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As Elections Near, Euro-skepticism on the Rise in Macedonia

By Cvete Koneska*

Two years after the European Union’s last enlargement brought Bulgaria and Romania into the European bloc in 2007, the EU’s appeal in the immediate neighborhood seems to be on the wane. Applicant and potential applicant countries, always the most enthusiastic supporters of EU integration, are becoming less so as domestic problems, the global financial crisis and the EU’s ow enlargement fatigue force them to look beyond Brussels for solutions to their specific needs.

The states of the Western Balkans are in many respects different from those of Central and Eastern Europe, states which comprised the majority of the new entrants in the last wave of EU enlargement.

The most notable difference is that many of the former went through violent domestic conflicts in the last two decades since the fall of communism, as several new states were established after the dissolution of Socialist Yugoslavia.

The common wisdom has been that integration into the EU and NATO would contribute to solving the region’s problems, and help overcome conflict legacies through increased regional cooperation, strengthening of democracy and respect for human and minority rights.

Yet, it appears that the road to EU integration in the Western Balkans may prove bumpier than expected and countries may take a few detours before reaching their intended destination, as the case of Macedonia illustrates.

Four years after the armed conflict in 2001, Macedonia was awarded EU candidate state status in late 2005. Around this time and before the 2006 general elections, pro-European sentiments dominated the domestic discourse of both politicians and the wider public, with an overwhelming 90% of citizens then supportive EU membership. The platform of every political party was based on support for EU and NATO integration, and those were among the highest priorities on the agenda of the government at the time.

Today, almost three years later and on the eve of presidential and local elections in Macedonia, the picture looks rather different. While still a candidate state, Macedonia has not progressed much further with EU integration. Three consecutive Annual Progress Reports of the European Commission have not recommended opening accession negotiations. Further, the government failed to deliver on an additional 8-point benchmark list prepared by the European Commission as a roadmap for getting a date for starting accession negotiations.

Worse still, the early general elections held in 2008 witnessed electoral violence, culminating with the shooting death of one individual. This violence, along with widespread voting fraud, amounted to the least democratic elections the country has held since independence, further tarnishing its image in Brussels.

Moreover, while each Commission report and the election observation report sees pledges to renewed commitment towards EU integration, it seems that the country is slowly becoming more skeptical about the undisputed priority of EU integration on its foreign policy agenda.

As a result, the election campaigns in 2009 also look very different than those in 2006. Talk of EU integration has been replaced, and ‘national unity’ has taken over as the buzzword and banner slogan of these elections.

Gjorgje Ivanov, the presidential candidate of the ruling right-of-center VMRO-DMPNE party, and the candidate with highest popular support in all opinion polls conducted during the last several weeks, is running his campaign with the slogan ‘One for All,’ emphasizing the need for national unity and overcoming ethnic and partisan divisions to unite the country’s population of 2 million during difficult economic and political times.

Ljube Boskovski, a former interior minister indicted and later acquitted by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes during the 2001 conflict, is another presidential candidate using the ‘unity’ motto in his campaign. This nationalist candidate calls for uniting a society deeply divided on ethnic, religious and partisan lines, drawing heavily on a reconciliation vocabulary emphasizing forgiveness, forgetting and building ‘new patriotism’ oriented into the future rather than the past (though he has in the past had little appeal to minority blocs, particularly Albanians).

The main opposition candidate, Ljubomir Frckovski, is holding a more pro-European stance in his campaign, reflecting the Social Democratic Union’s stated commitment to EU integration. However, his is a highly reactive campaign, engaging in discussion and criticisms of the main principles of the ruling party’s political doctrine, thus contributing to an election discussion centered on issues of national unity, patriotism and national identity.

Perhaps the main reason for the inward-oriented political discourse is the unresolved name dispute with neighboring Greece, which started immediately after independence and culminated dramatically with the last NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, when Macedonia was not invited to join NATO along with Croatia and Albania due to Greek objections.

The failure at Bucharest came as a blow to the confidence of the Macedonian leadership from which they are still recovering. After Bucharest, the UN-led negotiations with Greece stalled and Macedonian politics became increasingly introspective and concerned with issues of national history and identity, while regional and European integration were pushed in the background.

The rising disillusionment with EU integration displayed by major political actors on the Macedonian political arena is very different from the pre-accession Euro-skepticism of Central East European states, where marginal and sector-focused politicians were the only Euro-skeptics. In the case of Macedonia, membership in the European Union is often portrayed as clashing with national interests (i.e., changing the name of the country to accommodate Greek demands), not merely as only an expensive proposition or something encroaching on the interests of, for one example, farmers or other parts of the population.

