Progressive Politics Research and Commentary by Janette Rainwater

MACEDONIA or What I Did on My Summer Vacation, 1999

by Janette Rainwater

August 1999

After the conference of the International Society for Political Psychology--- fascinating as always---, I left Amsterdam on Macedonian Airlines (MAT) for Macedonia where I led workshops in Skopje and Bitola— training for psychologists and psychiatrists in psychotherapy— and did some promotion for an old book that has just been published in Macedonian.

This was my first time in Macedonia. It being the only one of the six republics of the former Yugoslavia that I had not visited---- I had previously led workshops in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia and visited Mostar, Sarajevo and the Montenegrin coast as a tourist----, I had some notion of what Macedonia might be like. I was not prepared for how much I would like and applaud the country.

First of all, the people. I loved them! A far more warm-hearted, tolerant, generous, peaceful group of people than one would expect to find in the Balkans— so touted by our media as a region of seething ethnic animosities. I stayed with families in Skopje and Ohrid and can testify to their great hospitality to strangers.

There is also a streak of passivity in Macedonians which I don’t like as much, and I suppose it comes from the many centuries that they were under the control of some other country. One personal example: Macedonian Airlines failed to bring my suitcase from Amsterdam for seven days. What to me was an outrage was met with statements from Macedonians such as, “It happens all the time” and “It also happened to our president”. This attitude is dramatized by what I came to call the Macedonian Shrug— a lifting of the shoulders, a tilt of the head and a fluttering of hands. Very eloquent. However, it is not a hopeless/helpless gesture, but more an expression of philosophical resignation. It seems to mean: “I’ve thought this over and there’s nothing I can do about it right now” or “The question you ask is a very difficult one and I don’t want to give a misleading answer.”

Right now there is a collective sigh of relief that the Kosovo War did not spread to Macedonia. It looked dicey for awhile. In the days after the bombing started, as many as 5000 members of the Serb minority attacked the American, British and German embassies. There were riots downtown for several days; about 60 rioters were arrested.

People feared some sort of retaliation from Milosevic for the stationing of NATO troops in Macedonia; there were persistent rumors that Arkan’s Tigers were on their way. An even greater fear was that the larger Albanian minority might stage counter-demonstrations and the resulting chaos would be more than the small police and military forces could contain. Fortunately, none of this happened, although some KLA caches were discovered in different parts of the country.

What did Macedonians think about the NATO War? Virtually all the people I spoke to condemned the NATO bombing as something both unnecessary and inhumane. At the same time they found the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo equally guilty of offenses in the years before the war.

They are struggling to maintain a peaceful, multi-ethnic society— Macedonians (two-thirds), Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Turks and Vlachs. The significant minority, of course, is the Albanian one— which comprises approximately 23% of the total population and lives mostly in the western and southern parts of the country. (Some figures I copied off a poster in the National Television studio indicate this growth in percentage of Albanians in the population: 1800, 2%; 1840, 6%;1900, 10%; 1953, 19%; 1961, 18%; 1971, 24%.) One city, Tetovo, is now almost totally Albanian.

In the first years after independence (in 1991), there was a big push from the Albanians for more rights (education, language, employment, their own university, etc.) to which the the ruling party, the Social-Democratic Alliance (SDSM), responded with some halfway measures. This increasingly rightist party, like the ex-communist ruling parties in Serbia and Russia, profited from the enforced privatization at the expense of the people. Their corruption was exposed and the party was voted out of office last year. (Washington, of course, turned a blind eye to the party’s corruption, human rights abuses, and lack of democracy and continued to support them.)

The new coalition government of VMRO-DPMNE (a Macedonian nationalist group) and the Democratic Alliance had enough members to govern; yet they invited a major Albanian nationalist party to join them. This strikes me as a most creative act and can possibly help the Albanians to get their needs met within the Macedonian state rather than setting up a parallel economy as happened in Kosovo under Rugova or, even worse, joining the KLA with demands for a Greater Albania that would include a sizeable chunk of Macedonia.

It seems to me that it is in the best interest of the Macedonian Albanians not to force any division of Macedonia. Their standard of living has always been several times higher than that of the Albanians living in Kosovo even in the best of the pre-war years. And Kosovo’s standard of living was a vast improvement over that of Albania.

The war definitely impacted Macedonia. Unemployment, which was 25% the first of the year, has skyrocketed to 40% with the disruption to commerce with their #1 trading partner, Serbia. The capital, Skopje, is only ten miles from the border with Kosovo. The war was seen and heard there and throughout western Macedonia, and Ohrid (on the border with Albania). When I was there, seven weeks after war’s end, there was constant helicopter and plane traffic from the Skopje airport to Kosovo, and KFOR and NATO jeeps and vehicles were everywhere.

