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03/19/2009 02:13 PM

Bickering in the Balkans

Macedonia's Identity Crisis

By Walter Mayr

Greece has blocked the NATO and EU ambitions of Macedonia for the past 18 years over a bizarre name dispute. The ongoing controversy threatens the very cohesion of the diminutive Balkan republic, which holds presidential elections this Sunday.

The village of Achlada, population 400, lies in the shadow of a 2,500-meter (8,200-foot) peak on Greece's northern border. In the café on the main square, a handful of elderly residents silently run chains of wooden beads through their fingers.

At first glance, Achlada, with its snow-white church, looks like a sleepy, idyllic Greek village. During the Ottoman era, however, Achlada was called Krusoradi, named after the Slavic word for pear tree. As a result of the Second Balkan War in 1913, the village became part of Greece and was renamed, coinciding with the partition of the historic region of Macedonia among Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. This part of Achlada's history is barely spoken about.

Strangers approaching a two-story house at the end of a path near the church are likely to encounter suspicious looks. The building has stood empty for more than half a century. According to a local war memorial, the former owner was killed in 1940 during Greece's struggle against fascist Italy. His name was Nikos Gruios, and according to the inscription on the memorial, he gave his life "for his homeland."

This would hardly be worth mentioning, except that Nikola Gruevski, the grandson of the fallen war hero, wrote a letter to the government in Athens in the summer of 2008. In the letter, he demanded official recognition of the Slavic-Macedonian minority in Greece and the restitution of the property of former residents of Slavic origin who had fled Greece after 1945.

The letter was taken seriously, but mainly because of the identity of its author. Nikola Gruevski, the grandson of the hero Nikos Gruios, happens to be the prime minister of Greece's northern neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia.

To be more precise, Gruevski is the prime minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. To this day, this is the official name used for this country of 2 million people -- which it was given in response to Greek pressure -- at meetings of the United Nations, as well as in European Union and NATO accession talks.

The dispute over Macedonia has smoldered since 1991, when the republic declared its independence. Europe's problem child will soon come of age, but the argument over what its name will ultimately be remains unresolved.

According to Athens, true Macedonians only live south of the border, speak Greek and are the descendants of Alexander the Great. For this reason, the Greeks argue, Slavs, who began to settle in the historically significant region only about 1,000 years after the golden age of the Macedonian royal dynasty, cannot simply call themselves Macedonians -- not across the border in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and certainly not in Greece proper. Greek Prime Minister Costas Caramanlis reemphasized this position last summer, when he said: "There is no 'Macedonian' minority in Greece. And there never was one."

Does this mean that the prime minister in the Macedonian capital Skopje must stand idly by while Athens insists that people like his ancestors, including his father and grandfather, could not possibly have existed? Is there is no such thing as Slavs who grew up in the Greek part of the historic region of Macedonia and, despite having had to accept Greek surnames, remain faithful to their native language?

The answer is easy, says Gruevski, speaking at a government building in Skopje: "If the Greeks were to admit that Slavic Macedonians are living in their midst, it would be clear that we should be allowed to call ourselves Macedonians. That's why they won't admit it. But what if we, as a candidate for EU membership, treated minorities the way EU member Greece does?"

Graphic: Ethnic groups of Macedonia
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Graphic: Ethnic groups of Macedonia

Gruevski, 38, is generally a robust defender of the Slavic-Macedonian cause. Nevertheless, he is smart enough not to make use of his own family history as an argument in a dispute that has kept UN, NATO and EU politicians on their toes for years. "The underlying problem" -- that of the Greeks' view of their history -- must be resolved, says Gruevski. Greece's long-established Slavic population, most of whom sided with the communists during the 1946-1949 civil war, play little part in that Greek interpretation.

The myth of the founding of modern Greece is based on the idea of a mono-ethnic nation. The country's founding fathers wanted nothing to do with the ethnic melting pot of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras, and instead sought to restore the purity and glory of ancient Greece, "a heroic nation, which traces its roots directly back to Pericles and Socrates," as spokesmen for the Slavic minority in Greece remark sarcastically.

Only 100 years ago, however, say Greece's Slavs, the region surrounding the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki might have been characterized by the same attribute that the proud Greeks assign to their reviled northern neighbor today, namely that there are "nuts from a thousand trees" there -- in other words, a diverse mix of ethnic groups. Similarly, Italians refer to fruit salad as "macedonia di frutta."

At the turn of the 20th century, Macedonia was an explosive region and a bone of contention in the southern Balkans, home to anti-Ottoman agitators, assassins and nationalists of every stripe. They used Thessaloniki -- a cosmopolitan port city with a majority Jewish population before World War I -- as their center of operations.

'What Is Happening Here Is Classic Blackmail'

The current dispute over Macedonia, says Greek sociologist Michael Kelpanides, is a convenient tool for politicians in Athens to attract voters and divert attention away from the country's real problems. Twenty-eight years after joining the EU, Greece is still the union's biggest net recipient of cash, and its national debt as a percentage of GDP is second only to Italy's. The average wage in Greece corresponds to the average wage in Poland, and when it comes to corruption and illiteracy, the Greeks are near the bottom of the heap of EU countries.

As if it were still just as important today to defend the legacy of Hellenic children of the gods against Slavic-speaking barbarians, the Greeks demand subservience from their northern neighbor in the dispute over its name. In doing so, they are holding their EU and NATO allies hostage. The Gruevski government's bid to join NATO, supported mainly by the United States, failed at the alliance's 2008 summit meeting in Bucharest when it was vetoed by Greece.

"Since then, it has been clear to us that we have nothing left to lose," says the Macedonian prime minister. "What is happening here is classic blackmail." For this reason, Gruevski and the members of his government and their staffs have recently placed his nationalist party, the VMRO-DPMNE, on a full-blown counteroffensive. Gruevski and his cohorts are doing their utmost to prove that world history was written on the territory of modern-day Macedonia -- even if it belonged to a different country at the time.

