‘Good, the Greeks are crossing the border’

Greeks need no more than three words of the local language («good,» «yes» and «no») and their identity card when they cross over into the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, heading for Bitola. Tuesday is market day, where Slavic-, Albanian- and Turkish-speaking villagers bring their wares into this town of 84,000 people – and wait for the Greeks to come. Grapes cost from 20-30 dinars in Bitola. (There are 60 dinars to the euro). All farm produce is sold at similar prices. The bazaar is near the center of town, where the streets are choked with vehicles bearing Greek number plates. The polluted Dragor River that divides Bitola into two empties its waste into the Axios River that flows into Greece. Some claim that farmers in FYROM are still using DDT but no trace of the banned pesticide has been found in Greek waters. But it would be no surprise. On the 20-kilometer drive from the border are tobacco farms still planted with the old and now non-commercial Latakia variety that has a strong, oriental aroma, quite different to the Virginia blend we are familiar with. The same applies to their corn crops, introduced by the Ottomans and which, as historian Mark Mazower says, were the main reason for the demographic explosion in the hilly Balkan hinterland (and therefore the relative autonomy they enjoyed). Less than 5 kilometers from Bitola, at ancient Heracleia, Atava Christovska guides us around the ancient ruins and points to a statue of Nemesis. «Her head is in the museum,» she said and talked about the town’s Roman and Byzantine history. In the shabby museum, pride of place is held by a yellowed engraving of Goce Delcev and a map of «Aegean Macedonia.» The museum clerk tells us it had been left there by mistake. After all, the archaeological site’s greatest moneymaker this summer was a performance of «Antigone» by the State Theater of Northern Greece. A kilometer further on in the village of Kravari, there are Greek signs indicating a hairdresser and a dentist. Vassilis Arabatzis said a dentist back home in Kastoria quoted him 3,000 euros for dental work he needed. In Bitola, the quote was 800 euros. The talk of the town recently was the purchase by a Greek from Karditsa of a beautiful two-story neoclassical house for 550,000 euros. And this in a town where houses are sold for no more than 700 euros per square meters. The two main banks in Bitola are Alpha Bank and Stopanska Banka, bought by the National Bank of Greece. At the end of the long pedestrian area that passes through the center of town from west to east are two Veropoulos supermarkets, the only major supermarkets in Bitola. Last year alone, 12 Greek textile factories opened on the outskirts of the town, drawn by the average wage of 120 euros a month, in a country with an official unemployment rate of 38 percent, although there is a strong black market economy. In the past decade, about 1 billion euros has been invested in FYROM by Greece. Banks, petroleum and mobile telephony are in Greek hands. Greece, sometimes alternating with Germany, is the top investor in the country. The traffic goes both ways. The Halkidiki peninsula saw a massive influx of tourists from FYROM this summer. Thessaloniki’s private colleges have over 400 students from north of the border, 18 percent of the total and by far the largest group of foreign students. These privileged youth rarely return home. After unemployment, emigration is FYROM’s greatest problem, particularly since Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union. More than 15,000 young people from FYROM were granted Bulgarian passports this year and last. According to Iakovos Michailidis, who teaches at the University of Macedonia, Bulgaria recognizes the state of FYROM but not as a separate ethnic entity (they consider the people there to be Bulgarians). This leads to hilarious situations such as occurred during a recent visit to Sofia by the FYROM education minister. His aides demanded an interpreter, who found himself in the ridiculous position of simply repeating phrases. Bitola’s casino is also Greek-owned, but unfortunately so is the local prostitution racket. Low wages and mounting needs have led many married women, as well as students, to work as part-time sex workers. The 30-euro fee is a huge sum for them, but very little for the elderly Greeks who every Thursday take a seat in one of the cafes along the central pedestrian precinct. Why Thursday? No one could tell us, perhaps because of the shows put on that day in the casino, perhaps not. Bilingual refugees Right opposite the pedestrian zone is a street where the «Eigitski» live, the bilinguals who found themselves in a permanent refugee state. Leonidas Elkas knows the story well. «My father was born in Aghios Panteleimonas, near Chrysopigi. I was born in Tashkent and then found myself here. To think that my uncle owns a plot of land in Athens, in Galatsi,» he told us. When the young journalist Leon Trotsky was in the Balkans in 1912, he described «Anatolian women, beasts of burden, their dirty breasts handing out of their blouses… behind them came farmers, their faces blackened by the dirt and the sun, wrinkled, bow-legged, bowed by the burden the land places on them…» That image of «Balkanism,» according to Professor Maria Todorova, akin to «Orientalism,» is perhaps the greatest problem today, since the name Balkans «is nothing more than a synonym for the East, and therefore far away from Europe.» The games played by history are difficult for Westerners to understand, although something is changing, even within FYROM’s all-powerful History Institute. Iakovos Michailidis kindly gave Kathimerini an article by Todor Cepreganov, director of FYROM’s National History Institute, and associate Liljana Panovska. The article is to be published in a volume titled «The Greek Civil War: An Overview – Political, Ideological, Historical Repercussions» to be published at the end of 2007 by Ellinika Grammata. In the article, Cepreganov observes that Yugoslavian historical texts for many years during the civil war made no mention of important aspects of it. «We should note that Belgrade exercised enormous control over Slav-Macedonian history texts and the press in the years after the Second World War, with regard to what should be written about the Greek Civil War. Yugoslavia’s role in supporting the Democratic Army was concealed, mainly regarding the recruitment of Slav Macedonians and Greek refugees who were living in Yugoslavia in special camps where they were trained in guerrilla warfare and received ideological grounding in the idea of a unified Macedonia. In that context we must emphasize that in Slav-Macedonian historical texts, the creation of the Slav-Macedonian organization NOF (National Liberation Front) was not referred to until the end of the last century… Also, there was complete silence over the role played by Josip Broz Tito…» When night falls in Bitola, the «kaval,» something like a bagpipe, is played and takes stock of the day’s events, including what the Greeks have left behind them. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that countries that had McDonald’s fast-food outlets never went to war with each other. Bitola already has a Goody’s.