Ethnic divisions still run deep in FYROM

Customs officials at the border crossing into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) welcome Greeks in their own language, which they learned on the job. In fact, a large number of people in FYROM’s south speak Greek quite well as a result of tourism in both directions. Northern Greeks often cross into the north and the Slav-Macedonians spend weekends in Thessaloniki. Speaking Greek or, even better, having studied in Greece, is a qualification that is likely to get them jobs in one of the many Greek firms now active in FYROM. As a Greek visitor to the country, one soon realizes that local society is divided along ethnic lines. The political polarization over ethnic issues that Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has embarked upon with the country’s neighbors has revived the dispute with Greece over Skopje’s use of the name «Macedonia.» Kathimerini’s magazine K went to FYROM to see just how far that polarization has been dictated by the domestic situation and to what degree it was experienced by ordinary people. On the road to Vitola (known to Greeks as Monastir), the countryside presents the typical rugged Balkan landscape and small farms – greenhouses of tomatoes, fields of large cabbages and then suddenly a small peach orchard. «If you walk along the central pedestrian precinct on weekends you won’t know where you are,» said Vana Nikolovski of Vitola. «The place is full of Greeks who have come to shop or just for a coffee.» She herself learnt Greek in Thessaloniki where she studied business administration for three years. She now works as a receptionist at the Epinal Hotel in the town center for a wage of 250 euros a month, considered reasonable for her age and work experience. Around the town are many of the clothing factories that have relocated from Greece in recent years. Conington, a Greek-owned factory that makes clothing for many well-known European brand names, employs 200 people whose average monthly wage is 200 euros, not much considering that apartment rents can be as high as 150 euros. Although factory owners complain about low productivity, there seems to be no doubt about the high profit margins. Unemployment is close to 35 percent, although the real figure could be slightly less since many people resort to the huge black market economy and smuggling. «That is one reason why families are still very close-knit. Young people leave home only when they marry,» explained Vana. The women operating the sewing machines in the clothing factories seem to be aware they don’t have many alternatives. «Yes, this is a good job and the pay is also good,» says Olivia, eating a sandwich on a break. The growth of the clothing industry has provided jobs for many women; unemployment is now mainly among the male population, one of the reasons for the meteoric rise in domestic violence. «Investment is what is missing in the region,» says Kris Peovitis, owner of the Epinal Hotel and one of the main investors in the region. His family moved to Yugoslavia from Kastoria during the Greek Civil War. He emigrated in the opposite direction, to Australia. «I only saw my parents again when I was 18,» he says in his Australian drawl, «but I never forgot where I was from. I decided to come back here and open a business seven years ago. Then it seemed like an investment heaven but the reality is more complicated.» That becomes clear upon arrival at Mavrovo, in the huge ski resort of Zare Lazareski, which Peovitis bought a few years ago. The installations are like something out of Switzerland. «The hotels around the center of town can accommodate up to 4,000 people,» says Darko Stoyanovski, the ski center director. «People come mostly from Croatia and Serbia but we are also after tourists from European countries, such as Greece and Austria.» Something more than a sharp investment sense is needed here, however. Mavrovo is not such a popular destination. «The region is home to mostly Muslim Albanians; Slav Macedonians often don’t even want to drive through these areas,» said Stefanos Spyrou, head of the Greek Association’s press bureau in FYROM. After the interethnic war of 2001 and the Ohrid accord that recognized minority rights, incorporated joint administration and a decentralization of powers, the unofficial division between ethnic Albanians and Slav-Macedonians has deepened even further. Yet there is also a tangible proximity – at the Monastery of St John at Bigorski near Mavrovo, the voice of the imam calling the faithful to prayer can be heard in the distance at the same time as the monastery’s eight monks and several of the faithful observe evening service. Later, outside the monastery, a family of Muslims asks for Father Stergios’s blessing. «People in the villages around here are mostly Muslims but they respect religion generally and the monastery is open to all,» he explained. In Sutka, the huge makeshift marketplace is full of ethnic Albanians, Slav-Macedonians and Gypsies looking for bargains. Alexandr is one of the few people in Sutka with a high school diploma. «It’s not that we are poor but that there is no way out of here for us,» he said. It is true that amid the poverty there are Mercedes Benz cars and well-built new homes. Back in the center of town, crowds gather outside the European Affairs Bureau, funded by the Danish Embassy, which is about to be opened by the prime minister. Entry to international organizations is the only way out of the political crisis plaguing FYROM. Life in Skopje, with its 600,000 inhabitants, is a microcosm of city life. Kire Pavlov is rehearsing the city’s ballet company for a performance of «Romeo and Juliet.» «There are many good dancers in the country, some of whom have made international careers,» says Sonia Trstena, a classical ballet teacher who has brought her pupils along to watch. On the other side of the Vardar (Axios) River, the town’s young people have gathered to watch a concert by the Toy Dolls. Our guide shows us her photographs of Greek singer Sakis Rouvas and other former Eurovision stars. A video screen shows a Croatia-FYROM match while the support band warms up the crowd. It soon becomes clear that this life is only for half the population. The ethnic Albanians and other minorities are conspicuous by their absence from the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Skopje, apart from the nightclubs where young people gather or in some upmarket bars. Forty minutes from Skopje, the ethnic divisions become clear in the town of Tetovo, on the border with Kosovo. David Jovanovski was born and raised in this town but his family left after the war. «We left because it was simply impossible to stay there. After the peace accord and decentralization, the Albanian authorities only gave Albanians permits to work and open businesses,» he said. Many of the homes in Tetovo are of bare brick. «People don’t have the money to finish rebuilding their homes,» explained Nagib Sala, a final-year law student. He is planning a visit to his girlfriend who is studying in the Netherlands. «Her father hates me because I am a Muslim and they are Orthodox Christians,» he said. Despite good intentions, the only place where the twain meet is at the private Van der Stuhl University, named after Max van der Stuhl, the Dutchman whose idea it was. It opened in 2001 with EU funding, as a result of the dispute between Slav-Macedonians and ethnic Albanians over the status of the town’s university. «Originally it was destined for the Albanians, who had no other solution, then it became a place where anyone who wants to can buy a degree,» commented Jovankovski. However, according to Ivan Milovanovic, a Serb professor and husband of the US ambassador to FYROM, the university is a success. «We would like to see more places where young Albanians can meet Slav-Macedonians and talk,» he said. Milovanovic could be right. In a place where there are few opportunities such ventures are undoubtedly valuable. Yet established perceptions are difficult to overcome. «Students leave for a while on academic programs or to work in the USA. Then they come back because of family ties and nostalgia for home. But those who realize which way the wind is blowing want to leave,» said Anna Angelovska, a student of English literature. Distance perhaps makes it more difficult to ignore how deep are the boundaries between people and how fast the last Balkan mosaic is breaking up. This article appeared in the June 17 issue of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.

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