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The new Macedonian question

Christopher Bennett reviews recent literature on the latest part of the former Yugoslavia to succumb to ethnic violence.

As the Yugoslav federation was breaking up in 1991, two of the country's republican leaders fought a rearguard action to keep it together — Alija Izetbegovic and Kiro Gligorov, presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia respectively. Both men feared that the consequences of Yugoslavia's disintegration would be greatest in their republics. On 3 June 1991, therefore, they presented the rest of the federation with their own compromise model for inter-republican relations. Sadly, nothing came of this bold, eleventh-hour initiative and in less than a month war broke out. Ten months later, Bosnia was engulfed by a conflict, which confirmed Izetbegovic's greatest fears. By contrast, despite countless predictions of doom, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, (1) managed to avoid similar bloodshed and violence for the best part of a decade.

That the new country should prove so durable surprised many analysts. At the time of Yugoslavia's disintegration, it was poor, ethnically divided, militarily weak, landlocked and surrounded by historically, aggressive neighbours. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Macedonian question had haunted Europe's Great Powers, whose diplomatic efforts failed to head off bloody conflict. In the course of the ensuing Balkan Wars, whose scale and savagery appalled contemporary observers, geographic Macedonia — an area bounded to the north by the Skopska Crna Gora and the Shar Planina mountains; to the east by the Rila and Rhodope mountains; to the south by the Aegean coast around Thessalonika, Mount Olympus and the Pindus mountains; and to the west by the lakes of Ohrid and Presp — was wrested from Ottoman rule and divided three ways, between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia. Moreover, in the inter-war period, Macedonian terrorists were active way beyond the Balkans. Indeed, even at the end of the 20th century, much about the new state, from its borders, to its language, history, flag and even its name, remained controversial. If ever a country was ripe for disintegration, surely this was it.

Timely publications

Perhaps it is inevitable that prophecies of doom have dominated and continue to dominate media analysis of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.(1) After all, predictions of a country's peaceful survival are hardly newsworthy. But for most of the 1990s, the new state defied the odds. It negotiated the peaceful departure of the Yugoslav People's Army from its territory. It survived a limited economic embargo, the fall-out of international sanctions against Montenegro and Serbia and the loss of its markets elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. And it joined a host of international organisations and programmes, including NATO's Partnership for Peace and Membership Action Plan, to maximise its security. As a result, unlike other parts of the former Yugoslavia, whose agony during the past decade has generated a massive literature, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (1) has largely escaped such scrutiny. Indeed, only three books have appeared on it in recent years in English.

The pick of the bunch is without doubt Who are the Macedonians? (Hurst & Co, 2000) by Hugh Poulton. This is a comprehensive yet concise history of Macedonia and its peoples in the broadest sense, which should be required reading for anyone interested in or attempting to resolve the current crisis in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.(1) Poulton is a prolific writer on Balkan and minority questions who has worked on these issues as a researcher for Amnesty International, Article 19 and the Minority Rights Group. Moreover, in addition to publishing several, original books in recent years, he has fronted a rock band called the Walking Wounded, many of whose songs have been inspired by the past decade of conflict in the Balkans.

Who are the Macedonians? traces the histories of the many peoples who inhabit or have inhabited geographic Macedonia from antiquity to the present. In the process, it analyses the formation of modern national identities and, in particular, the so-called millet system, the system by which Ottoman subjects were governed within their religious community, or millet. This is significant because it was the millet system that enabled the Ottoman lands to become so ethnically mixed and accounts for the link between religion and ethnicity today.

Poulton considers the competing territorial claims of the various peoples living in geographic Macedonia when it still formed part of the Ottoman Empire and the actions of each whenever they were in a position to make good those claims. In a short yet insightful analysis, he illustrates how the nation states that emerged from the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire were largely created by ethnic cleansing, persecution and repression. He also examines the notorious Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation or VMRO, whose terrorist activities in the inter-war period reflected national frustration at the absence of a Macedonian Slav national state and extended way beyond the Balkans. In later chapters, Poulton analyses the evolution of a Macedonian Slav national identity in Tito's Yugoslavia, the creation of an independent state in the wake of the break-up of Yugoslavia and relations between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians. He points out that, unlike Bosnia, there was minimal mixing between ethnic groups. Indeed, he cites an opinion poll from 1974, showing that 95 per cent of both Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian and 84 per cent of ethnic Turkish heads of households would not let their sons marry a girl of different nationality, while for daughters the percentages were even higher.

