The unanswered question

The New Macedonian Question - Plundered Loyalties
March 3, 2000

Of all the many prophecies spawned by the wars of the Yugoslav succession, none has been so tenacious as the prediction of civil war in, and international crisis over, Macedonia. In a House of Commons debate on the Balkans in March 1992, the late Julian Amery declaimed: "We should always bear in mind the words of St Paul, who once said in one of his epistles: 'Come over into Macedonia and help us; for the brethren are sore oppressed.' They are still oppressed." More recent historical resonances underlay Misha Glenny's portentous comments of August 1992 in The New Statesman : "For the sad Macedonians, once again attempting the Sisyphean task of asserting their independence against the wishes of two powerful neighbours, the bell now seems to toll. Those who wish to anticipate the next stage of the current Balkan crisis would be well advised to mug up on the 36 years of history in south-eastern Europe that followed the Berlin conference of 1878. History is about to repeat itself."

Before the first world war, "Macedonia" was part of the rump Ottoman Empire in Europe. At that time, none of the many peoples who inhabited the region - Muslims, Greek and Slav Orthodox Christians, Vlachs, Jews, Albanians and others - made up a majority of the population. From about the 1870s onwards the Christians were in more or less constant insurgency against the Ottoman occupiers. This peaked spectacularly in the failed Ilinden uprising of 1903, fomented by the subversive Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (Imro). The resulting atrocities and international outcry led to the imposition of reforms under the supervision of the great powers. At the same time, Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian bands waged an even more virulent battle for the allegiance of the population. But these national identifications, be they based on language or religion, were fluid and often imposed rather than spontaneous. The solution that emerged from the upheavals of 1913-23 left Athens in control of Aegean Macedonia, Serb-dominated Yugoslavia in control of the north, which it rechristened "South Serbia", and Bulgaria confined to eastern (Pirin) Macedonia.

After the first world war, the Macedonian question slipped somewhat from international view, but remained no less contentious. The Slav population in Yugoslav Macedonia bitterly resented the tutelage of Belgrade and gave continued support to the terrorist organisation Imro, which soon split into an autonomist and pro-Bulgarian faction. Slavs in Greek Macedonia, on the other hand, underwent the process of assimilation, repression and emigration so eloquently described by Anastasia Karakasidou in her Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood (1997). During the second world war, the region became the focus of a many-sided contest between the German, Italian and Bulgarian occupiers, and diverse collaborationist and resistance formations. Into this maelstrom, the Yugoslav communist leader, Marshal Tito, injected another wild card in 1944: the creation of the "Macedonian People's Republic", with its capital in Skopje. This was intended to keep the Slav Macedonians in Yugoslavia, the Bulgarians out, and the Serbs in their place.

But it was also a device to promote the communist infiltration of Greece, or at least of Greek Macedonia. This complex and still emotive subject is tackled by John Koliopoulos in Plundered Loyalties . The author is a professor at the University of Thessaloniki, traditionally a bastion of Greek nationalist historiography on Macedonia. His standpoint is reflected in the occasional sally against Slav interpretations, and is reinforced by C. M. Woodhouse's charmingly intemperate preface, which refers to Tito's progeny as "this upstart mini-Macedonia". But overall the book makes a real effort at objectivity and should become a classic text.

Koliopoulos shows how the choice between collaboration and resistance in Greek Macedonia - as indeed elsewhere in the Balkans - was determined by local, geographic and contingent factors as much as by ideological preference. In 1944-45, the communist resistance in Macedonia, as elsewhere, became a mechanism, a "pool of Siloam", in which former collaborators cleansed themselves of past sins. At the same time, Slav Macedonian communists tried - with the tacit agreement but much to the displeasure of ethnically Greek communists - to use the civil war against the nationalist royalist government as a cover under which to break away from Athens. Some appear to have aimed for the autonomous Macedonia demanded by Moscow in the 1930s, others for union with Tito's Macedonian People's Republic. The plan fell foul not only of US President Truman's determination to "contain" communist infiltration, but also of the split between Tito and Stalin, which eased the political predicament of patriotic (non-Slav) Greek communists but wrecked any chance of a successful guerrilla campaign waged from sanctuaries in Yugoslavia. The communists were defeated, and tens of thousands of Slavs fled north across the border. Greek nationalism was thus a major beneficiary of the cold war. For the next 40 years, the Macedonian question became old hat and the staple of undergraduate essays, musty textbooks, academic controversy and recondite emigrant spats.

The international community, therefore, has been somewhat disconcerted to see the issue re-emerge over the past decade. For, as James Pettifer's extremely useful edited collection The New Macedonian Question shows, any time the Macedonian question seemed to have been answered, the Macedonians changed the question. Underlying the new struggle for supremacy was the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the impact of demographic change. The newly independent state of Macedonia found itself saddled not only with hostile neighbours on every side, but also with a rapidly growing Albanian minority that makes up at least a quarter of the population. As Pettifer's own lucid contribution shows, the Albanians of Macedonia still maintain a highly ambiguous stance towards the Slav majority, which in turn suspects the Albanians, in some cases not entirely without reason, of harbouring designs for a Greater Albania. Even more worrying, Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of the rump Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, pointedly kept his options open by refusing at first to recognise the new state and thus fuelled speculation that he had designs on an area that radical nationalists in Belgrade still refer to as "South Serbia".

But the most spectacular showdown was with Greece. Here, as Evangelos Kofos shows in his trenchant and nuanced contribution, public opinion and nationalist politicians on the left and right feared the revival of the cold-war "threat from the north" and even the creation of an "Islamic arch" stretching from Turkey via Albania to Bosnia. It was not until the autumn of 1995 that relations improved and the damaging economic embargo on Macedonia was lifted.

Historians make bad prophets. Nevertheless, the reader of The New Macedonian Question might be emboldened to predict that there will be no war in Macedonia. First of all, unlike the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia, the Macedonian Albanians have stopped short of outright secession. Second, again unlike their brethren elsewhere, the Serbs of Macedonia are a tiny minority and were never systematically manipulated into rebellion by Belgrade. Third, neighbouring governments have drawn back from confrontation: Athens has made its peace with Skopje, Bulgaria was the first to recognise the new state, though not its nationality, and Albania is too weak and too much under American influence to be a danger. Above all, Serbia-Yugoslavia has been comprehensively defeated; there is no serious challenge to Pax Americana in the Balkans, which is clearer about the maintenance of an independent Macedonia than about anything else.

But perhaps most importantly, the Macedonian government has never surrendered to the blandishments of Slav supremacists: it has made strenuous efforts to integrate the Albanians into the new state. As the outgoing President Kiro Gligorov observes in The New Macedonian Question:

"I think that every Macedonian cabinet should include representatives of the majority Albanian party. Even if a party were able to rule Macedonia by itself after winning a majority of votes at elections, which I think is virtually impossible, it should never dare to do that without a coalition." Moreover, the dominant strain in Slav Macedonian thinking now seems to be the inclusive, Bosnian-style identity, originally pioneered by the founders of Imro in 1896; their original regulations had welcomed all Macedonians "regardless of sex, nationality, or personal beliefs". Macedonian statehood and identity is thus no less legitimate than that of Austria, Belgium or even Switzerland. It may be bad history, but it is good politics.

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations, University of Cambridge.

The New Macedonian Question

Editor - James Pettifer
ISBN - 0 333 67356 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £47.50
Pages - 311

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