Sunday, February 1, 2009

Macedonia's history wars

As Macedonia is moving towards the March 22 presidential and local elections under the spectre of ethnic violence and amid uncertainty over the country's integration in the Euro-atlantic institutional structures, the VMRO-DPMNE and the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) coalition government resorted to the past for inspiration in finding ways to compensate for a rapidly disintegrating social contract and worsening interethnic relations.

Within a few months of Nikola Gruevski's government renewing its mandate and increasing its share of the popular vote, Macedonians have been witnessing a rapid transformation of the country's public spaces as billboards featuring Alexander the Great addressing bypassers with the message 'you are Macedonia' have been erected in Skopje and other major cities and a host of streets, squares and buildings have been included in an extensive programme of renaming. Skopje's erstwhile Petrovec international airport now features in its arrivals hall a massive sculpture of Alexander's head and is, rather predictably, now known as Aleksandar Makedonski (Alexander of Macedon) International Airport. As if that was not grandiose enough, the country’s main highway running from Serbia to the north, to the Greek border to the south as part of the pan-European Corridor 10 has recently also been renamed Aleksandar Makedonski highway while Skopje City Stadium (known as Gradski Stadion Skopje) will now be called Arena Filip Vtori (Philip II arena), after Alexander’s father.

Alexander is also featured in a television advertisement encouraging his Macedonian soldiers to face bravely the challenges of the battle they are to fight. His address - in colloquial Macedonian - attempts to seamlessly and unproblematically integrate the contested historical figure into contemporary Macedonian reality.

Government spokesman and DUI official Shefik Duraku, commenting on the potentially provocative nature of this novel trend in view of the 17-year dispute between Macedonia and Greece over Macedonia’s name (and history I might add) has tried to casualize it: 'We see this [process of renaming] as an expression of our identity, a kind of nation-building exercise, and a confirmation of our statehood ... It is not our intention to be provocative'.

The fact is that it is difficult to believe that such initiatives have been launched and implemented without evaluating the impact that they would have on Greek public opinion and foreign policy. The VMRO-DPMNE-led government saw its share of the popular vote increase considerably in last June's election, largely as a result of the climate of adversity and antagonism with Greece that the impasse on the settlement of the country's name and its non-admission to NATO caused. Tension with Greece seems to be a considerable political resource for the Gruevski government and a means of compensating for the collapse of the social contract that would guarantee stability and further institutional development and consolidation. As the economy has been failing and Macedonia's bid to integrate to international and european organizaions has been halted, albeit temporarily, and as the country's two major ethnic communities are as far apart as ever, themes and discourses that had traditionally been confined to
extremist nationalist circles have been making inroads to mainstream public and, as these developments indicate, official discourse in a drive to ensure legitimation.

The quest for legitimation though, cannot in itself account for the newly acquired appetite within certain quarters of the current government for crude yet dramatic interventions to rewrite the country's past. The most blatant attempt to do so in encapsulated in a nine minute clip which appeared early this month on MTB (Makedonska Radio Televizija) - Macedonia’s national television entitled Makedonska molitva (Macedonian prayer). In the video clip a narrator recites a prayer to god against a background of liturgical music and psalms. Interestingly, the prayer asks god in the name of all Macedonians to help them reveal
the truth about their own oppressed and disputed country.

Our neighbours spead thousands of books throughout the world,
containing false history and misrepresenting Macedonia ... Only you know our pain, our suffering. Only you know who we are, what we are and why we are Macedonians.
At the end of the prayer, in a televisual apocalyptic moment amidst lightnings and thunder, god himself addresses the Macedonians 'reminding' them they are the oldest (select) nation and those who spread the seed of the white 'macedonoid' race throughout the vast expanses of Eurasia.

This is an example of chauvinism at its best. It is this repressed racism that has found a window of opportunity as
VMRO-DPMNE has gained confidence and near political dominance to attempt to find its way in public discourse in the Republic of Macedonia.

