Arguments over statues and the teaching of history may be gripping the UK and US – but they are nothing new to North Macedonia, where they are being settled through diplomacy.
More than 2,000 years after the death of Alexander the Great, two teenage boys named after the legendary conqueror staked a claim to his legacy.
“Alexander the Great is our hero,” said 16-year-old Aleksandar* from the town of Bitola in North Macedonia, near the border with Greece. While Greece had Aristotle and Sophocles, the teenager said, the heritage of Alexander the Great, “the king of ancient Macedonia”, belonged to his country.
A 30-min drive from Bitola, across the border in the Greek village of Niki, 16-year-old Alexandros insisted that Alexander the Great was a Greek hero – “he spoke the Greek language” – and dismissed North Macedonia’s claim to his legacy. “I haven’t seen their textbooks but some people say that they’re stealing our history,” he said.
From the western Balkans to the Middle East and central Asia, the legacy of Alexander the Great survives in folklore, ancient coins, crumbling monuments, and in the names bestowed upon a handful of cities and countless male children. Yet nowhere is the conqueror’s legacy contested as it is in the region where his empire began.
Alexandros lives in the province of Macedonia in north-western Greece, home to the birthplace of Alexander the Great. Aleksandar is a citizen of North Macedonia, the neighbouring country that emerged from the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The newly independent republic’s name, Macedonia, ignited a decades-long dispute with Greece, blocking its path into the European Union (EU) and entangling its destiny in questions of identity and ancient history.
The dispute was officially settled two years ago on June 17, 2018, when the leaders of both countries ratified the Prespa Agreement, so called after the lake whose shores hosted the signing ceremony.
The name, North Macedonia, was agreed as a compromise to soothe Greek fears that its northern neighbour had territorial designs upon its north-western province. The people of North Macedonia meanwhile retained the right to refer to themselves and their language as “Macedonian”.
Most importantly, Greece ended its opposition to North Macedonia’s long-stalled application to join the EU.
Among other provisions, the Prespa Agreement envisaged the formation of a joint commission to review aspects of the history curriculum in each country that are disputed by the other. Over the last century, similar bilateral commissions have helped France and Poland reach agreement with Germany on the teaching of their shared, troubled past.
This story by BIRN, based on interviews with historians and commission members, examines how differences over the distant past have been caught up in the currents of diplomacy in the Balkans. Most of these differences are still to be ironed out because the work of the historians in the joint commission has been contingent upon domestic election cycles, and upon North Macedonia’s uncertain progress towards EU membership.
“For Macedonian historians, the main motivation for taking part in this process lies in the fact that it might ease their country’s way into the European Union,” said Ulf Brunnbauer, the academic director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany. “If the opportunity structure changes, the whole thing runs into the sand.”
‘Reproducing harmful stereotypes’
While the Prespa agreement was hailed by the EU, it proved unpopular on both sides of the border, sparking street protests by nationalists and far-right groups. Weakened by accusations of betrayal, neither government that ratified the deal is still in office.
That the deal itself has endured these two years is testament to the work of its supporters and to the EU’s extraordinary leverage in the region. Yet its survival is far from assured.
North Macedonia applied to join the EU in 2004 and was officially recognised as a candidate in the following year. However, it was barred from embarking on accession talks, the next step to membership, because of the dispute over its name with Greece.
When a new government, led by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018, it calculated that the domestic political cost of an unpopular deal would be outweighed by the perceived benefits of clearing a hurdle to the EU.
But in the two years since the agreement was signed, fresh hurdles have appeared, casting doubt on the objective of EU membership, and therefore on the viability of Prespa.
A summit meeting of EU leaders last October was widely expected to reward Zaev’s political gamble by launching accession talks with North Macedonia.
The summit’s failure to do so, in the face of a veto by France, revealed that the bloc’s most powerful countries had fallen out over its biggest foreign policy project – expansion into the Western Balkans.
Though the EU would reverse its decision this year, having placated French concerns, the temporary setback underscored the frailty of North Macedonia’s membership hopes.
For Macedonians, it served as a reminder that any one of the EU’s 27 members might use the veto, or the mere threat of a veto, at any point during a lengthy accession process as a tool either for extracting concessions, or for domestic political advantage.
