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Nationalism and Pluralism in the Heart of the Balkans: The Republic of Macedonia

Loring M.

Nationalism and Pluralism in the Heart of the Balkans: The Republic of. Macedonia

Unlike Slovenia, Croatia, and most tragically of all, Bosnia, the Republic of Macedonia (also known as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) emerged peacefully in 1991 from the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. It is now struggling to survive against very difficult odds as a sovereign, democratic, and pluralist state in the Balkans, an area in which nationalism, not pluralism, has long been the dominant political ideology.

The Republic of Macedonia is a small, landlocked country which faces serious problems both on the international and the domestic fronts. Many of its neighbors either oppose the international recognition of a Macedonian state or deny the existence of a Macedonian nation, and one quarter of Macedonia's citizens are members of a large and potentially destabilizing Albanian minority. To make matters worse, the economy of Macedonia, historically the poorest of the former Yugoslav Republics, has suffered enormously, both because of (1) the United Nations-sanctioned embargo on Serbia to the north (the embargo cut off major rail and highway links to Europe); and (2)the blockade imposed by Greece to the south (the Greek port of Thessaloniki plays a crucial part in Macedonia's foreign trade). The ensuing shortages, unemployment, and inflation have made an already hazardous transition to democratic political system and a market economy even more difficult.

Macedonia is poised at a crucial moment in its history. It has the potential, as did the former Yugoslavia, to create a pluralist, multiethnic society in which Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Roma (Gypsies), Serbs, and Vlachs can live together peacefully as citizens of a single state. Macedonia also, however, has the potential to distintegrate violently, as did the former Yugoslavia, into several different warring factions, each dominated by a nationalist ideology and committed to the creation of a homogeneous national society and culture through forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing.

From an anthropological perspective the theoretical issues raised by the study of multiethnic societies like Macedonia center on the nature of the relationships that link the state, the nation, and the individual. States are the legal entities which form the major political subdivisions of the world. As citizens, individuals acquire both rights and duties in these states. Individuals, however, are also members of nations, defined by Benedict Anderson as "imagined communities," that is, communities of people who are bound together by the belief that they share a common origin, culture, history, and homeland.

The borders of states and nations are rarely, if ever, identical. The nationalist dream of making them so by creating an ideal nation-state can lead to irredentist campaigns to expand a state so that it includes all members of a nation within it, or, alternatively, to eliminate the members of other nations who inhabit the state and who are thought to constitute a threat to its identity and security. In such cases conflicts frequently arise between people's obligations as citizens to the states in which they live, on the one hand, and their loyalties to the nations to which they belong, on the other.


It is not surprising that all these factors should contribute to the destabilization of the present political situation in Macedonia. The complexity of the religious, linguistic, and ethnic composition of the people of Macedonia is extraordinary even by Balkan standards, while the twentieth century history of the area has been marked by many bloody nationalist conflicts, from the Balkan standards, while the twentieth century history of the area has been marked by many bloody nationalist conflicts, from the Balkan standards, while the twentieth century history of the area has been marked by many bloody nationalist conflicts, from the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece fought for control of Macedonia, through World War II and the Greek Civil War in 1946-49, when both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria laid claim to portions of Greek Macedonia.

As soon as the Republic of Macedonia declared its independence on 8 September 1991, the Greek government began an intense campaign to prevent the Republic from gaining international recognition under the name Macedonia. GReeks argued that because the ancient Macedonians were Greeks, the name Macedonia "was, is, and always will be Greek." From a greek nationalist perspective recognition of the Republic of Macedonia would, therefore, constitute a "theft" or a "misappropriation" of Greek cultural heritage by a Slavic people.

In December 1991, at the insistence of Greece, the European Community (EC) stated that it would not recognize the Republic of Macedonia until it guaranteed that it had no territorial claims against any neighboring state and that it would not engage in hostile acts against any such state, including the use of a name which implied territorial claims. After the Macedonian government provided constitutional guarantees that it would respect the inviolability of all international borders and refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of other states, an EC Arbitration Commission found that Macedonia fulfilled all conditions for recognition. In addition, it specifically stated that the use of the name Macedonia did not imply territorial claims toward a neighboring state. In spite of this, however, again at the insistence of Greece, the EC refused to recognize the Republic of Macedonia.

