Saturday, October 31, 2009

Interview with Nova Makedonija (2)

Interview with Aleksandar Bozinovski, "Nova Makedonija; Appeared (in edited form) on 26 October 2009.

AB: Can you tell us something about yourself. From which part of Greece You origins are?
SS: My father’s family comes from Athens although my grandfather, who travelled throughout the then European part of the Ottoman Empire following his father who was a marble artisan, grew up in the old city of Saloniki (as he called it) before his family relocated to Athens. His wife’s family came from the town of Ayvalık in Asia Minor and found themselves refugees in Athens after the Greek defeat in 1922. My mother’s family comes from the Peloponnese, and her father fought in the Asia Minor campaign.
AB: Are you a historian?
SS: I have studied politics, international studies and sociology but a strong component of my work is historical. I had several excellent history teachers in my university years in Athens and they had always encouraged us to stop being introspective and to learn the languages of our neighbours in order to study history in a more holistic way.
AB: What motivates you to work in this field
SS: I came to Britain to study for a doctorate. My topic of specialization at the time was populism in Greece after the 1967 dictatorship. This, unavoidably, dealt with Greek history, Greek identity and the Greek civil war. I became very interested in how modern Greek identity was formulated as the Ottoman empire disintegrated and on how the peoples of Southeastern Europe started to forget they had been living next to each other for centuries before Balkan nationalisms emerged.
As state socialism collapsed and as Yugoslavia entered a process of disintegration and as postcommunist nationalisms became the dominant ideologies in the region, I found that we were in front of a long period of nationalist politics. I became interested in the politics of the then disintegrating Yugoslavia and started working in this area. The wars in Croatia and Bosnia were obviously the most horrific events of the time but the dispute over the independence and then the flag and the name of the Republic of Macedonia was one of the many noticeable developments.
At the time I decided to write a book on Balkan identities and although other work has taken priority, I am still hopeful I will complete it in the near future.
AB: Why do you work in GB, and not in Greece?
SS: My decision to work in Britain was affected by many factors: I found Britain a good place to do research. Its international connections, the international character of its universities, the good libraries, the cosmopolitan and multicultural atmosphere and the many good friends I had the pleasure and privilege to make here.
AB: The new Macedonian encyclopedia came under home and international public fire because, among other things, claimed that Albanians in Macedonia are newcomers from the 16th century onwards. A new Albanian encyclopedia now claims that Macedonians in Albania are newcomers in that land. There are many more examples. All Balkan nations are tormented by history. There is a cure for that, are we condemned to suffer from this forever?
SS: I also remember these notorious DNA studies that were used by Macedonian nationalists in order to prove that Macedonians are more indigenous than the modern Greeks in the Balkans, Croatian ‘histories’ which try to make Croats more ancient than Serbs, and of course the favourite Greek argument that modern Greeks have been there before everybody else altogether, to mention but a few. What can one say? I think that the argument of who is more ancient, who came first is pointless and reaches the boundaries of childishness.
The fact is that what makes Greeks, Albanians, Serbs or Macedonians who they are is not a long forgotten ancestor but the fact that they have developed similar ways of life, shared aspirations as well as fears … And still, not all Macedonians, not all Albanians are the same. Other factors may make ethnic boundaries irrelevant: education, work, income, where one lives …
There is not one easy recipe to help us overcome this heavy load that history (and by this I mean nationalist histories) has placed on our societies and ways of thinking.
I think that meeting, getting to know the ‘other’ goes a long way to help. It does not provide a cure, it does not do magic but it takes the veil of mystery and mistrust away. To bring you a funny but also sad example, my colleague Umut Özkırımlı and I met back in the late 1990s for the first time in London. We were supposed to meet at a London train station and we did not know each other. We went with our stereotypes of how each one of us was supposed to look like and the result? It took us over half an hour to convince ourselves that the person we were looking for might look like us. Only then we approached each other to ask if he/I were who we were. The burden of history often makes us not see our commonalities, not remember our common pasts. Instead, where nationalists see pure nations with neat, clean national pasts, we should also see the friendships and solidarities across ethnic boundaries that people forge, the traditions of coexistence and, even the countless small acts of defiance of the nationalist logics. This is our real history that far precedes the national histories we are being sold by some elites in Macedonia and Greece.
AB: The subject of your book with professor Özkırımlı is very hot. In many Balkan countries as you now, often politics decides the content of history, what is nationalism and what is not. There is one situation when Greek historian Spiridon Sfetas promoted his book about Bulgarian document regarding Macedonia. On the promotion, minister Dora Bakojanis showed without invitation, to point that Sfetas’s book is excellent and represents the Greek position on the Macedonian question. You told me already about the excellent reception of your book in Greece. How did you prepare for this challenge - writing this kind of book, and what were your expectations from politicians.
SS: I think that the book of Professor Sfetas is a very good book in terms of its research and as such it should be praised. What I am not happy about is the way that politicians attempt to appropriate people’s work but this is a risk we always take – to be frank, I feel I am taking a risk when I talk to Nova Makedonija about such a sensitive issue in the context of such a volatile situation, but nevertheless, a risk worth taking..
