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Is Macedonia on the brink of war? (2012)

Note from the LeftEast editors: In his text, ‘From the banality of elections to a new political situation’, published on LeftEast in cooperation with Bilten.Org, Artan Sadiku calls for a serious rethinking of left political perspectives since the widespread belief that the social question would inevitably trump national divisions has been disproved by nationalist struggles that may soon ‘put to test Macedonia as a county’. As a contribution to the discussion, LeftEast is republishing an article by Panos Garganas, a leading member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SEK), who was put on trial by the Greek state for defending Macedonian independence, written just after the Ohrid Agreement ending the secessionist war of 2001; together with an article from May 2012 by one our editors, Andreja Zivkovic, exploring the relevance of Garganas’s prescient analysis of the role of the Ohrid Agreement in creating a new terrain for the nationalist struggles over Macedonia, and proposing a  Balkan-wide approach to the solution of the Macedonian national question(s).

Andreja ZivkovicSince the beginning of the year, Macedonia has been hit by a wave of ethnic violence. The match was lit in late January after Macedonians at a village carnival near Struga deliberately provoked Albanian Muslims by wearing burqa masks. In revenge an Orthodox church was torched in Struga.  A month later in Gostivar, a Macedonian policeman killed two young Albanians, leading to large protests.   During one march shouts could be heard calling for revenge on “Slavo-Macedonians” and backing “great Albania”. Since then incidents have multiplied: buses stoned, teenagers knifed and an orthodox church burnt down near Tetovo.

In order to understand what is happening we need to look at the role of the Ohrid Framework Agreement in giving the nationalist struggles over Macedonia a new form and lease of life. In his contemporary reflection on the 2001 conflict, when the Kosovo Liberation Army sought to take advantage of the NATO bombing of Serbia and occupation of Kosovo to launch a war of secession in Macedonia, Panos Garganas argued, firstly, that the key to the conflict in Macedonia was the interference of the Great Powers in our region. The problem of oppressed minorities existing within the borders of every single Balkan state was the historical result of Great Power intervention. Secondly, the response of Balkan nationalists – to fight one another, not imperialism – has opened the door to divide and rule. Greece’s attempt to turn Skopje into a protectorate was backed by the West. Then, the NATO war of 1999 exploited Great Serbian oppression in Kosovo to launch its eastward expansion against Russia, unleashing a wave of Greater Albanian nationalism in Macedonia. Thirdly, as in Bosnia, having fanned the flames the West stepped in to call a halt, and enforced a divisive peace agreement. Garganas was absolutely right to compare the Ohrid Agreement to Dayton; the continuing presence of NATO forces until 2011 to police the Agreement made Macedonia a de facto protectorate. Hence, fourthly, the only solution is a struggle bringing together Albanian and Macedonian workers against the forces of both external (NATO occupation and neo-liberalism) and internal (nationalist) division and for full equality between the communities.

What can we learn from this today? Firstly, external interference continues to be divisive. Since 1991 Greece has continued to claim the name of Macedonia as its own private property. As a result Macedonia continues to be known under the derisory name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in all international institutions. Macedonia was promised an invitation to join NATO in 2008, but this was vetoed by Greece because of the name issue. In 2005, Macedonia also became a candidate for the European Union, but still has no date to start accession talks because of Greek resistance.

But how do the nationalists in Macedonia react to this? As Garganas predicted, they fight each other! Albanian nationalists blame the Macedonian parties for blocking European integration. Europe – for example, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor– advises Skopje to follow “the European method of compromise” – that is, capitulation to Greece. But the real crime has been committed by the governing party of the ethnic Macedonian majority, the nationalist VMRO-DPME.

Since 2006 they have forced through a hugely expensive and divisive urban renewal program in Skopje, built around a nationalist vision of ancient Macedonia that is as offensive to the country’s minorities as it is to Greek nationalists. The Skopje 2014 project seeks to rebuild the capital of this tiny, impoverished and insecure republic in the purple mantle of the Hellenic empire of Alexander the Great. A vast programme of neo-classical eyesores – a Balkan farce of Albert Speer’s fascist Berlin – hundreds of buildings, statues, bridges and arches – crowned with a 27 metre high bronze statue of Alexander on horseback in the central square – is set to cost at least €300 million. “Antikvizatzija”, as it is known, is a classic example of Renan’s definition of nationalism – “to remember what never happened and to forget what really happened”.

