Editor’s Note: Jay Nordlinger traveled to Macedonia in late April and early May. A report on the country will appear in the next National Review. Here online, we offer a multipart journal.
The first sight I see in Macedonia is a Burger King. It is the first thing I lay my eyes on when I leave the plane and enter the airport. Burger King or not, Macedonia is a long way from home. It is a distinctive, troubled, absorbing, and wonderful part of the world.
‐Where is Macedonia? What is it? You may think those are innocent questions, but they open a whole can of worms.
Macedonia is, or was, an ancient kingdom. The great hero in this part of the world is Alexander III, better known as Alexander the Great.
Today, Macedonia is a region, and also a country. The region comprises parts of Greece and Bulgaria, and the whole of the country.
That country is the Republic of Macedonia, a former constituent of Yugoslavia. It won its independence in 1991. Macedonia is the size of Maryland, with a population of 2 million. The country is just north of Greece, and is also neighbored by Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania.
‐When in Greece, be careful about saying “Macedonia.” You could touch a nerve. In the Greek mind, Macedonia is Greek, period. Those people up north, in the former Yugoslav republic? They have usurped the name and hijacked history.
The Greeks fear, or say they fear, the republic’s encroachment on them. A whipping up of greater Macedonian aspirations. So inflamed are they by the “name issue” (as it’s called here) that they have blocked the republic’s accession to the EU and membership in NATO.
In the mid 1990s, the Greeks went so far as to impose an economic embargo on the republic. This hurt the country badly (Macedonia, that is).
So, the Macedonians appeased them. They changed their flag. It had featured an ancient Macedonian symbol, which incensed the Greeks. Now it is a splash of red and yellow, resembling our Arizona flag (and the Tibetan flag, for that matter).
Also, they reworded their constitution, just to make it clear that they had no designs on their big neighbor to the south.
The Greeks lifted the embargo. But, because of the name issue, they still block Macedonia’s accession to the EU and its membership of NATO. How can they do it? They have veto power. All existing members must agree to new admissions, apparently.
We Americans recognized Macedonia as “Macedonia” in 2004. At the U.N., the country is still known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The Greeks, to put the Macedonians down, and in their place, call them “Fyromians” (or worse).
‐The “Macedonian Question,” as it’s known in history, has haunted the Balkans for a long time. And the question is, essentially, “What is Macedonia? What should it be? Where is it? Where should it be?”
You get the picture.
‐Ethnically, the republic is quite Balkan. About 65 percent of the people are ethnic Macedonians. They speak a Slavic tongue and practice Eastern Orthodox Christianity (to the extent they are religious). About 25 percent of the people are Albanians, who speak Albanian and adhere to Islam. The rest of the people are Turks, Roma, Vlachs, and so on.
‐Evidently, there is no intermarriage here. I say to a friend, “Come on. Boys will be boys and girls will be girls. They’ll get together. Surely there must be some Romeo and Juliet stories in this country.” He says, “Not really” — and he should know, being not only a local but an authority on the country.
‐The airport in Macedonia is called “Alexander the Great.” That is a middle finger to the Greeks. They think that Alex is theirs, period.
Another middle finger exists in the center of Skopje, the Macedonian capital. It is a giant statue of Alex.
‐The government, a conservative government, has been making over Skopje, on neo-Classical lines. There is the Alexander statue. There is the Porta Macedonia, a local Arc de Triomphe. There are monuments to sundry independence figures.
‐Skopje could really use the makeover. In decades past, it was hit with twin disasters. One was an earthquake, which hit in 1963. It destroyed 80 percent of the city. The other disaster, of course, was Communism, with its preference for brutalist architecture. Little of pre-Communist Skopje remains.
As I said, the makeover is welcome — certainly by me. It is not so welcome by the Left, which thinks that the conservative government is being grandiose and nationalistic.
Maybe the Left could go live in a town somewhere, with all the brutalism and other ugliness they want? A chacun son goût.
Interesting how ideology and architecture often match.
‐Skopje now has a Reagan Street. In the past, this city had streets named for Marx, Lenin, Tito, Ho Chi Minh, and Allende. Lenin was the last to go. A pleasant promenade was named for Tito. Now it is called, simply, “Macedonia Street.” A conservative friend explains, “Our side didn’t want to name the street after another person. We didn’t want the Left to freak. So we thought ‘Macedonia’ was safe and unifying.”
‐The Albanian population is Muslim, as a rule, but the most famous Macedonian Albanian of all was not. She was Mother Teresa, born in Skopje in 1910. There is a statue of her, right on Macedonia Street. Very nice.
Writing my history of the Nobel Peace Prize, I became reacquainted with her life. (She won the prize in 1979.) I found that she is all her admirers crack her up to be.
‐What to my wondering eyes does appear? Is it KFC? I see the familiar red and white, and smell fried chicken. Actually, it’s MFC! Macedonian Fried Chicken.
Heavens. What would the Colonel say?
‐I think it must be universal: little girls and pink backpacks. What’s more, pink backpacks with Minnie Mouse on them.
‐Skopje has a Turkish bazaar, known as the Old Bazaar. It is a very pleasant place in which to wander, eat, shop, or whatever. At a butcher, lambs hang, not so woolly. Or are they goats? Or something else? At a barbershop, old-timers hang (out). I wish I could join in their gossip, and understand it.
In the bazaar, there are many Turkish flags, and also some portraits of Erdogan, the Turkish leader.
Having lunch at a restaurant is Boris Trajanov, a Macedonian baritone. He is now appearing at the local opera house in Verdi’s Macbeth (title role). Trajanov looks like an American Indian, I must say, with long black hair, in a ponytail. Striking-looking fellow, with a damn good voice.
By the way, the most famous Macedonian musician in the world, probably — I’m talking classical musician — is Simon Trpceski, the pianist. He lives here in Skopje.
‐Can’t have music without Jews. Hard to have music without Jews. They once lived here: some 7,000 of them. They were sent to Treblinka by the occupying Bulgarians. (The Bulgarians saved their own.) Now there are something like 150 Jews. That might be high.
The incumbent Macedonian government set up a Holocaust museum, in the old Jewish quarter. A decent thing to do.
‐My conservative friends here are in a funny position, with regard to their country and the EU. They are Euro-skeptics, and are reluctant to see Macedonia join the EU. At the same time, they’re irked to be kept out by the Greeks.
And they take bitter satisfaction in the following fact: Greece, which has blocked them, looks to be the first EU country to go down the tubes.
Well, that’s probably enough of a journal for Part I, isn’t it? See you tomorrow for Part II.