Balkan borders become flimsier after decades of forced division

Almost a century after they were set up, our borders – the product of so much bloodshed – are virtually being dismantled. People go back and forth across them with what, until very recently, seemed like astonishing ease. In an area that for decades was guarded by minefields, army patrols, electrified wire and impassable trenches, access to our former «enemies» has become practically routine. Every day, Bulgarians, Albanians and Slav-Macedonians cross the border to seasonal jobs in the fields, on building sites, in the fruit-packing and stock-raising businesses of Macedonia and Thrace, or to holiday on the shores of Halkidiki and Thassos. Meanwhile, Greeks visit Sandanski, Hascovo, Skopje, Yevyeli, Bitola, Korce and Girokaster to buy cheap clothes from factories that their compatriots have shifted across the border. They also bring back basic foodstuffs such as bread and vegetables, while many travel there in search of wives. As in the past Historians say that is how the Balkans used to be until the great powers carved up multi-ethnic communities in pursuit of geopolitical interests. The Treaty of Bucharest in 1913, at the end of the first Balkan War, and of Sevres at the end of World War I, determined the northern border. But impenetrable walls were put up between the peoples of the area, who had been used to living together. Many injustices were committed in the carve-up. Cities and villages went over to the «other side;» families were forced to relinquish the homes of their forefathers; friends and neighbors were forced to live in newly minted, ethnically «clean» states. Above all, the channels of communication among local populations – which for centuries had conveyed arts and letters, commerce and cosmopolitanism to and fro – were sealed off, especially after the establishment of the Eastern bloc. The cold wall For half a century, the mountains of Murgana, Grammos, Vitsi, Kaimaktsalan, Paiko, Beles and Rhodope separated the so-called free world from the countries behind the Iron Curtain. Behind that cold wall, propaganda – from both sides – fed suspicion and hatred, poisoning feelings even among those who spoke the same language, celebrated in the same manner, were bound by the ties of kinship and believed in the same God. Greeks heard that workers in Albania were led to the fields in chains and anyone caught slacking was shot then and there; they sang about a lovely little sister who had to be freed. The regime of Enver Hoxha brainwashed his subjects into believing their neighbors were satanic imperialists ready to invade Korce and Girokaster and suppress the rights the people had acquired. He even set up missiles in nursery school yards. Bulgarians were brought up to believe that their historic duty was to pave the Serbs’ way to the Aegean, while Greeks feared that the Red Bear would descend upon via their northern neighbors. Russian SS-23 missiles capable of bearing nuclear warheads were aimed from Bulgarian territory at our border, while American Honest John nuclear warheads were ready to strike targets in Bulgaria from Drama, Kilkis and Lagada in Thessaloniki. Countless border incidents (many of them causing death and injury) took place, though never widely publicized, bringing the opposing sides into dangerous conflict. One needed a special permit even to approach the border. When the regimes of the so-called evil empire collapsed in the 1990s, our borders were stained with blood again: This time with the blood of thousands of illegal immigrants pursuing the dream of a better life who were crushed on the slopes of Grammos, killed by mortars set off by border guards in Kastoria and Delvinaki, or who froze to death in the attempt to scale the remote slopes of Belles and Paiko. As the years went by and relations among the neighboring countries improved, tensions gradually abated. Local communities re-established their old ties with those on the other side, and the border posts of Kakkavia, Thesprotia, Niki, Evzones, Promachonas and Ormenio were opened up to human movement. Now neighbors are talking about establishing more crossings. That effort has received decisive assistance from the European Union through the INTERREG border program, which created infrastructure and gave economic support to initiatives bringing the neighbors closer together. «The road paved by local communities, silently but substantively and effectively, is the road that has led these areas to development in the past. It is the road of hope for the future. And it is the road that official policy must consolidate,» said Tassos Vassileiou, a civil engineer in Florina, northern Greece. The Greek economy in the border area is largely based on the 500,000 Bulgarians, Albanians and Slav-Macedonians who cross the border in the harvest season. They are the ones who pick tobacco and grapes in Drama and Serres, peaches and apples on the plains of Pella and Imathia, who tend the stables and sheepfolds of Kilkis and Rhodope, who rent rooms in summer in Halkidiki and Thassos. Without the work of these neighbors, as the producers themselves openly admit, the fruit would rot on the trees and the asparagus would wither, since very few Greeks are willing to work in the fields. Greeks from northern prefectures, and others too, cross the borders every day to buy shoes, shirts and food in Petrich, Sandanski, Bitola and other cities where they are much cheaper. People on the border are able to leave behind the prejudices and stereotypes of the past. Albanians, Greeks and Slav-Macedonians cooperate to protect and highlight the beauties of Prespes. Turks, Greeks and Bulgarians must tackle the flooding of the Evros River together, and the inhabitants of Central Macedonia have to work with those of Yevyeli and Belles on how to stop the flow of toxic waste into the Axios River that is killing crops in the plains and fish in the Thermaic Gulf. All of this would have been incomprehensible three decades ago. Now the walls are coming down, slowly and peacefully. Within a few years they will no longer exist. The prospect of our neighbors’ accession to the EU is paving the way. By 2007, Bulgaria will be a fully-fledged member of the EU with no border separating it from Greece. The same will eventually apply to Albania and FYROM – no matter how much that perturbs those who cannot yet stomach the idea.

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