Letter from Skopje

Sometime after 9 p.m. on December 14, 2001, FYROM’s most authoritative journalists, some television news personalities, a few foreign diplomats, plus US passport-holder Edward Joseph, a debonair, eloquent, not-so-young man who represents the influential International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank in Skopje, some 65 persons all in all, gathered in the moderately luxurious Lyra restaurant in Skopje for a dinner offered by the Greek press attache, George Koutsoumis. A brief but intense snowstorm swept across Macedonia – geographically speaking, of course – some days before this press feast. Throughout the cities of Thessaloniki and Skopje, people in their winter coats and high boots walked carefully along the frozen sidewalks. Since the main road from Thessaloniki to Skopje at the time had been mostly clear and passable, with little snow remaining, we drove fast in Pandelis Savidis’s car and joined the symposium just before it started. There was hardly any delay at the border crossing in Evzoni-Gevgelija. Therefore the distance of 280 km was covered easily in slightly over two and a half hours. Four days before, the ICG, cryptic as usual, said in a report that threats to the peace plan posed by resentful nationalists in this Balkan region would no doubt diminish if major powers would recognize the country’s chosen name. Therefore while hors-d’oeuvres and rakija were served, we were in for hardball. The conversation could not be on anything else but the name issue. This is a country changing demographically and racially at an unprecedented speed, which is why the taking of accurate censuses will become increasingly crucial, both politically and socially, in the very near future. Thus unless we do something right now, the problem will be solved automatically when in, say, two decades the minorities will be reversed. The Slavs will be fewer than the Albanians, one of the local journalists said accusingly and in a pensive pose. He was a sad-faced young man. Let’s not mention names here. The miniature Balkan state, known to the United Nations – after Athens’s insistence – under the temporary name of FYROM, or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, is now under Western pressure to implement a peace plan ending a guerrilla war between Slavs and Albanians. In due course, the ethnic Albanians sustained the fight just for equal rights. Peace will remain shaky at best unless nationalists angry over rights given to ethnic Albanians are granted a longstanding demand, namely international recognition of the country’s name, the ICG think tank said a fortnight ago. According to its website www.crisisweb.org, the International Crisis Group is a private, multinational organization committed to strengthening the capacity of the international community to anticipate, understand and act to prevent and contain conflict. Teams of political analysts, based on the ground in countries at risk of conflict, gather information from a wide range of sources, assess local conditions and produce regular analytical reports containing practical recommendations targeted at key international decisionmakers. Edward Joseph is their man in Skopje. The Brussels-headquartered organization (with advocacy offices in Washington DC, New York and Paris), which raises funds from governments, charitable foundations, companies and individual donors, currently operates field projects in 19 crisis-affected countries and regions across four continents, among them Algeria, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Zimbabwe, just to name those in Africa. Regarding the somewhat confusing concept of the name issue, ICG recommended a three-step solution: A bilateral treaty allowing Greece to use its own name for the country, such as Upper Macedonia; NATO, the European Union and other states would exchange diplomatic notes acknowledging Macedonia’s own name and guaranteeing Greece counter-measures if Skopje violated terms of the treaty; and the UN and other intergovernmental organizations would adopt the country’s own name. Additionally: The member states of NATO, the European Union and others would formally welcome this bilateral treaty through exchange of diplomatic notes with the two parties, in which they would both acknowledge Republika Makedonija and promise Greece that they would consult with it concerning appropriate measures if the assurances contained in the treaty were violated. The United Nations and other intergovernmental organizations would adopt and use for all working intents and purposes the Macedonian-language name, Republika Makedonija. International recognition of the country by its own preferred name would supply the critical missing ingredient in the present situation; reassurance about Macedonian national identity, the report emphasizes. After centuries of common borders in the time of the Ottoman empire, in this our mountainous and common Balkan peninsula, it is often difficult to see who is who among peoples that are often interrelated and overlapping. During my many visits to our northern neighbors, I have often experienced conversations where claims of the same historical ancestors made things worse. For example: Tell me, was Goce Delchev a Bulgarian? Of course not; he was decidedly a Macedonian! A 19th-century hero of national awakening. Whatever. Let’s fast-rewind our time machine further back: What about Alexander’s father, Philip II? Well, I just read Demosthenes’ Third Philippic. Doesn’t he call him ‘a wretched Macedonian?’ See? Not to mention the First Book of Maccabees in the Old Testament. Read that too! And Alexander the Great, or ‘Macedon’ as you prefer to call him? Is he also ‘yours’? Sure! You ought to read Plutarch’s ‘Comparative Biographies’ to understand that this philhellene, ‘admirer of the Greeks,’ is ours! Still, the Slavs came many centuries later in this region, and you are of course Slavs, aren’t you? Who says so? According to Milan Gjurich’s ‘History of Hellenic Ethics,’ the ancient inhabitants in these parts were the Pelasgians, who were the first Macedonian tribe. Homer was a Pelasgian too. Therefore, why not us? Since all of this is plainly unknowable, all of it becomes untrue. No doubt, the use of history to show past control of a territory is a powerful weapon in the hands of nationalists. In this context, it is only understandable that people from the northern province of Greece, which is called Macedonia, are infuriated every time they come across this combination of national theft, historical insult and menacing irredentism. What if someone – it does not necessarily have to be the Macedonian-Slavs – at a given moment tries to take advantage of an unhealed nationalist wound?, I wanted to know. This is no idle supposition.You come exactly to my very thoughts: peace will remain shaky here unless Slav nationalists angry over rights given to ethnic Albanians are granted a longstanding demand; international recognition of the country’s name, answered a local journalist while dessert was served, bearing an either-this-or-that frown. He continued: You no doubt must have noticed how grudgingly our Parliament ratified reforms last month to devolve power to municipalities with ethnic Albanian majorities, to make Albanian an official language and – hear, hear – to give veto power to ethnic Albanians on bills affecting minorities. In actual fact, it will be difficult to negotiate on this ICG proposal, saying that recognizing the name would strengthen the hand of moderates… over ethnic extremists… and build a critical mass of support for the reform as more than a device to postpone the next war.

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