The Macedonians have also been embroiled in a long-running dispute over the past with their eastern neighbour, Bulgaria. In 2018, both countries established a joint commission to discuss the revision of history textbooks.
Like Greece, Bulgaria is a member of the EU, with the power to veto new members. Though it has been a vocal supporter of North Macedonia’s EU hopes, its veto powers give it a certain leverage in arguments over history.
The dispute between the two countries has once again focused on a single figure from the past, claimed by both countries as their own: the revolutionary hero Goce Delcev, who led an uprising against Ottoman rule at the turn of the 20th century.
Petar Todorov, an assistant professor at Skopje’s Institute of National History and a member of the Macedonian delegation to the commission with Bulgaria, said it was “sad” that the Bulgarian government “denied the ethnic and cultural identity of its closest nation”.
He said the teaching of history across the Balkans – including his own country – needed to be revised. “School curricula in the region reproduce harmful stereotypes about other cultures, which breeds nationalism and hate speech… It’s time to leave behind the traditional ethno-centric approaches and de-politicise the way we teach the past.”
The demands of the Prespa Agreement are likely to be debated afresh as North Macedonia gears up for elections this summer. Although the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party has softened its opposition to the deal, it has left open the possibility of re-negotiating the pact, should the opportunity arise.
‘History as national ideology’
Political upheaval and large-scale population movements have been a hallmark of Balkan history. The collapse of the Ottoman empire, the First and Second World Wars, and the Balkan wars at the beginning and end of the 20th century, were accompanied by huge migrations, both voluntary and forced.
As a result, nation states forged along ethnic and linguistic lines still contain large ethnic and linguistic minorities. Both Bulgaria and Greece have, for instance, hosted minorities on their territory that consider themselves to be ethnically Macedonian. North Macedonia itself has a substantial ethnic Albanian minority, making up roughly a quarter of the population.
“In a European context, the Balkans are characterised by a high degree of political discontinuity,” Brunnbauer, of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, told BIRN. “As a counter response, I think, many people have developed myths of ancestry going back to antiquity and even beyond.
They want to defend the idea of continuity, to say that their forebears came from this place and therefore it is their place – even if they know their ancestors came from elsewhere.”
This attitude was often reflected in the region’s textbooks, Brunnbauer said, where history was little more than a form of “ideology to justify the state”. As a result, he said, official historical narratives were often “in total conflict with the ethnic, demographic, social and historic reality of the Balkans”.
Since the time of Alexander the Great, the territory of modern-day North Macedonia has been part of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires, to name but a few. Within the last 100 years, it has also been governed from the capitals of modern-day Serbia and Bulgaria.
According to Brunnbauer, countries such as North Macedonia face an additional problem when forging a national history. “Having achieved statehood later than others,” he said, “they are at a disadvantage because everything that is dear to them has already been taken away by others.”
The main square in Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, is dominated by an enormous statue of a warrior on horseback, cast in the popular image of Alexander the Great.
Other statues, rising out of spot-lit fountains, appear to show the conqueror’s father and mother.
These monuments to an ancient past were built barely a decade ago as part of a neo-baroque makeover of Skopje’s public spaces, carried out by the VMRO-DPMNE-led government that preceded Zaev’s Social Democrat-led coalition.
The new monuments were treated by Greece as a raid on its Hellenic heritage – a form of cultural appropriation – and a further sign that its northern neighbour had designs upon its province.
“The people of North Macedonia should be saying with pride that their origins are Slavic [rather than Hellenic],” said Markos Bolaris, a deputy foreign minister under Greece’s former Syriza government and a former head of the Greek delegation in the joint committee for revising history textbooks.
“Instead, a political mythology has been created in North Macedonia for geopolitical, geo-strategic goals.”
However, historians in North Macedonia point to artefacts and ancient records to buttress their claim to Alexander the Great’s legacy. “Tens of thousands of coins of Macedonian kings are spread over the country’s territory,” said Viktor Lilchic, a professor of archaeology at St Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje.
Alexander the Great, he added, had also built several forts on land that today belonged to North Macedonia.
The Greek and Macedonian delegations have met a total of four times since the Prespa Agreement was signed. As the composition of each delegation is decided by its respective government, the commission’s work has been slowed down by election cycles. Its most recent session – in May 2019 – was followed by a pause for last summer’s Greek election.
