Ghosts of the Past Endanger Macedonia’s Future

Boris Georgievski Skopje, Tetovo, Thessaloniki and Sofia

The drive to forge a new identity, as heir to the world of Classical Antiquity, creates identity crisis at home and worsens tensions with neighbours.

In the peak-time slot every Saturday evening on TV in Skopje, Atanas Pcelarski explains the meaning of words from the world of Classical Antiquity in modern Macedonian. “Macedonia is the source of the world. Languages, themes about God, religion, the legal system, they all stem from Macedonia,” he declares. The Macedonia of Classical Antiquity and the modern republic are one and the same.

Pcelarski is one of many who insist on a direct link between the world of Alexander the Great and the Macedonia of today. A growing obsession with the warrior is only part of a controversial debate about modern Macedonia’s ancient roots – and contemporary identity.

Since the nationalist VMRO-DMPNE party won the 2006 elections, Alexander’s name and image have become more visible. What began with the rebranding of the country’s main airport, has snowballed into a wider phenomenon.

The renaming of the airport as “Skopje Alexander the Great Airport” infuriated Greece, which insists that Alexander was a Hellene, and that both Macedonia’s name and the region’s Classical history are the exclusive cultural property of Greece.

The two neighbours have been locked in a dispute over Macedonia’s name ever since the former Yugoslav republic declared independence in 1991.

Although Macedonia rebuffed diplomatic suggestions to reverse the renaming of the airport, it refrained from further provocations until last year.

But since Greece blocked the issuing of an invitation for Macedonia to join NATO in Bucharest in April 2008, the VMRO-DPMNE-led government of Nikola Gruevski has launched a series of projects celebrating Alexander and other Classical heroes.

This process is not without critics in Macedonia. They say the attempt to construct a new identity for Macedonia on the basis of a presumed link to the world of Antiquity, known locally as ‘Antikvizacija’ (Antiquisation), is having devastating consequences.

One complaint is that the campaign is placing new strains on a fragile multi-ethnic society in which the dissatisfaction of the large ethnic Albanian minority is already growing.

Another fear is that the emphasis on Classical Antiquity is dividing ethnic Macedonians into two groups, separating those who back ‘Antiquisation’ from others who think of themselves as Slavs.

Divided Territory

For five centuries, Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire. After 1913, the territory was divided between three Balkan countries. Greece received around 34,200 km2 (around 52 per cent of the territory). Serbia obtained today’s Republic of Macedonia, comprising 25,333 km2. Bulgaria received the smallest portion, 6,449 km2.

 For generations, especially while Macedonia was part of Yugoslavia, Macedonians held onto a Slavic identity that was separate, but related to that of the Slavs of neighbouring Serbia and Bulgaria.

A final concern is that the populist campaign is alienating key foreign allies as well as Macedonia’s neighbours. Experts note that both Bulgaria and Greece could exercise their power as EU members to delay or veto Macedonia’s accession to the Union.  

Changing face of the public space

When Anastas Vangeli returned to Macedonia in mid-2009 after spending a year in Budapest studying nationalism, he was astonished by the change in the atmosphere.

“Society has turned in on itself,” he says. “It’s as if Macedonians are looking at the magic mirror in the children’s fable and asking: mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most Antique of us all?”

It is the not just the media that pushes the theme of Macedonia’s Classical identity. Monuments to Classical heroes are springing up in town after town.

The capital, Skopje, is to erect a 22-metre-tall monument to Alexander next year. His statue already crowns the centre of Prilep.

In a few months time, a statue of Alexander’s father, Philip the Second, will dominate the main square in Bitola. The main highway to the Greek border has been renamed “Alexander of Macedon”, while the main sports stadium in Skopje has been renamed after Philip.

Official data show the authorities are paying thousands of people to work on archaeological projects. The director of the Bureau for Protection of Cultural Heritage, archaeologist Pasko Kuzman, says their work will prove that today’s Macedonians descend from the Macedonians of Classical Antiquity – not from the Slavs who migrated into the Balkans from the 5th-century onwards.

“Macedonia can only defend its name, if it proves that the Macedonian nation has Classical Antique and not Slavic roots,” Kuzman said on a local TV show in June.

Along with the erection of monuments and the renaming of public spaces, the government has funded a new edition of the History of the Macedonian People.

For the first time in its 65-year history, this semi-official tome asserts that Macedonians do not descend from Slavs, as official histories previously suggested, but from the Macedonians of the era of Antiquity.

Officials defend the new interpretation of the past. “We need a version of history to equip Macedonians for the  21st century,” Ivica Bocevski, the deputy prime minister in charge of European Integration, said in June – days before he resigned.