Then there was the financial and material impact of the several hundred thousand refugees whose plight CNN amply documented for us. Macedonia has not been adequately reimbursed for this. When I visited the office for social services for the refugees, I learned a few things CNN had not told us. First of all, it was not just Albanians who were concerned about the refugees. All the people I spoke to were Macedonian, and they had developed a program of social and psychological services that was most impressive. Secondly, I was told that a significant number of refugees had fled the KLA, not the bombs and not the Serb police.

The country is poor. It’s not the primitive poverty of the jungle village in Nicaragua where I lived with Witness for Peace. It’s a genteel poverty where well-educated people budget carefully, people have home gardens, and the housewives spend a portion of the summer pickling tomatoes and cucumbers and making apricot and peach preserves for the winter months. (The kinds of things our grandparents and great-grandparents used to do as a matter of course.)

The average wage is 300 DM a month— that’s about $150, folks. One advantage is that prices are low. Thanks to Macedonian Airlines, I went shopping at the Macedonian equivalent of Wal-Mart where I got a pair of slacks, a shirt, two pairs of socks, and two pairs of underwear for around $15. And I might add that they withstood admirably the many washings they were forced to endure. Another day I bought several kilos of grapes and peaches for the denar equivalent of a dollar.

The infrastructure is reminiscent of other Eastern European countries in transition— no better and no worse. The roads are good, the one bus I rode was clean and uncrowded. The airport badly needs upgrading, also its parking lot. The sidewalks in downtown Skopje are buckling and the neighborhood dumpsters are not emptied of garbage frequently enough. There is graffiti throughout Skopje— most frequently “UCK” (Albanian for “KLA”) and BMPO (Cyrillic letters for VMRO, the old Macedonian revolutionary group from early in the century). The saddest part for me was the large number of homeless and hungry cats and dogs.

There are rich people in Macedonia. I never heard how they became rich nor visited their residential area in western Skopje. But I did hear of an interesting habit. It seems that it is quite chic for these families to pay $3000-$5000 to send a son or daughter to the US for the final year of high school, courtesy of agencies such as American Field Service. The young person then has the prestige of two high school diplomas. The irony for me is that the level of education is much higher in the Macedonian high schools where the kids take 18 subjects a year, learning in depth about areas that most American schools ignore. It strikes me that the money would be better spent sending the kids to college in the US; from what I could gather, their universities are definitely not up to ours.

Something I found quite shocking was the number of highly talented psychologists who are without work and have been unemployed for a long time. Yet the psychology department in Skopje is graduating increasingly large numbers of people every year to join the ranks of the unemployed. Several people that I met are trying for visas abroad— US, Australia, etc.---not because they wish to leave Macedonia— they definitely don’t— but they need to find work.

I was back in Skopje for August 2nd, the national holiday that celebrates the ten days of independence from the Turks enjoyed by the people of Krushevo in 1903. Most of Skopje piled into cars, taxis and buses to go Matka, a national park outside the city where there was a dam, good fishing, mountain trails, restaurants, and the enticing aroma of barbecuing meat. The rest of Skopje, I understand, went to Krushevo for more official Fourth of July type festivities.

Macedonia is a country of so many possibilities. First of all, tourism. They have been blessed with non-stop gorgeous scenery— towering mountains, sheer rock cliffs, and a series of deep lakes caused by tectonic shifts. (Ohrid is the largest and most famous). There is skiing in the winter; hiking and swimming in the summer. Multiple monasteries to visit. And outside of Bitola (the second largest city) there is Heraclea, the partially-excavated Roman city from the second century BCE with a Byzantine overlay from the 4th to 6th centuries CE. With some grant money from a western archeological institute, Heraclea could give Ephesus some stiff competition for the tourist dollar or euro.

Heraclea was an important city because of its position on the Via Egnatia, the main route between the Adriatic and Aegean coasts. Macedonia as a whole has continued to be a strategic area; the main trading routes in the southern Balkans pass through it. A major pipeline carrying oil from the Caspian Sea is slated to go through the Skopje area to the Albanian port of Durres. This geopolitical position accounts for the historical— and continuing— scramble by other countries to control it.

Macedonia is a small country— only two million people— surrounded by countries that are not too pleased to acknowledge its existence. Macedonians refer to them as the “four wolves” waiting to dismember and devour their country. So now a little history.

Bulgaria owned all of Macedonia for a few months in 1878. Russia, after its victory over the Turks, had forged a huge vassal state of Bulgaria from territory of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. The British and the Austro-Hungarians didn’t fancy such a strong new state that might threaten their interests in the Middle East and the Balkans, so Bismarck forced a revision of the Treaty of San Stefano. In his Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria was considerably shrunk in size and most of Macedonia was returned to the Turks. This was the beginning of the Bulgarian presumption that Macedonians were really Bulgarians and that there was no such thing as a separate Macedonian language. When Bulgaria recognized Macedonia in 1991, it used a “two country- one nation” formulation.

