Magazine June 1, 2015, Issue

Homage to Macedonia

Shaky times in a gutsy Balkan state

Skopje, Macedonia – When you say “Macedonia,” you may have to clarify. Macedonia is both a region and a country. Regionally, it comprises parts of Greece and Bulgaria, and the whole of the country. That country, the Republic of Macedonia, is a former constituent of Yugoslavia.

The great hero in this part of the world is Alexander III of Macedon, a.k.a. Alexander the Great. He lived 2,300 years ago, but, to some people, it seems like yesterday.

Macedonia, the republic, is just north of Greece, and the size of Maryland. Its other neighbors are Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, and Albania. A word to the wise: When you’re in Greece, be careful about referring to the republic as “Macedonia.”

In the Greek mind, Macedonia is Greek, period. The people in the former Yugoslavia 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 known, 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.

So, the Macedonians — the republicans — appeased them. They changed their flag, which had featured an ancient Macedonian symbol. It is now a splash of red and yellow, resembling the Arizona flag (and the Tibetan). Also, they reworded their constitution, making 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, still use their veto power to deny Macedonia its place in the EU and NATO. The American government has been calling Macedonia “Macedonia” since 2004. At the U.N., the country is known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM.

As probably befits a Balkan state, the republic is Balkanized. Approximately 65 percent are ethnic Macedonians, who speak a Slavic tongue. Approximately 25 percent are Albanians (who speak Albanian). The rest are Turks, Roma, Vlachs, and so on.

Evidently, there is no intermarriage between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. Such a thing is taboo, on both sides. I remark to a friend here, “Boys and girls tend to do what they do. Surely there are some Romeo and Juliet stories in this country.” “Not really,” he replies.

Near the Serbian border, there are Macedonian and Albanian villages cheek by jowl. In 2001, the people in these villages were killing each other. Before we enter an Albanian village, my friend says, “Once they find out you’re an American, they’ll probably slaughter a lamb in your honor.” (In the 1998–99 Kosovo War, we Americans bombed Serbs, to protect Albanians.) The lambs are spared on this day.

Skopje is the Macedonian capital, and its airport is called “Alexander the Great.” That is a middle finger to the Greeks. There is another middle finger downtown, a giant statue of Alexander. In recent years, Skopje has undergone a renaissance, at least architecturally. The government is erecting many neo-Classical buildings and monuments.

The capital could really use it. In decades past, Skopje 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.

Politically, there are two main parties, known by initials. The party in power is the VMRO-DPMNE (abbreviated to “VMRO”). This is a conservative party, led by Nikola Gruevski, the prime minister. The other party is the post-Communist party, the SDSM. They prefer to be known as social democrats now, and their leader is Zoran Zaev.

Both parties have different camps or strains. In VMRO, there are some gung-ho, Reagan-style, America-loving conservatives. They tend to be very knowledgeable about the United States. One politician asks me where I’m from. I tell him I live in New York but grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich. With a shocked expression, he says, “It’s the Soviet Union!” (Ann Arbor is a university town.) While I’m laughing, he says, “Or northern Havana. Havana del norte!”

By and large, my VMRO friends are Euro-skeptics, and would not like 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 Macedonia, appears to be the first EU country to go down the tubes.

As I said, SDSM is the post-Communist party, but, in Eastern Europe, you often have to question the “post.” Does redness linger? SDSM people are apt to call one another “comrade,” and their party flag includes a traditional star and a clenched fist. But they are probably not Communists at heart. True-believing Communists are few and far between. SDSM-ers are more like opportunists, looking for power and control.

In April 2014, they lost their ninth straight election to VMRO. They have 31 seats in parliament to VMRO’s dominant 61. Claiming electoral fraud, and not very credibly, SDSM has been boycotting parliament.

A very big name in Macedonia is George Soros. He is the Hungarian-born American billionaire who funds the political Left in America. He funds it in Macedonia too, which is a sore spot for conservatives, to put it mildly. Their view goes essentially like this:

In the early years after the collapse of Communism, Soros did many good things in Eastern Europe, with his Open Society Institute. He helped to liberalize and democratize. When the Greeks blockaded Macedonia, Soros loaned the new country money, a lifeline. In recent years, however, he has become a bald partisan, showering his millions on the Left and pushing for its agenda. He does this with an army of NGOs and activists — activists known, unflatteringly, as “Sorosoids.”