Macedonian leaders praise the campaign as a boost to national morale. President Gjorgje Ivanov has said the Classical drive has its roots in “the frustration and depression felt after the NATO Summit in Bucharest,” when Greece vetoed Macedonian accession.

However, former prime minister and former VMRO-DPMNE leader Ljubco Georgievski is scornful. The government is “surfing on a wave of populism,” he maintains.

“Those advocating the thesis of Classical Antiquity in Macedonia are aggressive and vulgar, and now we have a problem of people arguing over who is Antique and who is Slavic Macedonian,” he continues.

Foreign diplomats warn that the campaign is reducing international sympathy for Macedonia in its dispute with Greece. “At first we saw the process as a tactic in the dispute with Greece, but it’s becoming clear that ‘Antiquisation’ is being used to score political points at home,” one senior EU diplomat in Skopje confides.

Against ‘Antiquisation,’ but for Government

A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in June 2009, showed 59 per cent of Macedonians wanted Gruevski to focus on the economy, not Antiquity. But other polls show that Gruevski’s party, the VMRO-DPMNE, enjoys ratings three times higher than the main opposition Social Democrats.

 Who came first?

At home, the issue of who “first” settled the Balkans has worsened the divide between Macedonians and the ethnic-Albanian minority, which comprises about one-quarter of the population.

Sam Vaknin, a former advisor to Prime Minister Gruevski, has described “Antiquisation” as a nation-building project that was essentially anti-Albanian, rather than anti-Greek or anti-Bulgarian.

“Antiquisation has a double goal, which is to marginalise the Albanians and create an identity that will not allow Albanians to become Macedonians,” he said in an interview in June.

Abdurahman Aliti, leader of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, agrees that the campaign is directed against them. “Antiquisation sends a message to Albanians that they are newcomers in this country and have nothing to do here,” he says.

For their part, most Albanians insist they “came first”. They believe modern Albanians descend from the Illyrian tribes that Ancient Roman historians wrote about in their books. Some claim Alexander was of Illyrian origin.

Albanians were outraged when the Macedonian Academy of Science in September published an encyclopaedia that referred to Albanians as “settlers” and “shiptari” – a term Albanians view as offensive. Albanians in both Macedonia and Kosovo staged protests against what they considered as slurs.

In Albania, the historian and politician Sabri Godo said that the encyclopaedia aimed “to destroy peaceful coexistence between Albanians and Macedonians.”

Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, echoed the complaint. The facts presented in the encyclopaedia were typical of a growing tendency in Macedonia to aggravate ethnic tensions, he asserted. Diplomats from EU countries and the US, voiced concerns that the book’s publication threatened ethnic harmony in Macedonia.

As a result, the book was withdrawn. But diplomats remain concerned for the future of the Ohrid Accord, the internationally-brokered deal that ended an armed conflict between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas in 2001, by giving the Albanian community greater rights.

Since then, the prospect of NATO and EU membership for Macedonia has helped to keep a fragile peace between the communities. But the ‘name’ dispute with Greece has since slowed progress towards EU and NATO membership.

Since 2006, the VMRO-DPMNE has been in coalition either with ethnic Albanian partners from the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, or from the rival Democratic Union for Integration, DUI.

But both parties complain of being used as a cover for the nationalist policies of VMRO-DPMNE and have said the ‘name’ issue with Greece must be resolved soon.

“Unless the dispute is resolved, and Macedonia enters NATO by the end of the year, Albanians should re-examine their options,” Teuta Arifi, vice-president of the ruling DUI, said in June.

Sefer Tahiri, a local analyst, says the Albanian parties might demand a federal reorganisation of the state, or even threaten to secede, if they feel the VMRO-DPMNE’s obsessions are wrecking Macedonia’s chances of joining the EU.

“This government wants to return the country…to a mono-ethnic state consisting of Macedonians only,” Tahiri says. “Unless the name issue is resolved and the country becomes a member of NATO, ethnic tensions will escalate.”

Tensions have already escalated. In August, a group of Macedonian hooligans attacked an ethnic Albanian settlement in Skopje, injuring at least 10 people. The Albanian nationalist ‘Self-Determination’ movement in Kosovo then inflamed matters, urging ethnic Albanians in Macedonia to secede and join a united Albania.

Analyst Zarko Trajanovski says that ‘Antiquisation’ has become a double-edged sword. It is “building a new nation while destroying the [existing] state,” he says.

“If this policy of division goes on, in ten years time, two completely different and mutually intolerant Macedonian ethnicities could be created,” he adds. “It could start a civil war.”

Identity as defence mechanism

Many experts argue that a sense of being under siege from neighbours, has laid the ground for the rise of ‘Antiquisation,’ as a kind of defence mechanism.

Apart from internal tensions with ethnic Albanians and Greece’s objection to the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, Bulgaria also assails Macedonia’s identity by insisting that Macedonians are ethnic Bulgarians.

