Amidst the daily agenda of big international questions, we don’t pay a lot of attention to the smaller questions in the world. It isn’t that they hold particularly big implications, but they are important on the local and regional levels. This piece concerns Macedonia, or what we might call Europe’s last case of the Napoleon Complex. It is a minnow in the grand scheme of things, but matters regionally.
Recognized as an independent state two decades ago, Macedonia has entered the international community as a rather dysfunctional actor. The first issue is its name. Greece blocks the country’s integration in international frameworks on grounds that its name is the same of its northern region by the same namesake. The fear is that it would lay the groundwork for additional territorial claims in the future, and this fear is not without reason: the political map of the Balkans is almost continuously redrawn.
That, however, is not the most important of Macedonia’s problems. Ever since its independence, Macedonia has tried hard to establish itself as a nation-state, but the means it has adapted to doing so are questionable at least and nefarious at most. The whole process has a rather comical appearance about it, but that will become apparent later.
The first aspect of Skopje’s (the capital) campaign is to establish a Macedonian ‘nation.’ Much of it revolves around Alexander the Great, or Alexander of Macedon, the man who conquered the world in the 4thcentury BC, but lost it all with his death in 323 BC at the young age of 33. Now, there was indeed a kingdom called Macedon at that point in time, but its people spoke a dialect of Greek and while they lived in the periphery of the Hellenistic world, still counted themselves as a part of it. Now, their political independence is not a precedent either, as this was also the configuration of all the Greek city-states, even if formats varied from one to the next. The point here is that there can be no continuity between ancient Macedon and today’s Macedonia, because the former already counted themselves as Greeks, as much as can be determined from the historical record.
The second aspect to be considered is that Macedonia is attempting to tie its perceived nation to the territory it occupies today. In history, Macedonia is a region -- much like Palestine, which occupies today’s Israel and Jordan -- that has passed from one ruler to the next as a geopolitical choke point, but it has never been host to a distinct Macedonian nation. The mechanisms by which Skopje is attempting to paint its nation is simple: the theft of the history of its neighbors, particularly Greece and Bulgaria. Alexander of Macedon is an example to the former, but Bulgarian history seems to be on the daily agenda of the government.
Two examples illustrate the point. The first is the case of Samuil -- he ruled Bulgaria between 997-1014 out of Ohrid, the last capital of the First Kingdom; a massive fortress around the city serves as the reminder for that time. Only, Skopje portrays him as a Macedonian king, a claim that is easily overturned if one goes into the Bulgarian and better-preserved Byzantine chronicles of the period. The second example is recent; in a brief scandal, Skopje financed the exhibition of medieval scripts, initially claimed to portray Macedonia’s literary heritage. The only problem is that they are written in Old Bulgarian -- while the exhibition is set to go on, the correction was made. The point here is that much of the civilizational heritage left in Macedonia over the last 1,000 years is predominantly Bulgarian, and forms the basis onto which Skopje is trying to step.
The modern history of how Macedonia came to be is one filled with political intrigue, typical for the region. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Macedonia came under Bulgarian, Serbian, and Greek influence, it was the site of battles in the First World War, came under Bulgarian administration in the Second World War, but all the while remained a silent battlefield for regional influence. Without going into those details here, it is possible to say that Macedonia as a ‘nation’ began in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the line between West and East was drawn by the Great Powers. With the help of Bulgarian communists, the Macedonian ‘language’ -- more so a dialect of Bulgarian – was developed, and Belgrade took it upon itself to build up the castles in the air in which Skopje has come to believe.
Today, Skopje’s political gaffes, intentional falsification of its neighbors’ history and unfortunately humorous claims that border on being hostile, indicate a country whose fictional existence is approaching a crisis with meeting reality. Macedonia, as it is today, is a case of a political Napoleon complex -- wanting to be grand, when the facts simply do not support the claims made and show quite the opposite.
As a final sign of that Skopje is taking the wrong approach can be found in that Macedonians apply for Bulgarian passports by the thousands every year and every time Bulgarian and Macedonian officials meet, a translator is not needed. Simply put, we have to move forward and pragmatically so.