Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 13
3 April 2000

...let's fly let's fly away
...let's fly let's fly away
[Photo by FreeFoto.com]
S O U T H E A S T E R N    E U R O P E
A Macedonian Soap Opera

Goran Janev

In the middle of the decennial turmoil in Southeastern Europe (a politically-correct substitute for the loaded stereotype "the Balkans"), the Republic of Macedonia still struggles to secure its position on the world's political map. This is quite surprising in our modern, democratic world, but an analysis of the obstacles Macedonia faces may help us to understand why this is the case.

Indeed, in this struggle for recognition Macedonia faces a number of enemies and these are to be found among the neighbouring countries, at home, and among the misinformed and disoriented - yet influential and, sadly, all-important international players. For five decades, under the federal shield of the socialist Yugoslavia, Macedonia was, in a strange way, sheltered from both external and internal challenges.

However, in spite of these obstacles, Macedonian citizens and their elected politicians must assume full responsibility for the state of their country. What follows is an article crippled by the constraints of space and by the banality of arguing over such a large topic. Nevertheless, I write in the belief that sometimes we need to take a breath and see the pictures in a freeze-frame in order to make sense of the very dynamic editing of Macedonia: At the heart of the bloody Balkan mountains one of the longest-lasting soaps in the history of home entertainment.

Though, lately, Macedonia's ratings have been endangered by rival shows Bosnia and Kosovo. (There are some producers interested in connecting the Kosovo show with Macedonia, but these are just unofficial rumours emanating from the big studios.)

Friendly environment

Let us go back to the early 1990s, when this soap enjoyed its largest ratings share. Macedonia's full exposure to world politics less than a decade ago immediately raised concerns among its neighbours for reasons deeply rooted in history and related local myths. All the principal features, both symbolic and pragmatic, which categorize a territory as a state were seriously challenged from the very beginning.

What remained of Yugoslavia on the north of Macedonia stubbornly resists the demarcation of an international border between the two countries. Today this boundary includes the border between Macedonia and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) territory, preventing the implementation of some key normalising measures, like establishing effective customs procedures and border controls.

To the east democratic Bulgaria cannot rid itself of the legacy of the previous Tsarist, Fascist, and the quasi-Communist regimes, nor can it accept the existence of the Macedonian nation or the fact that the Macedonian language is different from Bulgarian. The recent decision of the Bulgarian constitutional court to ban the political party organised by Macedonians only reaffirms this ancient tradition.

To the south, Greece was supposed to lead the region into Europe. Instead, it has made every possible effort to keep Macedonia out of Europe, thus harming Macedonia's political and economic prospects. Officially, the reason for this irrational and counter-productive Greek policy is the very name of the newly independent state. According to this interpretation, the naming of Macedonia amounts to an irredentist action in northern Greece. Actually, this could be best interpreted as the fear of failed aggressive, assimilative and nationalistic project in the northern part of the country, acquired after the Second Balkan War in 1913.

Finally, in the west, Albania still grapples with its own statehood, yet is powerful enough to influence the Macedonian situation. By sympathizing with the nationalistic demands of those Albanian politicians outside the boders of the state Albania has done little to contribute to stability in Macedonia. Whilst on balance, Macedonia's relations with its neighbours are improving, tensions persist, and the pace of change is far from satisfactory.

Western allies

Over the last couple of centuries Macedonia has maintained a very close and intense relationship with the Great Powers. It is enough to mention the outcome of the Balkan Wars, or the post-Great War period or the West's intervention immediately after the Second World War. Since Macedonians do have a long historical memory it is hardly surprising that the nickname for Europe in Macedonia is "the Whore." Partly to do with the way in which the West played a role in the establishment of Macedonia, as an theortically equal international player, partly because Macedonians have come to perceive Europe and the US as cunning and unjust in the last decade.

When Macedonia exited the Yugoslav federation, she took along a superiority complex with regard to other East European countries, Macedonia believed, that she would achieve a fast integration into Europe. Neither the complex nor the belief were entirely justified. Today Macedonia's disillusioned citizens must stand and watch as Bulgaria and Romania approach Europe faster. True, Macedonia's economy is on a downswing. Yet this situation owes much to the unpunished Greek embargo and uncompensated sanctions towards Yugoslavia, in addition to the recurring war in the former federation, where the markets for Macedonian goods were concentrated. And the international factor (EU and US) again enters the equation.