One conservative remarks, “He came into Macedonia like a Trojan horse, and now he is an octopus.”

For more than 20 years, the head of Soros’s Open Society branch in Macedonia has been Vladimir Milcin. There is nothing more galling to conservatives. Milcin, they say, was proved by the country’s lustration process to have been a police informant in Communist days. Not only conservatives are galled. A man of the democratic Left tells me, “Milcin does not belong at something called ‘Open Society.’ That is laughable.” Milcin, for his part, has denied wrongdoing.

In America, Soros-funded groups have included MoveOn.org, Media Matters, and the Center for American Progress. Macedonia has its rough equivalents. Consider an interesting tidbit: Open Society has translated Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, that 1971 primer. It has guided Left activists for two or three generations now.

The U.S. taxpayer is involved in the following way: Our government, through USAID, gives money to the local Soros foundation. (Money to Soros may strike you as coals to Newcastle, but there you go.) Macedonian conservatives say that we have simply picked sides in the politics of their country: the SDSM or “post-Communist” side. Others say that the Right makes a bogeyman out of Soros, and that the U.S. acts as an honest broker, holding all sides to account.

In any event, conservatives are wounded — pained — by American relations with Macedonia in the Age of Obama. “We’re the pro-American, pro-Western party,” they say. Some add, “You’re driving us into the arms of the Russians.”

Moreover, it’s the Soros people who inform the rest of the world about Macedonia. Conservatives say this, and it is almost certainly true. The “Sorosoids” are “well networked,” in the words of one observer. And they portray a country governed by VMRO as sliding out of democracy and into authoritarianism.

Macedonia is now in the midst of a huge wiretapping scandal (not the first in its brief, 24-year history). The charges and countercharges are Byzantine, dizzying, but I will write a few lines about them.

According to SDSM, Prime Minister Gruevski wiretapped more than 20,000 people, a who’s who of Macedonia. He did this in order to steal elections, undermine a free press, suborn the judiciary, and so on. SDSM’s leader, Zaev, says that he was handed recordings by “patriots” within the UBK, the nation’s secret police. They were appalled by the prime minister’s undemocratic machinations, and wanted the recordings to see the light of day.

Nonsense, says VMRO. The UBK “patriots” are actually old Communists and “traitors,” wanting to bring down a democratic government with their tried-and-true tricks. Zaev tried to blackmail Gruevski with these recordings, and Gruevski would not submit — instead exposing Zaev.

The crux of the matter, say conservatives, is that the “post-Communists” feel entitled to run the country, the way they or their forerunners did for so long. They are not used to having to compete for power, and, when they lose elections, they lash out or connive.

Smiling at all this are the Greeks, who say, “Told you these fake Macedonians were not fit for the EU and other international organizations” (as though Greece should talk).

May 1 is May Day, i.e., the Left’s day. They are out on the streets of Skopje in force. There are public-sector unions, SDSM officials, professional protesters — the whole gang.

Red flags are everywhere, and they are plain, unadorned. They look a little forlorn without their hammers and sickles, or even a star. But soon I see one or two stamped with the image of Che Guevara.

The noise of the Left is deafening, as usual. People blow non-stop on whistles for no apparent reason — intimidation? — and bellow through bullhorns. The crowd is now chanting something. A friend says, “It’s ‘No justice, no peace.’” Makes me feel right at home.

A sign depicts Gruevski and says that he takes from the poor and gives to the rich. Virtually the whole Occupy tableau — with noise — is in place.

But this is a tableau that moves. They are marching on one side of a broad avenue. On the other, a smallish group is marching, in parallel, all by itself. Why? My friend explains, “They’re feuding with another group. They think that the other group is corrupting the workers’ movement, by accepting so much Soros money.”

In September next year, the Republic of Macedonia will mark its 25th anniversary. The country is “not a perfect democracy,” as the aforementioned man of the democratic Left says. “But you can’t go to bed in a Communist country and wake up in Denmark. You have to cultivate roots and develop institutions.” True, true — and may this country be given the time.

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