Adventures in the Unnamed Country

In this installment of the increasingly irregular summary of my now distant Balkan tour, we turn to the (Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia.  No article about Macedonia could be complete without addressing what Wikipedia, in its unbiased wisdom, calls the Macedonia Naming Dispute.

When Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991, Macedonia was the Republic Which Got Away.  Its separation from Belgrade was painless, and the Yugoslavs were glad to move their army out – they were going to need it in Croatia.  But almost immediately, a rather large problem arose: the Greeks, to the south, didn’t like the name of the new country because they already had a province by that name.  They hadn’t been terribly keen on Tito naming the republic Macedonia when it had been part of Yugoslavia, either, but at that point it wasn’t such an issue.  Now, however, the existence of an independent nation bordering Greek Macedonia and sharing its name suggested territorial aspirations.

In a way this goes back to the old question of national homelands – virtually every Balkan state has a ‘greater’ version of itself: there is a a Greater Serbia, a Greater Albania, a Greater Greece, a Greater Bulgaria, and all of these collide over historical Macedonia.  Most countries didn’t care – they had bigger things to worry about – but in Athens and Skopje, a largely impromptu show of crossness got out of hand and became one of the longest (and most futile) spats in diplomatic history.

The Macedonians, it has to be said, did not help matters; when they first became independent, their national flag featured Greek Macedonia’s emblem, the Vergina Sun, and was in fact identical to the unofficial flag of Greek Macedonia except for the colour of the background and slightly different dimensions.  This did nothing to calm Greek fears of irredentism from the North.

As the naming dispute blossomed, the new Macedonia was denied recognition by many important nations who assumed that a solution was around the corner.  The country even had to wait 19 months in order to be admitted to the UN because the Greeks refused to recognise it under its legal name.  Eventually, the UN-brokered talks came up with the now famous appellation the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), an initially temporary name which has been in use for so long that most people assume it is the country’s official name.  But even then, there were problems about where to seat the Macedonian representatives.  Greece opposed allowing them to sit at M or R, feeling this would defeat the purpose of the extended name; the Macedonians, however, wishing to escape their Yugoslav past, flatly refused to sit at either F or Y.  In the end, they sat at T, for “the”.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe government also changed the Macedonian flag (a bit), although the old one is clearly visible all over the country today – it even appears on manhole covers in Ohrid (left).  Interestingly, one particularly nationalist political party refused to acknowledge the change of flag for years.  This is the VMRO-DPMNE, and we’ll hear more of them soon.

Since 1995, the two governments have conducted an exceptionally protracted series of talks, mediated by the UN and the US.  The general format is that some diplomat presents a number of suggestions, then the authorities in Skopje and Athens try to outdo each other in creating outrage about their contents.  One particularly farcical moment came back in 2008, when the hapless US diplomat mediating the discussions proposed, among other names, “the Republic of North Macedonia”.  Not only did both sides reject it, characteristically, but the Bulgarians decided to wade into the situation, claiming that the name North Macedonia raised worrying irredentist questions about the (frankly minuscule) part of historic Macedonia which is in Bulgaria.  (Whether or not the Bulgarians believe that Macedonian Slavs are not Bulgarians is yet another problem.) One of the most bizarre suggestions, which may actually feature some way in the ultimate settlement in about 50 years’ time, was that Macedonia would continue to call itself Macedonia, but every other country in the world would use a different name (like North Macedonia or Constitutional Macedonia).

Although there have been fluctuations, relations between the Greek and Macedonian governments are as bitter as ever.  The Greeks still refer to the country as the Republic of Skopje, to its inhabitants as Skopjans, and have erected enormous posters on their side of the border on the road to Thessaloniki which read: “Welcome to the REAL Macedonia”. (The Macedonians have been up to rather more than that, but we’ll get on to that presently.)  The UN, the EU, and (most importantly) the Eurovision Song Contest still refer to the country as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).  To much of the world, ‘Macedonia’ simply doesn’t exist.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut it’s not just Macedonia which doesn’t exist: the capital, Skopje, isn’t really there either.  Upon the old Skopje – the city of Ottoman lanes, Communist tower blocks, and riverside parks which never properly recovered from the enormous earthquake which flattened it in 1963 – a new one is being constructed, and its shining nationalist buildings and overwealth of imposing statues break through the older layer all over the town, including the (new) bridge to the (new) Museum of Archaeology, which is entirely lined with statues of Macedonian independence figures.  Walking through Skopje is like crossing endlessly between two parallel universes.  This is the Skopje 2014 Project.

