Macedonia's triumphal arch, a legacy of the Skopje 2014 project, as part of the 'colourful revolution'. PAimages/Jacopo Landi/NurPhoto. All rights reserved.“Western Balkans’ potential new crisis in Europe - Macedonia,” “Macedonia on the brink of war,” “Macedonian stability shaken – threat to the stability of southeastern Europe”, a paraphrase of numerous titles that have appeared in media outlets of international standing in the past year or so. Conversely, the same fears and concerns could not be registered internally. Any local public would treat any such statement as conspiracy theory or, more likely, through their own conspiracy theory counter-thesis: “the political opponent is using it as a threat to gain power at any cost,” or “the political opponent is using it as an argument to stay in power.” In short, locally, in the period of the so-called political crisis (2015-2016), a threat to the stability and the very existence of the state has never been considered a serious possibility but rather the spin of the political opponent and “the international powers backing them.”
Hallucinogenic reason dominates the local discourse in the small, claustrophobic, xenophobic, parochially self-sufficient country: truth is never evident and the evident never true, “there is always something behind” that everyone is capable of guessing at according to his political preferences. One can only infer that paranoia is unavoidable. And indeed it is. However, “the fact that you’re paranoid does not exclude the possibility they are after you,” as Joseph Heller used to say.
Macedonia has the following issues with its neighbors: a name of the state contested by Greece, an Orthodox Church unrecognized by Serbia (and, consequently, by the rest of the Orthodox world), an official language and indistinct national identity – or rather “history” – unrecognized by Bulgaria. As the bizarre and seemingly incongruent mass of Macedonia’s problems with its neighbours surfaces in its totality, one is tempted to look for a single unifying trait in that heterogeneous sum of problems. Most of them are linked to history and the recognition of a distinct nation, whether through nation-state formation or identity claim. But given that a national identity or nationality normally derives from a nation-state and considering the fact that statehood or the very existence of the state at issue is not contested by any of its neighbors, the question remains – what in fact is being denied recognition in Macedonia and its history?
The name of the state, according to Greece, is an expression of “irredentist pretensions,” which refer to the possibility of a secession taking place on its territory. The population that might secede is one that might identify with the “Macedonian nation.” That population is called Slavophone in Greece but their specific identification among the Slavic ethnicities and nationalities is not identified. Or when it is, it is referred to as Bulgarian. Bulgaria claims similarly that the national identity of those who identify as ethnic Macedonians in the Republic of Macedonia and in Greek Macedonia is in fact Bulgarian or at least Bulgarian in its origin. Recently, the statements of the Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić seem to imply positions on the issue of identity or at least on “the name issue” (of the state) that are not that different from those expressed by the officials of the other two neighboring countries. There appears to be an agreement among the neighbors that the “Macedonian nation” is a “fabrication,” falsehood and an “artificial creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia.” Such general agreement was demonstrated in the trilateral meeting of the heads of the Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian states that took place on July 13, 2017 in Thessaloniki at which they debated the issue of Macedonia (in the absence of any representative of the Macedonian state). The recurrent arguments of the agreement at issue revolve around the historical truth of “who or what the Macedonians really are,” an almost century long debate about history, nation building and, consequently, identity and what is a true identity. The “name dispute” between Greece and Macedonia is about this complex mess called “identity.”
Less than a year ago, a US politician by the name of Dana Rohrbacher, Chair of the House of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, and Emerging Threats, in an interview given for an Albanian TV station stated publicly that “Macedonia is not a country.” In his statement he implied, like many before him, that it was an “artificial creation” or, to quote him, “configuration that came out of the dismantling of Yugoslavia” and that it should be divided between its Albanian minority (which, evidently, has an identity) and Bulgaria or whoever the Slavic majority (with no specific identity designation) prefers to be annexed to. The majority is therefore nameless – not just the state itself – and, due to its absence of definition, the country itself lacks a raison d’être. The State Department refused to comment on Mr. Rohrbacher’s statement, restating its support for the country and its Euro-Atlantic future.
Similarly, the criticism of “artificiality” has been a recurrent argument in the objections of Greece to the country’s constitutional name. Bulgaria, on the other hand, has insisted on the Bulgarian character of Macedonian nationality and/or ethnicity prior to the foundation of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, as well as that of the language. Then, according to many if not virtually all of the contemporary Bulgarian political authorities, public intellectuals and historians, the “artificial creation” was installed.
