Tuesday, August 07, 2007

What's in a name? Blood, if it's Macedonia


Last month, Liberal MP Lui Temelkovski introduced a private member's bill that called for Canada to recognize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as the Republic of Macedonia. This seemingly innocuous bill raised nary an eyebrow in Ottawa. Yet, the name change is a potential source of regional conflict. For 16 years, Canadian governments have stayed clear of Macedonian politics and avoided contributing to such a crisis.

Not long ago, the Balkans conjured images of mass killings, terror and armies of refugees after Yugoslavia's disintegration. The wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo gave us the term "ethnic cleansing," as organized killing symptomatic of the Second World War returned to Europe. Remarkably, the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia managed to quietly separate in 1991 and, for the most part, avoided the bloodshed that swept the other republics. In fact, the only crimes against humanity were committed against history by weapons of cultural destruction and historical parody, a circumstance not exclusive to the Balkans.

According to some voices from Skopje, all Slav citizens are descendents of Alexander the Great and of the ancient Macedonians - everyone, of course, with the exception of as much as 40 per cent of the population that is Albanian. Airports, schools, buildings and bridges are named after Alexander, Philip or other historical figures whose names provide an instant link with antiquity. The Greeks, however, do not like the hijacking of what they believe is their monopoly of classical Greece and its symbols. The Bulgarians are disenchanted with the notion of a Macedonian identity that is not Bulgarian, and the Albanian minority still feels excluded.

During Tito's heyday, the Macedonian republic constituted a small part of the federation, a reminder of the brief flirtation with a greater Yugoslavia that would have encompassed western Bulgaria and Greece's northern province of Macedonia. To this end, Tito armed and trained Greek Communist insurgents who waged a destructive civil war in Greece from 1946 to 1949. Concurrently, he stocked the fires of a distinct Macedonian nationalism that would serve as a fig leaf for the Yugoslav dictator's Balkan ambitions. The idea was that, under the label of pan-Macedonia, the Yugoslavs could absorb parts of Greece and Bulgaria.

Tito's dream never became a reality because Stalin would not countenance a rival Communist strongman in southeastern Europe. As a result, the Macedonian republic was left to languish in obscurity - the dream of a greater Macedonia was confined to history books, maps and storytelling. The Greeks occasionally protested, but the United States and NATO were far too content with Tito's anti-Soviet policies to take it seriously.

But, despite the outward appearance of a prosperous and multicultural Yugoslavia, the forces of extreme nationalism lay just under the surface. In fact, one reason why Yugoslavia began to unravel in the 1980s was because it could not reconcile Serbian predominance and the latent nationalism of the constituent republics. Regional identities supplanted federalism and common sense. Overnight, Slobodan Milosevic set in motion the process for a greater Serbia that, inevitably, led to civil war

Despite their common ancestry, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians had different memories of the past and saw themselves as distinct peoples. The Macedonian problem, to some degree, is not only a mirror image of Yugoslav religious and cultural divisions but also complicated by the Albanian factor. The Slav extremist's insistence on a single ethnic Macedonian identity within a unitary state will further alienate the Albanians and encourage them to seek separation.

This potential new Balkan crisis will also be fuelled by granting independence to Kosovo, a move that will act as a magnet for Albanians in the Macedonian republic. In the ensuing civil war, the Yugoslav horrors of the 1990s will once again plague the region.

This is not to say that a private member's bill in the House of Commons will be the catalyst for a new Balkan conflict. But if it succeeds, it will cast Canadian foreign policy alongside that of the U.S. and Britain, whose short-sighted advocacy of Kosovo independence could trigger another crisis. Ultimately, it would be a very high price to pay for the few votes the bill would generate.

The solution to the Macedonian issue is not facile arguments over who is related to Alexander the Great or what the republic's name is, but rather the admission of this small state into the European Union.


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