During this period an incredible variety of alternative names were proposed for the Republic. Officially the Greek government refused to accept any name for the Republic that included the word Macedonia in any form whether "as a noun or as an adjectival modifier." Proposed solutions to the dilemma ranged from names like Dardania and Paeonia (used in antiquity to designate regions to the north of ancient Macedonia), to names like South Slavia, the Vardar Republic, and the Republic of Skopje, all of which were acceptable to Greece. Other compromise solutions, not acceptable to Greece, included Northern Macedonia, New Macedonia, and the Slavic Republic of Macedonia. All these solutions, however, were rejected by the Republic itself, which insisted that it would only accept recognition under its constitutional name: the Republic of Macedonia.

In a compromise worked out between Greece and Macedonia, the Republic was admitted to the United Nations in April 1993, under the temporary name the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The Republic was seated alphabetically in the General Assembly under the letter "T" and was not allowed to fly its flag (the sixteen-ray sun or star of Vergina) at UN headquarters because, according to Greece, this was an emblem of the ancient Macedonians (who were Greek) and is therefore a Greek national symbol.

Finally, in December 1993, just before Greece was to assume the rotating presidency of the EC, Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, and the Netherlands decided to recognize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and establish full diplomatic relations with it. When the United States and Australia recognized the Republic in February 1994, Greece responded by imposing an economic blockade against the Republic, a move that evoked widespread condemnation and prompted the other members of what was now the European Union (EU) to bring Greece before the European Court of Justice on charges of having violated EU trade rules.

One of the conditions Greece has set for lifting this blockade is that the Republic remove from its constitution article 49, which states that the Republic "cares for the status and the rights" of Macedonians living in neighboring countries and "assists them in their cultural development and promotes ties to them." Some Greek sources interpret this article as legitimating efforts to "liberate enslaved Macedonians" living in Greece. More generally Greece. More generally Greece objects to all references to a Macedonian minority in Greece because the Greek government denies the existence of any such minority whatsoever, in spite of conclusive evidence to the contrary presented by the United States State Department, Amnesty International, Helsinki Watch, and several anthropologists who have worked in the area.

Ironically the Greek constitution contains an article which directly parallels this article of the Macedonian constitution. Article 108 of the Greek constitution states that the Greek government "shall care for Greeks residing abroad and for the maintenance of their ties with the Mother Homeland." In addition, the Greek government actively supports the rights of the Greek minority in Albania, while reports in the Greek press have begun to appear claiming that there is a Greek minority in the Republic of Macedonia.


Unfortunately the domestic situation in the Republic of Macedonia is equally troubled by problems associated with the existence of national minorities. According to the 1991 census the population of the Republic, which stood at a little over two million, included 65% Macedonians (Orthodox Christians), 25% Albanians (Moslems), 4% Turks, 3% Roma, 2% Serbs, 2% Macedonian Moslems, and a small number of Vlachs. The Albanians, many of whom boycotted the 1991 census and therefore claim that they constitute significantly more than one quarter of the population of the Republic, are concentrated in the western part of the country near the Albanian border, while the Serbian minority is concentrated in the northeast, near the border with Serbia.

The Macedonian Constitution guarantees that "members of nationalities" have the right freely to express and develop their national identity and culture. It specifically guarantees them the right to found cultural associations and to obtain primary and secondary education in their own language. It is also establishes a Council for Interethnic Relations consisting of two members from each "nationality" to deal with issues concerning the rights of national minorities. In actual practice the Republic has managed to live up to these constitutional ideals and retain a great deal of the cultural pluralism that characterized life in the former Yugoslavia. Newspapers are published in Albanian and Turkish; the government broadcasts radio and television programs in Albanian, Turkish, Romany and Valch; and a "theater of a minorities in both the universities and the police force.

President Kiro Gligorov, a former communist and leader of the Social Democratic union of Macedonia, leads a multiethnic, coalition government whose 224 ministers include five Albanians and one Turk. In his desire to create what he has referred to as a "multicultural republic," Gligorov's major domestic challenge demands of two opposing political forces. On the one hand, he is confronted by the major opposition party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), an ultranationalist party whose irredentist platform calls for the creation of a "United Macedonia." On the other, he must satisfy the demands of the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), the larger of the two Albanian parties in the Republic, and an important member of President Gligorov's coalition government.

