Does Macedonia’s future lie in Europe? The country has become an ideological battleground

North Macedonia is a country with a past — or no past, depending on your perspective. The landlocked Balkan country’s architecture, history, flag and even its name have all become an ideological battleground, contested by nationalists and Europhiles, disputed by Macedonians and Albanians, besieged by Greece and Bulgaria. Conservatives seek to preserve or construct a Macedonian national identity, while hostile neighbouring states demand the country relinquish its historic claims as a quid pro quo for EU accession.

As the country went to the polls over the weekend, these tensions were readily apparent on the streets of capital Skopje. Eurosceptic, Right-nationalist VMRO-DPMNE won a landslide, booting out the pro-EU Social Democratic Union after seven years in power. But on both sides of the river, in a city still visibly divided between the red-roofed homes of the Albanian minority and the gleaming bronze and marble of the renovated Macedonian city centre, it is cynicism that dominates the political conversation.

“When VMRO were last in power, the country was corrupt, but now under the Social Democrats young people returned,” insists a young activist for a pro-European, Albanian party. But he’s immediately undercut by the low mutter of his fellow campaigner: “Yeah, right. That’s not true at all.”

And indeed, VMRO are resurgent. The party borrowed its striking name from the historic Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, an insurrectionist group which fought for Macedonian self-determination and union with neighbouring Bulgaria at the beginning of the 20th century. It was at this time, during the region’s long, chequered occupation by Ottoman, Bulgarian and Serbian forces, that the idea of a separate, non-Bulgarian Macedonian nation gradually emerged.

President Joseph Broz Tito’s communist, non-aligned Yugoslav Federation granted the territory of present-day Macedonia its first true autonomy, as a federal “People’s Republic”. Following a devastating 1963 earthquake which flattened the Skopje skyline, Yugoslavia’s good standing in both East and West brought about an unprecedented Modernist reconstruction bankrolled by both Moscow and Washington — a remarkable and unprecedented collaboration, occurring just a few months after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Skopje was feted worldwide as the “City of International Solidarity”.

But as Yugoslavia disintegrated in tandem with the USSR’s collapse, competing nationalist leaders emerged to stoke inter-ethnic tensions. Despite accusations of authoritarianism and gross corruption, VMRO rose to long-term political dominance, profiting from anti-Albanian sentiment precipitated by a brief 2001 insurgency along the country’s border with Kosovo while simultaneously forming tactical electoral alliances with Albanian parties.

In 2014, VMRO engaged in an energetic campaign of so-called “antikvzacij” (“antiquisation”), bolstering its nationalist agenda by laying claim to both Greek national heroes like Alexander the Great and Phillip of Macedon, and also Bulgarian figures. Skopje’s Modernist city centre was torn down and replaced by gleaming white neoclassical facades, as well as Europe’s densest assortment of statuary, claimed to represent famous Macedonians and intended in part to goad Macedonia’s more powerful neighbours.

But locals take these developments seriously. To Skopje-based architect and UACS professor of urban design Ivan Mirkovski, who has worked to envisage alternatives to the Skopje 2014 project, “sensationalist” mockery of Skopje’s “bastard, kitsch or turbo-folk architecture” is as superficial as “the plaster boards applied over the Modernist facades”. As Easter worshippers gather outside a beautiful, communist-era Macedonian Orthodox Church, the mood is divided: VMRO supporters see the statues as representing “our history, our past, our everything”, while social democrats dismiss the project as a way to launder corrupt funds.

While there’s a clear need for better public transport, reliable utilities and green spaces in lieu of a cosmetic redevelopment which cost around $700 million, Mirkovski says, as elsewhere then the real issue is “the pervasive influence of political agendas that often prioritise short-term gains over comprehensive development”.

These arguments are reflected by Zoran, a Macedonian whose wife has recently died of cancer, aged 38. “I no longer recognise my city, or my country,” he says bitterly. Zoran blames the VMRO government for intensively redeveloping Skopje and generating some of Europe’s worst air pollution, contributing to his wife’s terminal illness: but he also feels the Social Democrats have squandered funds rather than bolstering the country’s ailing medical infrastructure.

Though the VMRO were temporarily displaced from office as their leader fled to Hungary on corruption charges, the Social Democrats have failed to make hay from their opponent’s misfortune. Rather, says Macedonian opposition journalist Dragana, the same “clientelist structure, slow bureaucracy,” and necessary reliance on personal connections and party affiliations still dominates life for ordinary locals. The Social Democrats have chosen a “losing strategy”, she says, by prioritising Nato and EU membership rather than challenging the runaway inflation which has made life unliveable for many locals in Europe’s third-poorest country.