If it was not for god's intervention such a narrative would be reminiscent of the now discredited Turkish History thesis which identified the Turkish nation as the progenitor of all major civilizations. Itself the product of nation building desire, a yearning for positioning modern Turkey within the European family of 'civilized' nations, it served in mobilizing the first republican generation around the authoritartian, largely secular, modernization project led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk before it faded away. God's involvement in the relaying of the Macedonian ultranationalist narrative reminds us of similar fusions of religion and nationalism in the early years of Croatian independence when the Roman-Catholic commitment to protecting the unborn foetus for exclusively moral reasons was articulated in Croatian nationalist discourse under the notorious slogan 'the foetus is a Croat'! But the bottom line is that the racial/racist arguments advanced in this discourse are deeply disturbing. As Sinisa-Jakov Marusic points out in his BalkanInsight blog
there must be a big red line drawn separating a good Christian who loves his
country and someone who is poisoning people with Nazi ideology.
The emerging strain of nationalist discourse in contemporary Macedonia combines a mixture of glorification of the Macedonian nation and its past and a reproduction of the enduring Serbian nationalist leitmotif of the victim nation: Macedonians have been robbed of a glorious past, not only that of their putative ancestors Philip II and Alexander the Great, but also one lost in the mists of myth. They, and the truth they carry have been systematically persecuted and supressed but with God's help they will be restored in their rightful place ...

The subtle but active Bulgarian irredentism and the overt Greek intransigence over the right of the Macedonians to call their state as they please have certainly contributed to the climate that returned a strong VMRO-DPMNE after the June elections and encouraged the initiators of these experiments with the irrational to make forays into the arena of public discourse. Indeed, as the Macedonian issue has become a pet subject for some politicians and clergy in Greece, it seems that the VMRO-DPMNE has realized the symbiotic relationship that exists between itself and its like-minded Greek interlocutors who have been cultivating and benefiting from a moral panic over the appropriation of the 'heritage' of Alexander and of ancient Macedonia: intransigence across the border feeds more intransigence on the other side and sets in motion a vicious circle that benefits nationalists on both sides.

Despite its preoccupation with the past contemporary Macedonian nationalism (just as it Greek counterpart) is incapable of relating to it, of comprehending and doing justice to the complex histories of peoples and careers of names, languages and cultures. At the end of the day, 'ownership' of the past is a formidable weapon of choice in a battle over the present. And in this context the historical reformism cultivated by some in the Republic of Macedonia and the historical conservatism with which Greek nationalists arm themselves are equally problematic as they are both tools in the quest for hegemony in the two countries.

Let's hope that, from the murky waters of this insanity, sober and forward looking voices will emerge and prevail.

Македонска Молитва - MACEDONIAN PRAYER

1 comment:

  1. Part of the problem of (some) Greek leftists is much like FYROM nationalists they see Greeks as an invention of Philhellenes (thus like lefifts Nikos Dimoou and Panayotes Dimitras you don't see yourself as a "real" Greek) Unfortunately the egotism of some lefitsts (ironically like some of the far right) doesn't leave them room to realize that people define their identity in different ways (why the former Bulgarians of FYROM can now relate to ancient Macedonians)

    Israeli historian Sholomo Sands wrote the "Invention of the Jewish People". It is one of the few books writen by Jews that openly acknolwedges Jews people have at best a token biological connection to ancient Jews (likely far less so than Greeks). However, even he supports a Jewish identity. (unlike you)

    Although you do not see yourself as one, leftist extremists like you helped create this situation Mr. Sofos. Rightwing nationalist extremism like Golden Dawn make some leftists think extreme anti-nationalisn is a morally and intellectually safe position. Extreme nationalism can lead to lead to the evils of external conflicts. Lessor known is extreme anti-nationalists (typically leftists) that encourage conditions for civil wars.

    So aside from undermining the identity of Greeks from within by participating in that bizarre telling of history 1821 (while many well accredited 3rd party historians SUPPORT Greece in the name dispute - see Stephen Millers group)... you got your wish and the world now calls FYROM "Macedonia".

    The results hasn't been less nationalism as leftists like you claimed for years... but the rise of ultranationalism (in both FYROM and Greece) and rising divisions in Greece. Greeks like you claimed for years its "just" a name carry at least some of the moral responsibility for the rising tensions. (and rampant irredentism in FYROM)

    In short, much like the Greek-civil war lefiist extremists have once again betrayed their country (which isn't that surmising as some leftists will say just about anything to non-Greeks to fit in and show how we are all "comrades")