The Gruevski government responded to Greek pressure by trumpeting an imaginary national tradition in which the Macedonians are not Slavs but direct descendants of Alexander’s empire. Of course, this was merely symbolic resistance, identity politics. And the resistance was not so much to Athens as it was to the Ohrid Agreement and its provisions for full civic equality of Albanians in law. “Antikvizatzija”, like Stalin’s purges of old Bolsheviks, seeks to airbrush the Albanians of Macedonia out of history. By sponsoring archaeological excavations and renaming roads, sports arenas and the main airport after Alexander the Great and Philip of Macedon, by presenting the Albanians (who make up 25% of the population) as a foreign body in Macedonian history, it seeks to exclude and marginalize them in the present. Unsurprisingly, it was accompanied by a public debate about “real Macedonians” and “traitors.”

The reader will by now be feeling a sickening sense of déjà vu. For this is no different in kind to the nationalist hysteria that Milosevic engineered over Kosovo in 1980s in order to achieve Serbian domination over Yugoslavia. The methods are also no different. Macedonia also has an army of semi-literate historians ready to falsify history. When the Macedonian Academy for Arts and Sciences (MANU) published the first national encyclopaedia in September 2009, protests erupted over its provocative content, including portraying Macedonian Albanians as newcomers from mountainous northern Albania and the use of the derogatory term “Šiptari” for Albanians.

The terrain was thus set for inter-communal struggles even before the events of this year. Thus, on 13 February 2011, at least 100 ethnic Macedonians and Albanians clashed at the medieval Skopje fortress (Kale), over the building of a museum church meant to host historical artefacts from a recent archaeological excavation, resulting in eight injuries, including two police. Albanian and Macedonian politicians did their best to fan the flames.

The reaction of the Albanian nationalists to “Antikvizatzija” was predictable. No critique of was offered from any principled standpoint, even that of Albanian nationalism. For example, they could have pointed out that the entire education budget is less than €10 million – the cost of the “Warrior on the Horse” statue of Alexander the Great! One would have thought that the question of capital investment in Albanian schools would have been close to their hearts. But no, the pathetic response of the DUI, heritor to the feared KLA, and part of the VMRO governing coalition, to Greater Macedonian nationalism was to demand a few Albanian statues, 3 in all, in one of the Albanian districts of Skopje!

Just like the Macedonian nationalists in the face of Greek oppression, the Albanian nationalists offered only symbolic resistance to Macedonian oppression. Their version of identity politics was to claim Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu (Skenderbeg) for their own invented tradition which they will impose on an area close to the old Skopje Bazaar.

As Garganas predicted, given that none of the nationalist parties was interested in a common struggle against NATO or Greek interference, the Ohrid agreement would merely unleash new nationalist struggles.

Ohrid appears on paper to be a model document; constitutional amendments enshrining equal citizenship; provisions on language, proportional representation in public administration and state institutions, protection mechanisms for minorities in parliament, and decentralisation. But while it is true that Albanians are no longer the second class citizens as they were before 2001, it is also true that each of the clauses in the Agreement has led to nationalist struggles.

VMRO governments, like the Social Democrats before them, have resisted equal representation in the state administration, including in the police and the judiciary, especially inclusion of more ethnic Albanians in senior posts, decentralisation and full implementation of the law on languages. Thus, while Albanian is spoken in parliament it is not used in the state or municipal administration or in the courts. The same humiliations and discrimination that the Czech speaker faced at the hands of German speaking officialdom in Prague a century ago are faced by Albanians every day.

But the problem is not only ethnic Macedonian nationalism. The constitution allows primary and secondary education in ethnic community languages. But both sets of nationalists insist on separate education. Education is becoming more segregated, with children of different ethnicities studying in separate shifts or buildings. In response, the EU has demanded an integrated education strategy. For the government this means forcing Albanian children to learn the Slav Macedonian language. For Albanian nationalists this means a curriculum which reflects the history of the Albanian nation. Reflecting these concerns, the 2004 curriculum finally addressed the previous lack of space given to the history of Albanians in Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania. It was withdrawn in 2006 by the incoming VMRO government.

It is important to remember that the main party of the Albanian nationalists, DUI has been in power with the VMRO all this time. If Albanians are not equally represented in the administration then a share of the blame falls to it. For it has been thoroughly complicit in the VMRO’s clientalistic sharing out of jobs for the boys and state spoils. Like in Serbia, every government that comes to power has a clear out of the state administration, replacing previous political appointees with its own. The DUI has also blocked ethnic Albanian non-party members from state or municipal appointments.

