safer" territory.

Announcements of an increased western military presence in Macedonia are not helping, because they fail to be accompanied by relevant political solutions. Voices raised in the EU in favor of accepting the Albanian demands and federalizing Macedonia witness to the fact that the West would very much like the option of sweeping the whole mess under some convenient rug and then simply forget about it. The authorities in Skopje have reacted to the Albanian demands by a joint police/military offensive that risks pouring oil onto the fire. It is entirely possible that in the final solution Western forces may find themselves enforcing the federalization of Macedonia if only to keep the warring factions apart, thus finally accelerating its ultimate disintegration as a national and political entity.



Stevan Konstantinović has a master's degree in literature from the University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, where he is presently preparing his doctoral thesis. He has published a book of literary analysis, Kaldrma citanja i misljenja ("the pavement of reading and thinking"), and a collection of short stories. He has published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in four languages, and has been active in translating literature from Polish and Ukrainian to Serbocroat. He is a member of the Authors' Guild of Vojvodina and the editor of the literary cultural journal Sidina. Until recently a journalist and a teacher, he is currently employed as an advisor for culture, education and science in the provincial administration of Vojvodina.

Please, DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work without the expressed written authorization of Swans, which will seek permission from the author. This material is copyrighted, © Stevan Konstantinovic 2001. All rights reserved. This article was translated from Serbocroat by Alma Hromic, the author of Letters from the Fire and a frequent contributor to Swans.

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Published May 28, 2001
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