If this seems like a digression, it’s not.  The re-construction of Skopje is the brainchild of Macedonia’s ruling party, which claims inheritance from the VMRO (the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation), the original Macedonian independence movement from more than a century ago.  This party is the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, referred to by its Macedonian acronym, the VMRO-DPMNE.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEver since the Greeks orchestrated Macedonia’s non-invitation to a NATO summit in 2008, the Antiquisation policy has been kicked into high gear.  The key annoyances, as far as the Greeks are concerned, are all based in a tiny area of the centre: a large square next to the Vardar river was recently renamed Macedonia Square.  In it there now stands a gigantic statue called “man on horseback” who definitely, definitely isn’t Alexander the Great (left).  Across the bridge is the History Museum (still under construction) and another, slightly smaller statue, this time certainly not Philip of Macedon (below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the most profound transgression lies across the river: the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle (or to give it its full title, The National Institution of the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle for Statehood and Independence, the Museum of the VMRO and the Museum of the Victims of the Communist Regime).  This museum, one of the Party’s priorities and thus one of the first buildings to be completed when the Skopje 2014 project began, is an epic and thorough exploration of the last 200 years of Macedonian history as the government would prefer it to be remembered.  As the VMRO-DPMNE views itself as the successor to all of these independence movements, this is therefore also effectively the museum of the Party.  It is three storeys of wildly elaborate propaganda on a level I’ve not seen since I was in Syria.  What made it even more engaging was the fact that my total ignorance of Macedonian history meant I was unable to sift the truth from the tat until later.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are several components to the museum, and I’ll approach them in order.  The first thing you notice in the lobby is a number of floor-to-ceiling height paintings of various moments in Macedonian independence history – people being assassinated and murdered, people rousing peasants to fight, declarations of independence, meetings and gatherings of intellectuals, and that sort of thing.  There are maybe 5 in the foyer, more on the second and third floors, and some in the stairwell.  They are inescapable.  What’s even better is that the museum also contains the hall from which the VMRO-DPMNE gives its press conferences, and this room, predictably, is also decked out with paintings.  That the party should hold press conferences in a room decorated with pictures of its own glorious history is a particularly autocratic embellishment.

The only way to see the museum is through a guided tour, as the exhibits are organised chronologically and once you’ve gone in you can’t really go out again until the end.  In fact, it seems that much of the museum’s message is directed at foreigners, since most of the labelling is in English and there seems to be an English-speaking guide available more or less constantly (I turned up without prior notice and got my own personal tour within 10 minutes).

It’s difficult to convey how weird the museum feels.  Extravagant isn’t quite the word, but a great deal of thought has clearly gone into it.  The strategy seems to be to bombard visitors with so much detail and such fascinating exhibits that they let their guard down.  There are maybe 60 rooms, and each one contains: a few artifacts; explanatory signage, not that the guide will let you read it; at least four paintings; special background music (chanting, patriotic bands, the sounds of war); special floor covering (fake grass, brickwork, concrete, blood-stained dirt); and a waxwork or panorama of some event, ranging from meetings and conferences to hangings, battle scenes, kidnappings, and one particularly gruesome depiction of Macedonian independence activists being tortured during World War Two.

The place is a living encyclopaedia of a particular vision of Macedonian history. Even the most minor independence activists from back in the 1860s are not mere footnotes but are depicted in portraits, and William Gladstone’s isolated mention of the Macedonian people in a letter in 1897 is apparently enough to earn him a whole corner of a room, as well as his own waxwork.

The museum is deeply controversial, of course, and has been attacked from all sides.  It does provide a wildly selective view on the history of the country and region, including extensive documentation of the various territorial losses that Macedonia underwent (about the only thing in common between the national autobiographies of the various Balkan countries is that each one involves the country in question being betrayed and eviscerated by its neighbours).  The opposition parties say that the museum’s whole existence is unnecessary and exemplifies the faux-historicist theme-park kitsch which threatens to overwhelm Skopje under the VMRO’s guidance.  There certainly doesn’t seem to be any great enthusiasm for the place among the city’s inhabitants – I saw no-one else there except people attending a conference.  The country’s Albanian population, who have no great stake in the naming dispute and just wish everyone would get over it, is watching the transformation of their city with quiet apprehension.  The museum’s allegations that the Albanians stole part of their country back in the 1940s have not calmed the situation.  And the Greeks, of course, are furious.  In a way, they should be delighted about all this nationalist ferocity: for years, general diplomatic opinion was shifting towards the Macedonians, but since the VMRO started the Antiquisation drive, that trend has been profoundly reversed.

It is tempting to wonder how Macedonia might have turned out without the radicalising influence of the naming dispute: where its politics would have gone, how it would have defined itself if it had been allowed to when it first became independent.  I suspect that, shorn of the reputation and title of Former Yugoslav Republic, most people wouldn’t have a clue it existed.

All photographs property of Duncan Wane, copyright 2013.

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