Anyway, to comment on the book I co authored with Prof Özkırımlı (which I am most qualified to discuss), I should say that I always expected some controversy. I knew that the book would appeal to a progressive readership and that happened. I had expected more opposition and criticism from nationalist circles. There, I was pleasantly surprised as only one negative review appeared in the prominent Athens newspaper TO BHMA (TO VIMA). Subsequent reviews in other big newspapers even condemned the nationalist critique that appeared in TO VIMA. The book has been described as a ‘gem’, an important contribution. People email us regularly to congratulate us and two television channels (one state owned and one private) have used it as part of the central narrative of two historical documentaries currently in production. In our book launch in Athens eminent academics attended and the book was presented by Professors Anna Frangoudaki, Thaleia Dragonas (who was then also a state MP for PASOK) and Paschalis Kitromilides. The book was also featured in the personal website of George Papandreou although, to be honest, I do not know if he has read it. But most importantly, I found heartening the fact that simple people without state honours and offices have received the book. What this tells me is that the time that the politics dominated by a vociferous nationalist minority is probably at an end. This does not mean that all problems will be resolved overnight but that the power of the nationalist forces is now challenged.
AB: It looks like that in the past month something changed regarding the name dispute. The new Greek government gives positive signals and foreign representatives are assured that a solution is nearby. Last year Theodore Pangalos, who now is again minister in this government with Georgos Papandreou, stated that the name dispute is a "conflict between two right wing options" (meaning that the Macedonian and Greek governments are in the right of the political spectrum). Is he right? What do you think?
SS: I agree that it is the nationalists that created hysteria over Macedonia and that the political change bodes well. But there are left wing forces in Greece that are nationalist and fiercely so. PASOK has expelled Stelios Papathemelis who claimed to be a socialist but would outbid the extreme right in his nationalism. The Communist Party (KKE) sometimes sounds worryingly identical to the extreme right party LAOS. I think that the recently elected government is best placed to take important positive initiatives but I do not underestimate the obstacles it has to face. Internally, it will be criticized by most of the opposition and it also has to fight a war of perceptions: the issue of the name of the Republic of Macedonia has been entrenched in Greek politics and it will be hard to present any goodwill gesture as a genuine attempt to restore good neighbour relations and not as a sell out. And then it is the factor of Macedonian politics. Think of this: twenty years ago a Macedonian government would have found it very difficult, probably insane, to use Alexander the Great as a state symbol, to rename roads, airports and stadiums after the Macedonian dynasty but today it does that with relative ease. Or have on Macedonian TV a clip like Македонска Молиtва? We are clearly in a period when extreme nationalist circles dominate the politics of the Republic of Macedonia and feel extremely confident in their attempts to nationalize everyday life. It is fair to say that the best allies in such situations are the nationalists on both sides of the border who use their counterparts as examples of the threat posed to their own nation.
AB: What do you think about the phenomenon in Macedonia today, when people - historians, archaeologists – attempt to recover more and more evidence about the ancient Macedonian influence in modern Macedonian society (at least they say they uncover evidence)? There is a real war on the Internet between Macedonian and Greek bloggers about this. Why in Greece there is such a dramatic reaction on things that should normally be only academic subjects?
SS: We are talking here about the politicization – nationalization I would say – of history on both sides of the border. As we make clear in our book, modern Greece is built upon the idea that it constitutes the heir of classical and Hellenistic Greece. For Greeks who have for generations been convinced that ancient Macedonia was an integral part of the ancient Greek world, the attempt to claim this past by contemporary Macedonian scientists appears and is felt to be suspect and ingenuine. Macedonians on the other hand perceive the Greek attempt to stop them calling themselves as they have been doing for the best part of a century as an irrational and frustrating act. Both ways of experiencing the contradictory claims are easy prey to nationalist entrepreneurs on both sides of the border who thrive on controversy, misunderstanding and insecurity. It is not surprising to see the current Macedonian government encouraging and orchestrating the antiquisation of contemporary Macedonian society at the time when ordinary citizens feel frustrated and rejected by a shortsighted Greek policy that blocs their integration into the European architecture. I have to say that all attempts to link today’s societies to societies that existed over two thousand years ago unproblematically by Greeks and Macedonians alike are arbitrary and unscientific. And this obsession with the past is suspect of inability or unwillingness to solve the problems of today, to deliver just and equitable societies. Successive Greek and the last two Macedonian governments are responsible for their lack of vision and for micropolitical, short term calculations and the citizens of both countries should have no doubt about this.
AB: Do you personally as a Greek see an any kind of threat to Greece from the Republic of Macedonia?
SS: One can never say yes or no without qualifying their answer. Let me put it this way: A Republic of Macedonia whose population is not allowed to name themselves the way they want to, that is kept away from the process of European integration and economic development can be a threat for Greek security. A Republic of Macedonia that feels secure and prosperous, supported by its bigger Southern neighbour, that is part of the same European political process would be a much better neighbour to have. I am hopeful that as the previous PASOK government did in the case of Turkey when it supported its European candidacy, the new PASOK government will do in the case of Macedonia.
AB: Thank you very much for your answers.

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