It is remarkable that the most influential discourses of the previous century have not had much influence over the political discussion around identities taking place in the Balkans and how its arguments serve the foundation of official state policies. For example, on the official website of the Greek Foreign Ministry, we read that FYROM’s use of the “name Macedonia” represents a threat to Greek history and cultural heritage. Isn’t it bizarre that the existence of a state in the 21st century could endanger a history more than 25 centuries old, and that this might be a “political issue leading to irredentism” ?
Going back to the objection of “artificiality”: it looks as if both the objectors (Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs) and those who defend themselves (Macedonians) are unaware that nations, like all other forms of collective belonging, organized sociality and identity, are in fact “constructs.” There is nothing “natural” about them. This argument is not necessarily poststructuralist or constructivist. In fact, practically all authoritative methods in contemporary political science suppose that these phenomena are subject to historical change, transformation and are de facto “creations.” So, they all have a production and expiry date. However, if one takes the historical and identitary tensions between Greece and Macedonia, one notices that both sides act as if history was static and that an unchanged identity essence remains fixed since time perennial, that there is a definition in the last instance of who they as nationalities “essentially, since always and forever” are. To the Greeks, Macedonians are (an undefined group of) Slavs who are stealing Greek history. The Macedonian nationalists, on the other hand, see themselves as the same people as the ancient Macedonians intact and unchanged since the times of Alexander the Great with some influence from the Slavic migrations which gave them their language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Indeed, in the Balkans, history is politics and politics is history.
Leaving this atavistic logic behind, let us go back to the time of the “artificial creation” of the Macedonian nation – in 1945, Yugoslavia. I have to agree this must have been the time of the creation of the nation, the time when part of the geographic region of Macedonia acquired the status of a nation-state. That was 72 years ago. Before that there was a revolutionary movement that appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century campaigning and fighting by means of terrorism for the foundation of a Macedonian state. That movement was led by an organization called Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization and, according to it, the “nature” of the Slavic majority of the nation to be was Bulgarian. It seems that the official historiography and politics of Bulgaria is right when arguing that Macedonia must admit an important part of its national history is in fact Bulgarian or at least indistinguishable from that of Bulgaria.
Therefore, the Agreement on Good Neighborly Relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria signed on August 2, 2017 is, I argue, good news: it relieves Macedonia from its static position of being always and since time perennial purely Macedonian, untinged by the presence of any other ethnicity, history or ambiguity of any sorts. On the other hand, if the view of identity as static and fixed through eternity remains the underpinning logic on the Bulgarian side, they will fail to recognize the fact that even if the Macedonian nation is “only” 72 years old and communist in its origin, it is in place now. It is a reality and a distinct ethnic and also national identity in its own right. The Macedonians, those identifying with the part of their history we share with Bulgaria and those who are Slavophone, in short, those who identify as Macedonians ethnically, inhabit a certain national identity into which they have been born. In other words, the “Titoist artificial construction” has been in place for more than seven decades and many have no other option but, by being born into it, to identify with it.
The fact that Macedonia has signed an agreement with Bulgaria which admits shared history and in particular that relates to nation-building attempts since the nineteenth century, while yet insisting on its distinctness, indicates a presumption about its identity that is dynamic, that, for the first time, does not assume a fixed and frozen essence of the “Macedonian self.” This is the revolutionary new possibility this agreement provides, not only for the improvement of relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria, but as an impetus in the right direction for the development of good neighborly relations with Greece and Serbia as well. Perhaps the model installed by Bulgaria and Macedonia can indeed serve as a foundation for resolving the decades long dispute between Macedonia and Greece.
If we depart from the thesis that the problem is in fact more historical, more identity-based than merely “technical” (a geographical distinction between a region and a state), perhaps a solution to the historical-cultural tensions similar to that reached with Bulgaria will resolve the matter? Perhaps an identity-related distinction rather than a geographical one could resolve the dispute more swiftly and on a permanent basis?
Is it possible that Slavic-Macedonians or Slavo-Macedonians will be a name that will assuage Greek fears and yet do justice to the historical accuracy related to Macedonian national identity (including the part to which Bulgaria has its claims too)? In order for such discussions to begin, it is necessary that the Macedonians accept that indeed there is no frozen essence of identity and that the only constant is dynamism and transformation. Therefore, a contemporary rather than ancient specification of the identifier (“Macedonian”) will serve its future and that of its neighbours better, and hopefully lead to the resolution of the name dispute with Greece.