Dispatches: Is Macedonia a Real Nation?
After spending two weeks in North Macedonia, I have included some notes here on the question of the Macedonian nation.
Macedonia, of course, only changed its name to "North Macedonia" two years ago, but this identity specification echoes much of the current debate around the legitimacy of the Macedonian nation. What does it mean for a nation to be legitimate? I met a fellow at a cafe yesterday in Belgrade, who brashly explained that there are only four "real" ethnicities in the Balkans: the Serbs, Albanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks. "The rest were just made up in the last 100 years." I wondered if I should tell him that all ethnicities are born from fable. I may have just smiled and nodded instead.
The area that is Macedonia today was once part of Greece; Alexander the Great of Macedonia was, of course, Hellenic. The northern region of Greece today is called Macedonia, and so the problem of the Macedonian namesake brewed between Greece and the recently emancipated Yugoslav nation since the 90's. The two countries finally compromised on "North Macedonia" as an appropriate state name, the prime ministers having loosened their ties and shaken hands in some backroom at Davos (as the story goes).
Like most of the Balkans, Macedonia was part of the Ottoman Empire for a good 500 years, until the empire's collapse at the start of the 20th century. Prior to that, Macedonia had been part of the Bulgarian Empire during the 14th century, and before that the Serbian Empire during the 13th. In the nation's capital of Skopje, the main attraction is an old Ottoman bazaar -- a common feature across Balkan cities.
I was a little taken aback during my time in Skopje. A 1963 earthquake had devastated the town, destroying 80% of the buildings. In recent years, they have finished reconstruction. The style is, well, an homage to a Hellenic past. Larger-than-life bronze statues, a mini marble Arc de Triomphe, grandiose fountains -- it left me wondering if the Macedonian nation did indeed feel quite small, quite new, to put on such an ornate show.
While I was in Skopje, a few of the statues had been graffitied, specifically on the signage itself, where it indicated they were "Hellenic." The Macedonians are a Slavic people, and notably, the Slavs only migrated to the Balkans starting in the 6th century. Greek nationalists would tell you, the Macedonians aren't Hellenic, and they have no right to appropriate this past.
Of all the museums in Skopje, I thought I'd go to the most provocatively titled one: the Museum of National Resistance. Built in the last decade, the museum commemorates the Macedonian struggle against the Ottomans in the late 19th century. Notably, this is likely where the modern Slavic incarnation of the Macedonian nation sprang from. But nations are always built on imagined pasts, to project them onward into the future. This museum made quite a show of the struggle; there were strangely few artifacts, and instead, it featured mostly gargantuan (newly rendered) paintings (it felt like I was walking through a giant picturebook at one point) and the most mannequins I have ever seen outside a department store. Quite a bit of money went into this national reconstruction. But isn't there a funny time-loop here, in constructing the past, are they not creating the nation as it is in the present, as it "has always been"?
I will say, despite the capital of Skopje's efforts to dig up history, there was something entirely different, calming, and rooted in the town of Ohrid. Situated on one of the oldest lakes on the planet, Ohrid was replete with Byzantine-era churches. In all the Balkans, it is the Byzantine influence that I cherish in the art. Flattened faces, geometric textile prints, bold colors, gold leafed haloes -- this is their height of artistic accomplishment, to me at least.
What then of the Macedonian nation? Like all nations, it was plucked from idealized moments in time, arranged around the haloes of a few strong men, contrasted against a dark and malevolent enemy. Artifacts remain, like these church interiors, carefully maintained, copied into trinkets and souvenirs. In the end, the fossils and frescoes politicians and historians put on display are just that: selected items meant to persuade and construct a people.