In the First Balkan War of 1912 the three Orthodox Christian nations of Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece joined forces to rescue their fellow Orthodox Macedonians from the Turks. The next year Bulgaria made a pre-emptive strike against Serbia to “re-take” Macedonia— big mistake: Greece joined Serbia to make mincemeat of the Bulgarian army and carve up Macedonia. In the settlement following this Second Balkan War Serbia got the largest part— Vardar Macedonia (basically present-day Macedonia). The Greeks took Aegean Macedonia including the vital port of Thessaloniki. Bulgaria had to be content with the much smaller portion of Pirin Macedonia.

During these two wars there was major devastation of the territory of Macedonia and “ethnic cleansing” carried out by Serbs, Albanians, Greeks , Turks and Bulgarians that was more gruesome and more extensive than the crimes committed in Bosnia and Kosovo in the current decade.

Serbia attempted to absorb Macedonia, calling it “South Serbia” and ignored any ethnic or linguistic differences. The Versailles Treaty confirmed their possession of Vardar Macedonia. It was only Tito who was willing to acknowledge a separate identity for Macedonians. His recognition of Macedonia as one of the six republics of the new federation of Yugoslavia and the detachment of its territory from Serbia were part of Tito’s plan to curb the power of Serbia within the new postwar state. Certain revanchist elements within Serbia have remained unhappy about the “loss” of Macedonia. New Serbian maps show the Prohor Pcinski monastery as lying within Serbia. Yet in the former Yugoslavia the monastery was definitely within Macedonia. It was also the site at which the future Macedonian republic was declared in 1944. The Macedonian government has chosen not to make an issue of this usurpation of territory, not wishing to give Milosevic an excuse to “come to the rescue” of the minority Serb population of northern Macedonia.

Greece, also, has attempted to deny a separate identity to the Macedonians in its north, referring to them as “slavophone Greeks” and treating them as second-class citizens. In the Greek civil war that followed World War II, many Greek Macedonians were encouraged by Tito to support the insurgents. (Tito had visions of a larger Balkan federation that would include all the lost Macedonian territories including the prize port of Thessaloniki on the Aegean Sea.) The insurgents lost, and the victors persecuted the rebels. Many Greek Macedonians fled to Macedonia, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan.

When Macedonia declared its independence, Greece refused to recognize the new country, declaring that its name not only was the historical property of Greece (Philip of Macedon and all that) but also revealed Macedonia’s designs against Greek territory. Macedonia’s admission to the United Nations was delayed until 1993 due to this Greek hysteria and then only under the cumbersome name of “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM). In 1995 Greece and the FYROM signed a treaty of recognition which ended Greece’s two-year embargo and re-established trade routes (probably at the insistence of Northern Greek businesses who had been losing money). The symbol on the FYROM’s flag of the Vergina sun of Philip II which had offended Hellenic historic sensibilities was changed to a sun---in red and yellow--- that is reminiscent of the World War II Japanese flag. Holders of Macedonian passports, however, particularly those with a birthplace in northern Greece or Tashkent can still expect a lengthy wait at the border while nationals from Germany, USA, etc. pass through with no harassment. Some Macedonians are deemed to be “spies” and “terrorists” and refused admission to visit Greece.

The fourth wolf, Albania, was incorporated by Italy with Kosovo and parts of western Macedonia into “Greater Albania” for a brief period during World War II. That is recently enough that the prospect of another Greater Albania is very enticing, especially for the Albanians in the diaspora who have been tithing their 2% to the Homelands fund. The Albanian president, Rexhep Mejdani, declared on a recent state visit to Macedonia that Albania was “free of the myth of a greater Albania”; at the same time he said he foresaw the breakdown of traditional national borders as a result of the “Pact for Stability for South-Eastern Europe” and the emergence of two new states, Montenegro and Kosovo. (This second part caused considerable consternation among Macedonians.) The government also received the head of the KLA, Hashim Thaci, in the interest of maintaining an open dialogue with what could become their fifth wolf, Kosovo.

The problems for Macedonia seem to me to be these:

— how to get more capital investment so as to solve their unemployment problems, raise the standard of living, and improve the infrastructure without selling their soul to the US and other NATO countries

— how to satisfy the demands of the restive Albanian minority so that they will be contented citizens within Macedonia and yet retain the identity of a Macedonian state.

— how to create better communication between Macedonians and Albanians. For starters, how about mandatory instruction in Albanian for an hour a day for non-Albanian children, starting in the first grade? (And the reverse of Macedonian for Albanian children.) I met not one Macedonian who could speak Albanian.

The West could help by investing money, and by sending teams to teach and do reconciliation work with groups of Macedonians and Albanians similar to the black-white groups that Price Cobbs started in San Francisco in the ‘60s. If I should go back to Macedonia, the next time I would want to meet some Macedonian Albanians and spend some time with them. As on this trip I met none— unless you count my Albanian American seat mate on MAT from Amsterdam who assured me that Macedonia was 80% Albanian just as Kosovo was 98% before the bombing started!

Home Button Back Button


.This site was created on March 20, 1997.

© Janette Rainwater 1997-2006

All rights reserved. Unauthorized use of any of the material contained herein is strictly prohibited.