In the debates which took place when the Macedonian constitution was being drawn up, the precise nature of the relationship between the Macedonian state and its diverse citizenry was a major point of contention. Would the Republic of Macedonia be a national state, a state of the Macedonian nation? Would it be a civil state, a state of citizens? Or would some compromise solution be found? As articulated in the preamble of the 1991 constitution, the newly independent Republic of Macedonia was defined as "the national state of the Macedonian nation, in which fully equality as citizens and permanent coexistence with the Macedonian people is provided for Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, Romanies [Gypsies] and other nationalities, living the Republic of please either the leaders of VMRO-DPMNE (who had argued that the Republic and Macedonia should be defined as "the national state of the Macedonian people and all citizens living in it") or the leaders of the PDP (who argues that the Albanians should be referred as one of the two constitutive nations of the Macedonian state). Equally contentious was article 7 of the constitution, which specified that "the Macedonian language, written in the Cyrillic alphabet," was the official language of the Republic, but which also granted official status to the language and alphabet of a nationality in areas inhabited by a "significant number" of members of that nationality.

The Albanians in Macedonia have expressed dissatisfaction with their minority status in a variety of ways. They boycotted the 1991 referendum which established the Republic of Macedonia as a sovereign and independent state, and in January 1992, they held their own referendum, and voted overwhelmingly in a favor of "the political and territorial autonomy of Albanians in Macedonia" and the established of their own state, to be named the Republic of Illyria.

With regard to the issue of minority rights more generally, Albanians, like members of the other nationalities, comblocked its passage. Albanians also object to the citizenship law of the Republic, because it allows Macedonians (but not members of national minorities) living in other former Yugoslav republics to be automatically granted Macedonia citizenship. Serbs in Macedonia have similar complaints. They object to the fact that there are no programs in Serbian on state radio and television, and to the fact that clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church (which does not recognize the Macedonia Orthodox Church) have been prevented from holding services in Macedonia.

The conflict between pluraism and nationalism in Macedonia was highlighted recently in the difficult parliamentary negotiations lover the long-delayed census, which took place in the summer of 1994 under the supervision of the Council of Europe and with the financial support of the EU. Once again President Kiro Gligorov has had to contend with the demands of the Macedonian nationalists in VMRO-DPMNE, on the one hand, and the diametrically opposed demands of the Albanian nationslits of the PDP, on the other. In the end parliament passed legislation directing that some census forms would be printed only in Macedonian and others would be printed only in Macedonian and that others would be printed in Macedonian and the five languages of the national minorities (Albanian, Turkish, Romany, Serbo-Croation, and Vlach).

The leaders of VMRO-DPMNE, who had insisted that the census forms be printed only in Macedonian, announced plans to challenge the constitutionality of the new census law on the grounds that it was inconsistent with the designation of Macedonian as the official language of the Republic. The leaders of VMRO-DPMNE felt that this law as an attempt to introduce a policy of "multingualism" into the Republic, and was the first steep on a road toward federalization. This dispute over the first census to be carried out in the newly independent Republic of Macedonia confirms Benefit Anderson's observation that a census is a powerful tool which enables states to classify their citizens into national categories, and then express this classification quantitively, in order to determine the relative size and political strength of these national groups.


The government of the Republic of Macedonia is attempting to create pluralist society in which the rights of its diverse citizenry are protected according to internationally accepted standards. The success of this project is threatened, however, not only internationally by the nationalist policies of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. It is also threatened domestically by the nationalism of the Macedonian majority and the nationalism of the Albanian minority, as well. One of the fundamental ironies of movements devoted to the rights of national minorities like the Albanian minority in Macedonia is that, coexisting with an explicit commitment to pluralism and equal rights there often lies an implicit commitment to a diametrically opposed ideology: the nationalist ideology of the national minority itself. For national minorities, after all, are themselves potential nations. And the Republic of Macedonia may be a case where in order to save the state, it is necessary to sacrifice the nations - Macedonian and Albanian - that inhabit it.

In one of the more pessimistic moments a well-educated Macedonian woman who valued the cultural diversity of the former Yugoslavia, said that Macedonia had no future. She suggested that its new flag should bear the words of the sign that the stood at the head of the small street where she lived in Melbourne, Australia: NO THROUGH ROAD. Whether such pessimism is justified or not in unclear at the moment, but one thing is certain. The outcome of the struggle between pluralism, on one hand, and nationalism, whether Greek, Macedonian, or Albanian, on the other, will determine whether the Republic of Macedonia is able to realize the lost promise of the former multinational state of Yugoslavia, or whether it will disintegrate, again like the former Yugoslavia, in a whirpool of nationalist hatred and violence.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.