The Macedonian prime minister is now surrounded at every turn with signs of the glorious past of the piece of land he governs. The lobby outside his office in Skopje is decorated with marble busts, bronze helmets and jewelry. The nearby football stadium was recently renamed in honor of Philip II of Macedon, who ruled in the 4th century BC. The Skopje airport and the highway to Greece are already named after Philip's son, Alexander the Great. Looking for "comfort in the past" is a sign of a lack of "visions for the future," Trifun Kostovski, the outgoing mayor of Skopje, says derisively.

But his visions have also failed. His Skopje of the future is still under construction. Statues of Hellenistic heroes are being erected between corrugated metal slums and drab apartment buildings. Albanians worship their national hero Skanderbeg, while Christians pay homage to Mother Teresa, who was born in Skopje, with a bizarre memorial of rough stone and glass. Meanwhile, the Roma from the Topana neighborhood sit on the famous Stone Bridge over the Vardar River, playing the shell game.

What holds together a young country like Macedonia -- a country with a dozen ethnic groups at home and few friends abroad? "What's important," according to historian Stefan Troebst, describing the delayed sense of national cohesion among modern-day Macedonians, "is that they know who they don't want to be, namely neither Bulgarians nor Serbs, and certainly not Greeks or Albanians."

But even this lowest common denominator is in jeopardy. Some 30,000 Bulgarian passports are already believed to be in circulation in this country of 2 million people -- valuable documents which allow free travel to EU countries. The fact that the former prime minister and leader of the nationalists, Ljubco Georgievski, now travels with a Bulgarian passport has been the source of biting ridicule among critics of the new Macedonia. And the 500,000 ethnic Albanians in the country in any case traditionally feel more closely aligned with their counterparts in Albania, Serbia and Kosovo than with Macedonia's Slavic majority.

Additionally, poverty helps to strengthen the forces that act against national cohesion. With an average monthly net income of €276 ($360), Macedonia is now a problem child, even by regional standards. Given these circumstances, it must seem a slap in the face to Skopje residents that a $100 million (€77 million) complex that resembles a Balkan branch of Fort Knox is being built on a hill behind their Ottoman fortress.

With its high walls, road blocks, surveillance cameras and rumored 10 to 15 underground floors, the new US embassy is a concrete expression of support for the small, stricken Balkan republic of Macedonia from Washington's geopolitical strategists. It is also a sign of hope for its citizens.

In the global competition for oil and gas from the Caspian Sea, both Americans and Europeans are focusing on transport routes that are not jeopardized by Russian control or bottlenecks at the Bosporus. Oil coming from Bulgaria's Black Sea coast is expected to begin flowing toward the Mediterranean through a pipeline in Macedonia soon.

The big US embassy will "presumably become the intelligence center for the entire region, a complement to the military base they have at Camp Bondsteel over in Kosovo," says Ljubomir Frckoski. Sitting at Café Roma in Skopje, Frckoski, a skilled politician who looks every bit the cosmopolitan world traveler, explains what will change as soon as he becomes Macedonia's next president -- in other words, after the elections next Sunday.

According to Frckoski, it is time to bring Macedonia out of its isolation. "We are stationary, while everything around us is moving," he says. "Bulgaria and Romania are in the EU, and Albania is a member of NATO." Macedonia, he explains, needs to resolve its dispute with Greece. And who else but Frckoski is capable of putting Europe's poor cousin on the right path? "I am in a sense the father," says Frckoski. "I wrote the first constitution and was involved in the treaty following the conflict with the Albanians in 2001."

In Tetovo, a snow-covered Albanian stronghold, there is another candidate, but this one is patiently playing the right hand of his master. Agron Buxhaku of the ethnic Albanian DUI party knows that he is merely an accessory in the presidential election. The man at his side, Ali Ahmeti, is in fact the one who holds sway over the Albanian camp. Placed on a US blacklist of extremists in early 2001, Ahmeti became the co-architect of the Ohrid Framework Agreement in the same year. The agreement brought an end to bloody fighting between Slavic and Albanian Macedonians.

As long as the rights of the Albanians, who represent a quarter of the population, are respected, there will be no problems, says Ahmeti, with an impenetrable look in his eyes. If not, however, it would be sufficient, he says, to bring "representatives of all Albanian camps together" and convince them to stage a boycott -- which would cripple the country.

In the days leading up to the presidential election, all parties agree that the dispute with Greece must be resolved. There are two strategies on the table: intransigence and the willingness to compromise. Gjorgje Ivanov, the most promising candidate from the current government's party, favors the hard-line approach. The opposition, on the other hand, includes proponents of a conciliatory policy toward Athens. They are sifting through ideas on what to name their country in the future. The potential names include Upper Macedonia, Northern Macedonia, New Macedonia and the Republic of Macedonia (Skopje).

Anyone seeking advice ahead of what could be a decisive move can consult the oracle of Skopje. Kiro Gligorov, 91, still sits bolt upright in his chair when he receives visitors. Being a former partisan and friend of the late Yugoslav ruler Josip Broz Tito as well as the last important survivor of the days of the Yugoslav politburo. The first president of the independent Republic of Macedonia, Gligorov has lived through two world wars and five different forms of government on this small piece of Balkan real estate.

He extracted Macedonia from the Yugoslav federation without a shot being fired, before becoming the victim of an attempted assassination in 1995. A deep scar several centimeters long serves a painful reminder of a shrapnel wound he received above his right eye. His fellow Macedonians, says Gligorov, must understand that "Macedonia is all we have."

What about the name dispute with the Greeks? "I would seek a compromise," says Gligorov.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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