Mutual suspicion and animosity between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians pre-date the creation of an independent state. Indeed, Poulton describes "neo-Malthusian" measures taken in the 1980s aimed at restraining the ethnic Albanian birth rate. This included obliging families to pay for medical services for any children above the ideal number of two and the withdrawal of child allowance for additional children. In 1989, the constitution was amended in such a way that the republic was defined as a "nation-state of Macedonian people" instead of the previous formulation which defined it as "a state of the Macedonian people and the Albanian and Turkish minorities". This change reflected the growing unease of the Macedonian Slav authorities in the face of Albanian nationalism and the possible break-up of Yugoslavia. Inevitably, however, a more assertive Macedonian Slav nationalism generated in turn a similar ethnic Albanian response. Ethnic Albanians boycotted the republic's independence referendum in 1991 and held their own autonomy poll in 1992. Since then, issues of national symbols and minority rights have remained close to the surface of political life and came to the fore again in the wake of NATO's Kosovo campaign.

Poulton is also a contributor to The New MACEDONIAN QUESTION (Palgrave, 2001), a collection of essays edited by James Pettifer. His chapter, Non-Albanian Muslim Minorities in Macedonia, is as informative as his book and covers Muslim Slav Macedonians, variously referred to as Torbesi, Pomaks, Gorans and Poturs, Turks, Roma and, remarkably, "Egyptians", since many Roma have chosen to declare themselves as Egyptians in recent censuses, because of the perceived stigma attached to the name Roma.

The New MACEDONIAN QUESTION contains a huge breadth of contributions, including works by Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Macedonian Slav, Russian and Serbian authors as well as Western European analysts of the Balkans. This is both its strength and weakness, since, despite several excellent chapters, the book is extremely uneven. Moreover, a deliberate decision to allow each writer to use his or her own terminology and style leaves the reader confused. In addition to Poulton's chapter, Pettifers's two contributions — chapters entitled The new Macedonian Question and The Albanians in western Macedonia after FYROM — are certainly worth reading. So, too, is the first chapter by the late Elisabeth Barker and originally published in 1949, which, according to Pettifer "sets out the traditional pro-Greek view of the British Foreign Office". Otherwise, Evangelos Kofos' chapter, Greek policy considerations over FYROM independence and recognition, is particularly insightful. Overall, however, The New MACEDONIAN QUESTION is disappointing because it fails to live up to its title and dwells largely on what most people would consider to be an older Macedonian question.

By contrast, Alice Ackermann's Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia (Syracuse University Press, 2000) focuses on the very recent past. That said, an uncharitable reviewer could dismiss it. The second chapter on preventive diplomacy reads like a literature review prepared for a doctoral thesis. An analysis of the "successes" and "failures" of preventive diplomacy, which contrasts international responses to disputes between Hungary and Slovakia, and Estonia and Russia, with international responses to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda and the wars of Yugoslav dissolution, seems to be comparing apples and oranges. And the analysis of Yugoslavia's disintegration, which borrows excessively from the controversial writings of Susan Woodward and contains several (minor) factual errors, is weak. Despite this, anybody wishing to understand the current conflict should read this book.

The strength of Ackermann's well-intentioned book is the original research she carried out into international attempts to head off conflict. This includes analyses of the work of the Working Group on Ethnic and National Communities and Minorities of the International Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and its high commissioner on national minorities, the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force, and the activities of certain non-governmental organisations, including Search for Common Ground and the Ethnic Conflict Resolution Project. What becomes abundantly clear is that the painstaking and unsung work of several organisations and individuals, dealing with essentially identical issues to those which dominate today's agenda, did contribute to the young country's survival in the early years. Macedonians of all ethnic origins must be hoping that today's international mediators have as much patience, tact and success as their predecessors.

1. Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.

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