Macedonians see themselves as both innocent and unwilling participants and helpless observers in this bloody drama. They perceive themselves as both impartial with regard to the warring sides and cooperative with the international community. However, they are rewarded with false promises and empty words of gratitude - as witnessed during the special appearances of Mssrs Clinton and Blair in last year's episodes of our popular sitcom.

Bonus penis pax in domus

For a number of reasons, Macedonia is proud of its own treatment of minority groups. In addition to a constitution that affirms the rights of minorities, Macedonia has ratified international protective documents and boasts anti-discriminatory clauses in its domestic laws. Moreover, discrimination towards the Albanian and Roma minorities is decreasing and additional measures have been adopted to reduce it.

Five years ago, the then acting president, Kiro Gligorov, suggested a comparative study of the situation of minorities in all the Balkan countries to the UN and EU. To be sure, he was aware that Macedonia would fare particularly well in that survey that actually never happened. Clearly the situation of minorities in Macedonia is still far from ideal, but this is true of most countries in the world.

Anyway, all of this contributes insignificantly to the internal stability of the state. What really counts in evaluating the situation in Macedonia is the level of cooperation and overall interethnic relations, meaning, the feelings and attitudes of the strong Albanian ethnic group and its counterpart, the Macedonians. This being the most important factor of the state performance, we should pay particular attention to the main actors who lead and control these two ethnic groups and those are their political leaders.

Indeed, the importance of these leaders cannot be underestimated. It is bolstered by the fact that the Macedonian electorate shuts out political parties from the centre. The Macedonian voting body is further differentiated by group interests, rather than individualistic choices. Organized politically on ethnic bases, Macedonian citizens depend on the actions of its separate political elites, and as it is frequently the case in the Balkans, these elites need a popular front-man. The cult of leaders is something very common in the Balkans, and elsewhere, but is especially present in Macedonia.

What was happening in the last episodes of our soap and who were in the leading roles? Recent unrest in Kosovo and the danger of overspill of the conflict in the adjacent south Serbian regions and from there further south, just adds to the war paranoia amongst Macedonian citizens. The war psychosis has been present in Macedonia since the secession from Yugoslavia, when the Yugoslav People's Army began their arrogant and provoking retreat from the country, instilling anxiety in the local population.

It is not to be expected that, years of war atrocities, destruction and ferocious bloodshed in what was once the "fatherland" can pass unnoticed and will leave no mark on the people. Macedonian's fear increases whenever they hear warplanes and bombs flying over their heads and when the smell of gunpowder enters their nostrils. And when CNN reporters start booking up local hotel rooms.

Finally, on the latest performances of our kitchen TV heroes. Their strongest side is the brutal realism they achieved in their acting. It is almost vulgar how they play the part of serious politicians yet seek to leave a "boys next door" impression, this is why audiences take their lines seriously and trust them. I must say that I believe the Albanian leader in Macedonia Arben Xhaferi (Democratic Party of Albanians, government coalition participant) when he promises stability, as I believed him when he threatened to break up Macedonia in order to achieve his goal - to establish Albanians as a constitutive nation of the Republic of Macedonia.

And I hope his mind will not change again soon. Like in any soap opera, the Macedonian one has no leading role and there are other equally important actors. The cast also includes Prime Minister Ljubčo Georgievski (VMRO-DPMNE, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, only empty rhetoric in their name, like in any other name of any party in Macedonia), ex- and potentially future prime minister Branko Crvenkovski (Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia) and Imer Imeri (Party for Democratic Prosperity), the newly elected leader of the ex- coalition participant, now in opposition.

Left without an alternative, I unreservedly believe that they will succeed in making the following episodes unbearably boring, bringing down the ratings and taking Macedonia off the air. Hopefully, pace, Dynasty and Aaron Spelling will not be necessary, when, aping that show's finale, they are kidnapped in their helicopters and killed by unknown terrorists in black outfits somewhere in the Balkan mountains in order to stop the show from running.

Goran Janev , 24 March 2000



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