Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pristina Postcard

On Tuesday 17 February 2009 the new Republic of Kosova celebrated its first birthday. The celebrations in the capital, Pristina, were relatively low key. Walking in Rruga Nënë Terezë or throughout the rest of the Qendra, or even in the other, less central districts of the city, one could not but notice the festive mood. A sea of Kosovar and Albanian flags, interspersed with a few American and British ones, hanging from street poles, or attached on car boots and shop fronts added lively colour to the otherwise grim town. Families strolling in the town’s boulevards, street vendors displaying and noisily promoting their wares around Rruga Ilir Konusheci and beyond recreated a pleasant Sunday, festive yet mundane feel. The busier Bill Clinton Boulevard was sometimes gridlocked as hooting cars with Kosovar flags excitedly moved up and down.

But, leaving these manifestations aside, the occasion was a low key affair. The Kosovo assembly met to commemorate and celebrate the declaration of independence and heard Prime Minister Hashim Thaci recount the achievements since independence: ‘The year we left behind was a year of achievement and of pride. It was a year of historic success for our country’.

For those visiting today’s Kosovo, the day to day reality would make it difficult to accept Thaci’s statement at face value: of the UN's 192 countries, only 54 have recognized the new republic. Five EU member states have yet to recognize it despite the fact that EULEX, an EU mission has undertaken to support Kosovo’s route to complete sovereignty and independence in addition to Serbia, Russia, China, India and Bosnia. On the very anniversary of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, angry voices from Serb enclaves north of the Ibar river and from Serbia were reminding that independence is still contested from within and without - MPs from the Serbian parliament in Belgrade expressed their solidarity towards Kosovo’s Serbian minority by visiting Zvecan and attending a session of the Kosovo Serbian assembly based there while the moderate Serbian President Boris Tadić repeated in no uncertain terms the official take that Serbia would never recognise the independence of its former province and would defend its ‘legitimate rights by legal and diplomatic means, not force’. Tense divisions and mutual suspicion remain in place not only in northern Kosovo, where local Serbs live cushioned from the reality of an independent Kosovo, but also in the dozens of enclaves and mixed areas in the South. Serbia’s policy of supporting the northern enclaves and providing services to the Serbs living in there as if nothing had changed in its former province directly challenges Kosovar sovereignty and makes an integration solution much more improbable.

And, although everyday life has considerably improved over the past few years, back in Pristina one needs to look no further than to the still faltering and rationed electricity provision to understand that normality is still a long way away. There is indeed, plenty of ground for pessimism and apprehension.

However, if one casts a closer look at the year that passed since independence, it is possible to find reasons for some guarded optimism. With the exception of a few dramatic gestures from the usual suspects of the Serbian Radical Party, the celebrations were not met with the outrage that the original declaration of independence back in 2008 had been received in Serbia and Serb regions within Kosovo itself. There was not a repeat of the chaos – largely orchestrated - that ensued the declaration of independence all over Serbia back in 2008 and, although negative, most official statements stressed that Serbia remains committed to pursuing its rights through all legal means at its disposal. This represents a sea change in Serbian politics, the culmination of incremental changes over many years. In the course of last year, Serbian voters opted for a more moderate politics as they shunned the Democratic party of Serbia and its leader Vojislav Koštunica. The Serbian Radical Party that enjoyed a marginal increase in its share of the vote and Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia-New Serbia (which were decimated in the polls) nationalist bloc fell short of the number of seats needed to form a government, while Tadić’s pro-EU Democratic Party almost doubled its share of the vote finding itself comfortably ahead of the erstwhile popular Radical Party (SRS). In September 2008, the SRS itself felt the strain of its anti-European, isolationist policies as its de facto leader Tomislav Nikolić and many of the party’s prominent cadres formed the Progressive Party after a disagreement with its leader Vojislav Šešelj, currently held in Hague, over the party’s European policies.

Serbia today remains adamant that Kosovo is an integral part of its territory but it slowly looks forward towards European integration. It seems to be slowly adjusting to the new reality as it has been restoring relations with the countries that recognize Kosovo, stopped encouraging mass action over the breakaway province and no longer refuses entry to holders of passports bearing Kosovo border stamps.

It seems that on both sides of the contested border moderate and forward looking forces are working painstakingly dealing with the many challenges they are facing with pragmatism and perseverance. In Kosovo, the jubilation and euphoria prevalent on the anniversary of the declaration of independence did not degenerate in chauvinistic violence, while Serbia shows signs of coming to terms with the new realities in the Southern Balkans as it looks forward towards European membership. One thing is certain; much more effort will be required on both sides to overcome mutual suspicion and decades of antagonism. Serbian voters will need time to overcome Serbian nationalism’s martyr syndrome that has been inculcated to generation after generation for the past several decades and Kosovo Albanians will too need time to overcome the bitter memories of a repressed and marginalized generation. But the first steps have already been made and need to be recognized and supported … .

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