Decentralisation has also been a scandal. Capital investment and employment in municipal organisations are dependent on political affiliation and thus have been carved up between the VMRO and the DUI. Instead of fighting to overcome the inequality between rural and urban municipalities that particularly affects ethnic Albanians, the DUI fights to overcome the inequality in its own share of the spoils. The parties’ struggles have fed into a widespread feeling that the Ohrid Agreement is “practically dead”. The gulf between the nationalist positions is widening: the Macedonians call for a unitary state, the Albanians a decentralised bilingual federation.

As a result of its greed, the DUI it has become a docile partner to a government of Macedonian chauvinism and allowed the latter to create what the locals call a “Sultanic” regime. Since 2006, the VMRO has undermined the independence of the judiciary and the media and terrorised the ethnic Macedonian opposition and its media. As in Serbia in the 1980s, nationalism is an elite tool for the conquest of state power and the pillaging of state resources.

Garganas also noted the role of neo-liberalism – unemployment, corrupt privatisation and rising inequalities – in fanning nationalism. Macedonia is a free market disaster. 31% of the workforce is unemployed and 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. Since 2005, the growth rate has lagged behind that of every other country in the western Balkans. In line with EU accession, the VMRO government has continued to liberalise, earning that well-known accolade of economic failure, an improved World Bank “doing business rating”. Once again, like Milosevic in the 1980s, the “Antikvizatzija” campaign has sought to divert the anger of Macedonian workers away from a government of the tycoons and turn it against Albanian workers. As Pasko Kuzman, an archaeologist with the Ministry of Culture, enthused to the New York Times: “Alexander has helped buttress the nation against the trauma of the free market, political strife and independence.”

Under the guise of symbolic resistance to Greece, “Antikvizatzija” was also a cover for making all workers pay for the debts of the Greek banks which control the Macedonian banking sector. The state has increased its debts by selling 5 year treasury bonds to the Greek banks in order to prevent bank capital flight. It has borrowed $675m from IMF since 2011, partly to maintain an exchange rate that via high interest rates will continue to attract Greek finance, but which is disastrous for Macedonian exports. The paradoxical result is that Greece, the sick man of Europe, currently run by a nineteenth century style neo-colonial tax collection authority, has maintained its economic and political hold over Macedonia!

The impact of the economic crisis can be seen in the nationalist incidents of the last months. In 2001 anger erupted in rural areas, and the rebels had clear political aspirations. Today the warfare is urban and as yet has no clear political goals. Over the last year the youth have led revolutions in the Arab world and occupied the city squares of Athens, Madrid, New York and London. In Macedonia the youth are fighting each other, ethnic Macedonian against ethnic Albanian. The same frustrations with unemployment, poverty, corruption and police violence are exploding into chauvinist outbursts and fratricide. If the nationalist struggles have up to now been led from above, they are now being reinforced by a spontaneous wave from below.

Even if this wave should subside there are good reasons for the nationalist leaders to try to ride it, as Milosevic and Tudjman did before them. Firstly, the VMRO government is in trouble. Its program of nationalist aggrandisement has emptied the coffers of the state. It has had to turn to the IMF – at a price – €120 million of cuts, almost 5 per cent of the total budget, to cover the deficit. It will be forced to open the valves of nationalism in order to deflect popular anger against the cuts. Secondly, Albanian nationalists will be forced to respond in kind, and are already doing so. Menduh Thaçi, the leader of the minority Albanian party, the DPA, which increased its seats in parliament from three to eight in the June 2011 elections, declared last month: “Macedonia is an artificial creation and all Albanians, living in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece should have the right to live in one state and unite with Tirana.” As the DUI has allowed itself to become a prisoner of the VMRO, there is every reason for Albanian nationalist entrepreneurs to try to outbid it for the rights to the Albanian franchise.

Furthermore, there is external pressure in this direction. As a result of the EU’s divide and rule tactics in Kosovo – recently swinging back towards Serbia over the issue of the representation of Serbia and Kosovo in regional bodies – various incidents have been provoked by Belgrade and Pristina along the border areas. Perhaps this is why Hashim Thaçi has decided to kick back – not, of course, at the EU protectorate over Kosovo but against Belgrade and Skopje. This is no doubt why he reacted last month to the demands of Serbs in northern Kosovo to remain a part of Serbia by stating: “It would be the best for Albanians to live in one state, if there were any border changes in the Balkans”.