Greece’s objections, however, are the loudest. The roof of the Greek border crossing at Medzitljija/Niki, near Bitola, is decorated with the same ‘antique’ shield that can be seen on the square in Bitola.

The shield portrays the ‘Sun of Vergina,’ a symbol both Greeks and Macedonians cherish. But this one has an inscription written in English and Greek, reading: “Macedonia is born Greek,” meaning that Greece gave birth to Macedonia.

The inscription is a reminder of the Greeks’ determination to claim the culture of Classical Antiquity – and the word ‘Macedonia’ – as their own. In a national survey held in Greece last year, Greeks claimed Alexander as their greatest national hero.

Vassilios Gunaris, a history professor at the Aristotle University in Thessalonika, says politicians on both sides of the border are manipulating history. “All countries flirt with history and myths, but in the Balkans this is not a flirtation but a serious relationship,” he says.

“For us Greeks, to be a Greek or a Macedonian is the same thing,” a Greek diplomat said in confidence. “It is part of our tradition, culture and way of life, while you [Macedonia] are a new nation in the Balkans… You must build a new identity because you are stealing our Macedonian identity.”

Across another international border, Macedonians are also accused of stealing another people’s history – this time by Bulgaria. “None of the historical figures or reformers you [Macedonians] celebrate, was Macedonian, but Bulgarian,” the leader of the VMRO party in Bulgaria, Krassimir Karakacanov, says.

He insists that an artificial Macedonian identity was imposed on ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonia after 1944, when Tito’s partisan army drove the Bulgarian army from Macedonia and re-attached the territory to Yugoslavia, which was newly reconstituted as a federation.

“An artificial identity was invented in Macedonia. There is no Macedonian language – it’s just a dialect of Bulgarian with a few different words,” Karakacanov adds.

Such views are commonplace in the country. “The general position in Bulgaria is that Macedonians are Bulgarians with a changed consciousness,” Jonko Grozev, a Bulgarian human rights activist, explains.

A seemingly trivial row further strained relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria in August 2009. Since Bulgaria joined the EU, more than 50,000 Macedonians have obtained Bulgarian passports to travel to other EU member states – taking advantage of Sofia’s offers to grant passports to anyone of ‘Bulgarian origin’.

But after the Macedonian authorities sentenced Spaska Mitrova, a Macedonian citizen, who also held a Bulgarian passport, to three months imprisonment in August because she would not allow her husband to visit their child, Sofia put pressure on Skopje to release ‘their’ citizen. Again, threats to block Macedonia’s EU accession were heard. In October, Mitrova was released.

Who is destabilising whom?

Although many security experts believe the EU and US will not allow tensions in the region to topple over into violence, the situation is deteriorating. Angry about the encyclopaedia, football fans in Kosovo burned the Macedonian flag on September 27 at a match between two teams from Kosovo, Vlaznimi and Prishtina.

Albanian fury over the encyclopaedia, the long-running conflict with Greece and more recent rows with Bulgaria have left Macedonia with few friends and several angry neighbours.

The Macedonian and Greek governments blame each other for destabilising the region. “Gruevski is stirring up nationalism and intolerance towards neighbouring countries,” former Greek foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis said in February 2009.

Macedonian President Ivanov replied in kind. “Pressure from Greece destabilises the entire region,” he said.

Since the right-wing Greek government lost the September elections, an incoming left-wing government has pledged to be constructive regarding the ‘name’ dispute, although few expect Greece to fundamentally change its position.

Most agree that, if and when Macedonia joins the EU, much of the current tension will abate. The autumn of 2009 brought some good news in this respect.

On October 14, the European Commission recommended that Macedonia be allowed to start accession talks with Brussels. But it is up to the EU Council in December to make the final decision and set a date for talks - and Greece may block the move unless Macedonia shows political will to resolve the name issue in the meantime. Macedonia’s problems are far from over.

Long Lost Relatives

In July 2008, Prince Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Princess Rani Atiqa of the Hunza people, from Pakistan’s Himalaya region, self-proclaimed descendants of Alexander the Great, visited Skopje and met top officials, including Prime Minister Gruevski and the Macedonian Orthodox Archbishop, who blessed them.

The Muslim Hunzas had not heard of Macedonia until 12 years ago, when a Macedonian linguistics professor claimed the Hunza and Indo-European languages shared a common grammar.

Athens also has close relations with Pakistan, this time with the Kalashi tribe, also from the Himalaya region.

Greek emigrants in the US have asked the US to give special protection to the ‘Hellenic descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great’ in the Himalayas.









This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, an initiative of the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Fellow Bio


Boris Georgievski

Boris Georgievski from Skopje, Macedonia, is a political journalist currently working for Deutsche Welle Radio


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