Skopje’s nationalist redevelopment has been pivotal in this process. Greece also lays claim to the historic territory and name of Macedonia, and as such has long opposed Macedonian statehood. In 2018, the two countries reached an agreement through which Macedonia agreed to limit itself to the name “North” Macedonia, relinquish the use of an ancient Greek sun symbol, and stop claiming Greek-identified heroes as Macedonian.

The result is a faintly bizarre melange, in which the term “Macedonians” is politically acceptable but “Macedonia” is not, and a vast statue which everyone knows represents Alexander the Great has been relabelled as representing a generic “warrior on a horse”. The reward was Nato accession.

Taking this lead, Bulgaria has now followed suit, threatening to keep Macedonia out of the EU unless the country makes further concessions and rewrites the history of its occupation by Nazi-allied Bulgarian fascists during the Second World War.

Most locals simply complain that this diplomatic chicanery has forced them to purchase newly renamed passports if they want to travel abroad, creating an expensive, bureaucratic burden to no appreciable benefit. “There’s not any strong anti-European sentiment here, but people feel humiliated,” Dragana says. “We changed our name for nothing!” The Social Democrats say, ‘we made sacrifices, we made it to Nato,’ trying to represent Macedonia as part of an elite club. But who does this appeal to? It’s pathetic.”

As well as provoking the Greeks, architecture and infrastructure are a site of domestic inter-ethnic rivalry. Albanians have violently protested the erection of a massive cross on the hillside overlooking Skopje, and successfully presented the construction of a museum in the shape of an Orthodox Church overlooking their districts of Skopje. “I don’t know if the history the government promotes is real or what,” says Arjan, an Albanian opposition campaigner.

But many Albanians share a feeling of isolation by national representatives. In a majority-Albanian village near the Kosovo border still pockmarked with bullet holes from 2001’s brief inter-ethnic conflict, I’m invited for coffee by an extended family. “Yes, we fought here during the war,” laments one local. “Our homes were burned to the ground. But what benefit did it bring us?”

Here as elsewhere in the country, Albanians and Macedonians now generally coexist without violence. Albeit Albanians tend toward European accession and protection under Nato’s wing whereas the Macedonian majority remain sceptical, the primary economic grievances are felt by all. “VMRO will win, and I’ll tell you why,” adds another villager, Ertan. “It’s because the [Social Democrat] government was just as corrupt. They come here a week before the election, making promises to win votes, saying they’ll fix the roads. But in reality, they do nothing.”

Ertan insists: “Europe starts from here. [This village] is the frontline between democracy and Putin, and so its future is important for everybody.” And indeed, the Western Balkan region is a crucial battleground for Russian, Chinese and American investment, development, and Nato base-building. The US will have been happy to see tiny Macedonia join Nato, as it continues to project soft power through USAID development projects and NGOs: Russia, to see the latest pivot away from Brussels, understood by many as a rebuke to Brussels’s high-handed, disengaged approach to the Western Balkans.
“Yet neither liberal, pro-European nor nationalist, Moscow-aligned party politicians have proven able to much improve the country’s lot.”

Yet neither liberal, pro-European nor nationalist, Moscow-aligned party politicians have proven able to much improve the country’s lot, with Macedonians and Albanians alike lamenting post-ideological malaise and a lack of genuine political alternatives. At the same time, nostalgia for a pan-Slavic, federal, socialist past is generally confined to the elderly.

There’s nothing wrong, per se, with trying to create, reimagine or strengthen a national culture. As Benedict Anderson argued, nation-states are often preceded by the conscious construction of a national language, culture and identity, with this “imagined community” legitimised through museums, maps, censuses, and the other paraphernalia of nationalism on display in Skopje. Mirkovski, the architect, links Skopje’s redevelopment to similar efforts at nation-building through architecture in 19th-century Vienna and contemporary Turkmenistan. “The motivations remain ambiguous,” he says. “Were [VMRO-DPMNE] addressing a national inferiority complex, or seeking to forge a national identity?”

Rather than mocking attempts at contemporary Macedonian nation-building as an anachronistic relic, the question is what future they imply — and whether any such process is still possible amid the neoliberal, post-national homogeneity demanded by Brussels. The unique national deconstruction undergone by “North” Macedonia suggests otherwise. Like its unlabelled statues, the country currently floats in limbo, between a contested past and a perhaps unreachable future as part of the equally-imagined “European community”.

It’s not only the Greeks and Macedonians who attempt to claim Alexander the Great as their own. I’m also informed the ancient warlord was actually an Albanian (due to his Illyrian links), while Dragana mischievously points to his infamous bisexuality, a trope typically missed out of the nationalist accounts. Everyone has a vision for the ancient past: alternative futures are rather harder to come by.

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