EU decisions on opening accession talks with North Macedonia, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, led to further delays. The joint commission’s work is now on hold as North Macedonia gears up for another election, set to take place on July 15.
The election was called by Zaev’s government last year, after the EU rejected its application to open accession talks.
Not surprisingly, debate over antiquity dominated the early meetings of the joint commission for the revision of history textbooks. “Skopje’s representatives were quite vocal,” recalls Spyridon Sfetas, a professor of history at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University in Thessaloniki who attended the meetings as a member of the Greek delegation.
“We presented our red lines at the table. The most important thing for us was to separate present-day Macedonians from the ancient Macedonians,” he told BIRN. “It is ridiculous to seek historical continuity between the two.”
An official statement from the Macedonian delegation said it was not commenting on the commission because of “the sensitivity of the negotiation process”. Individual members of the delegation contacted by BIRN echoed this, saying they were not authorised to speak to the press.
However, documents seen by BIRN suggest that the Macedonian negotiators called for Greek history textbooks to mention their country and its past in greater detail.
Sfetas acknowledged that Greece’s curriculum tended to emphasise its ties with Europe over any links with the Balkans. “Greek students don’t even know that there was a state called Yugoslavia,” he said. “The Balkans are unknown to us. We may be neighbours, but we are distant… Now we must write something about the history of the region.”
Construction of continuity
Todor Cepreganov, a Macedonian historian who has produced textbooks for the ministry of education, criticised the commission’s work, arguing that the very notion of negotiating over historical truth was flawed. “History is a science of facts – there are no red lines in history. Red lines only exist in politics, and these commissions are political.”
However, an international expert in the use of joint commissions to revise textbooks emphasized that the process inevitably depends upon political conditions, with the selection of commission members itself constituting a political act. “It is obvious whether someone [a potential commission member] is willing and able to make changes or whether they will put up resistance,” said Falk Pingel, a professor at the George Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, based in Germany.
According to Brunnbauer, from the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, the commission should be wary of focusing on questions of historical truth – particularly where the history in question was several thousand years old. “The further back we go in the past, the more difficulty we have in finding appropriate sources,” he said. “There are a lot of things we cannot know.”
He said there was a tendency among policymakers behind similar commissions to believe that “if they can just get the facts right, they would establish a joint truth.” However, modern historiography was “very conscious of the fact there is not one truth, but rather different perspectives that can be employed… Moreover, narratives change with the times, so what we consider to be the truth today might be very different in 20 years.”
Brunnbauer, who was not involved in the joint commission, was particularly sceptical of any attempt – by either Greeks or Macedonians – to claim a “direct line of continuity” between present day populations and those who lived there in antiquity. “In a region characterised by huge migrations and forced migrations and all kinds of assimilation processes,” he said, “it is just not conceivable that anyone can claim ancestry to someone who lived there more than 2,000 years ago.”
The commission would better serve its purpose, he argued, if it focused on helping schoolchildren in both countries appreciate each other’s perspectives. In this case, history textbooks could “make the case that antiquity is important for national identity, for the construction of continuity.”
“At their best, these projects can create empathy,” he told BIRN. “They can help us understand why members of a different nation have a different view of a history that we also consider to be our history,” he told BIRN.
New covers, same books
The commission’s remaining meetings are expected to focus on maps and illustrations in Macedonian textbooks pertaining to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras – all of them regarded by Greeks as indications of territorial ambitions over its province of Macedonia.
Pingel, from the George Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research, cautioned against expecting quick results. “You need to know that the entire process might last decades,” he said.
For the time being, students in North Macedonia are still studying the same texts as before. A school teacher from Skopje, who asked not to be identified, said she was “confused” when she had to speak about the country.
“The name has yet to be changed in the textbooks, so I refer to ‘our country’ and ‘our land’ instead of saying any name,” she told BIRN. “I know this is not correct but I really don’t know what to say to the students. There are no instructions from the ministry of education.”
The country’s minister for education, Arbr Ademi, said any eventual changes would have to be ratified by the government before they were reflected in the textbooks. When the students return to school in September, he said, their textbooks will differ in only one respect: “We will change the cover to say that they are printed in the Republic of North Macedonia rather than the Republic of Macedonia.”