Macedonia is hemmed in, surrounded by enemies on all sides. As a NATO power, Greece has advanced its hegemonic ambitions within the imperialist carve of the Balkans, participating in both KFOR and Macedonian (in 2001) occupation forces, and maintaining a military threat to Macedonia by blocking it from NATO membership. In a different way the KLA also uses the military shield of NATO and now EULEX over Kosovo to project its Greater Albanian designs on north western Macedonia. Equally it is only twenty years since Milosevic proposed a carve-up of Macedonia to Greece and Bulgaria. As in the period of the struggle for Ottoman Macedonia by the Balkan states, Bulgaria engages in nationalist evangelism, handing out 50,000 passports, and university scholarships in Bulgaria, to Macedonians prepared to testify “Bulgarian origins”.

In this moment of danger socialists across the Balkans, especially in Greece and Serbia, must stand up against the historical designs of the Balkan ruling classes in Macedonia. Opposition to the blockade of Macedonia by regime of the bankers imposed on Greece by the EU would strike a blow against the system of imperialist tutelage and debt slavery in the Balkans. Opposition to Serbian pretensions over Kosovo would weaken the EU colonial regime in Kosovo, as well as the power of Greater Albanian nationalism in the western Balkans. In this way we would open the space for a democratic solution to the national question in Macedonia, where it is clear that concessions to the Albanians are impossible under the conditions of the Greek blockade and the reservoir of greater Albanian nationalism that is neo-colonial Kosovo.

Socialists in the Balkans must defend Macedonian independence from the imperialist ambitions of the Balkan states. Such a defence must reject any manipulation of the right to self-determination by greater nationalist forces seeking to exploit it for the purposes of securing imperialist support for partition, most obviously by a greater Albanian nationalism that continues its loyal collaboration with the neo-colonial regime in Kosovo; and instead use it as the basis of a policy of friendship with other Balkan nations, thereby opening the space for a democratic solution to the national question in Macedonia.

But for such a solution to take place ethnic Macedonian workers must also break with the chauvinist policy of the Macedonian ruling class, a policy that undermines the struggle against Greek oppression and creates the fertile ground for Greater Albanian meddling in Macedonia. They must reject a policy that opens the door to war and Great Power intervention.

Instead ethnic Macedonian workers must urgently extend the hand of friendship to their Albanian comrades who have continued to suffer discrimination under the VMRO-DUI regime. A recent poll found that two thirds of the residents of Albanian-majority areas in western Macedonia support the creation of a common Albanian state (with Albania and Kosovo), and more than half think it is likely to happen “soon”.

It is only by linking resistance to the neo-liberal cuts with a struggle for real democracy, especially by defending in practice the right of Albanians to self-determination up to and including independence – that ethnic Macedonian workers will be able to win their Albanian colleagues’ trust. A recent poll found that only 31 per cent of the people support renaming public institutions and places after ancient Macedonians, while 58 per cent are opposed. Now, the connection between “Antikvizatzija” and popular misery is clear for all to see.

In particular the trade unions have to take a public stand in favour of bilingualism at all levels of society, including education, equal representation in public administration and equal resources for Albanian schools. Only thus will forces emerge among Albanian workers that reject the reactionary mirage of Greater Albania, a mirage that depends on dragging the Great Powers into another fratricidal war; only thus will we see Albanian forces that argue for a united struggle with ethnic Macedonian workers for freedom and equality against the internal and external forces of divide and rule.

However socialists in the Balkans must take one step further. The only way to put an end to the greater nationalist struggles over Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia is through the creation of a Balkan federation.  Only a Balkan federation is sufficiently wide to enable the national unification of all the Balkan peoples, for example the Albanians, and allow them to live together in peace and equality.  Only a Balkan federation can stand up to the economic and military pressures of the Great Powers and bring together the resources necessary to provide both young and old with a future worth living. The Balkan federation is our own heroic idea, the only idea that can open a new era in our region, an era where the peoples once again become the subjects of their own destiny.


By Andreja Zivkovic

Andreja Živković is a sociologist and member of Marx21 in Serbia. He is the author and editor of ‘The Balkan Socialist Tradition’ (special issue, Revolutionary History Journal, 2003) and Revolution in the Making of the Modern World (Routledge 2007); and is contributing a chapter on the political economy of the debt economy in ex- and post-Yugoslavia to Srecko Horvat and Igor Stiks (eds.), Welcome to the desert of post-socialism: radical politics in former Yugoslavia, Verso, 2015.