As seen in the current election campaign, Albanian politicians and the ethnic Albanian part of the population are now becoming the strongest supporters of Macedonia’s integration into the EU and NATO, as they tend to perceive the name-dispute with Greece in less emotional terms and are more willing to compromise.

This dichotomy could lead to yet another dividing line between the two largest ethnic groups in Macedonia, but it could also put a fresh impetus onto the EU integration project.

The political system in Macedonia is such that it allows for bargaining across ethnic and party lines, both in government coalition-building and for electing a president. If politicians use the mechanisms at their disposal wisely, Macedonia can emerge from the forthcoming elections with a fresh, albeit more sober, consensus on EU and NATO integration.

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*Cvete Koneska is a PhD student at Oxford University, doing research on Europeanization in post-conflict societies. Her main area of focus is a comparative study of the Balkans and Caucasus, using the cases of Bosnia, Macedonia and Georgia.

Exclusive: NATO Internal Investigation to End with Staff Transfer in Skopje

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- On Monday, 19 January, a NATO general will be dispatched to Skopje from the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy, to look into complaints made against a military official currently employed in a senior position in the alliance’s Macedonia liaison office.

It is likely that this visit will result in an important personnel change in the short to medium-term future. However, it is also likely that due to desires for discretion and preserving harmony within the alliance, the real reasons for the move will never be announced.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity for Balkanalysis.com, one high-ranking NATO official stated that this extraordinary visit from above is coming after a lengthy internal investigation wrapped up in December 2008.

The investigation apparently revolved around a single senior official who has reportedly engaged in chronic abuses of power, minor smuggling and some controversial decisions over the past year.

According to the alliance source, there was no single event or vast scandal that prompted the investigation; rather, it was “several small things that when added up, equaled a big enough problem.”

The likeliest scenario, according to the source, is that the pertinent allied government will announce that the presence of the official under scrutiny is ‘urgently required’ elsewhere, or has sudden ‘health problems,’ to prevent themselves from having to endure the embarrassment of a corruption scandal. A quick and neat staff replacement is thus likely to be carried out, and the whole affair will soon be forgotten.

Such a course of action is unlikely to run counter to any entrenched interests, in Macedonia anyway. The NATO official’s alleged misdeeds were apparently conducted personally and with a minimum of partners.

It is not believed that this figure had the support of any politicians or interests in Macedonia; however, the same does not hold true for this official’s country of origin, where public disclosure could be managed in various ways, depending on how gracefully the termination is carried out. Given the specifics of the case, it is not impossible that the whole issue could be reappropriated – baselessly – by nationalist critics.

Whatever may happen in the current case, the Skopje mission is generally slowly winding down, despite Macedonia’s continued exclusion from NATO due to the unresolved name dispute with Greece. By this time next year it is slated to have fewer foreign personnel than it does now.

Snow Descends on the Balkans, to the Relief of Ski Resorts

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- The first New Year’s gift of 2009 to the citizens of many Balkan countries has come in the form of the season’s first significant snowfall, blanketing large areas in Macedonia, northern Greece, Serbia, Kosovo, Bulgaria and Albania.

In the Macedonian capital of Skopje, some 16cm of snow has accumulated in the past three days- posing a challenge for motorists as city officials, caught dozing by the holidays and an insufficiency of snowplows, have been unable to clear major central streets. In Sofia, Bulgaria, similar conditions have been encountered, but authorities have a more formidable fleet of snowplows (137, to be exact) at their disposal.

Despite a handful of minor accidents, however, Macedonian citizens have generally been enjoying this unusual chance to sled in the center and to see the giant faux Christmas tree in the square, distastefully topped by a giant pink T (a gesture to likely sponsor T-Mobile), adorned by actual snow. Forecasts call for snow to continue falling until Tuesday, and resume later in the week.

Snowfall has been enabled by freezing temperatures across the region. So far, the standard has been set in ever-chilly Erzurum, Turkey. This eastern Anatolian town recently recorded temperatures of minus 36 Celsius.

Snow has also made things interesting in northern Greece, where officials have called on drivers to use chains amidst freezing temperatures as low as minus 13 Celsius and snowfall of up to 25cm across Epiros and the province of Macedonia.

Aerial footage from northern Albania shown earlier this week showed the mountainous region completely snowed under. Already hard enough to navigate in the best of times, this sparsely populated area has become inaccessible in large parts due to snowfall of up to half a meter.

Nevertheless, the sudden snowfall has also meant relief for some ski areas that had until now been hit hard by the lack of snowfall. In Serbia, the snowfall has been a boon for ski areas such as Mt Kopaonik, currently full of skiers and with 45cm of snow coverage.

Macedonia’s main ski area, Mavrovo in the west, was bare until a few days ago, causing concern among company officials. One official stated last week that since snow-making equipment was too expensive, they have been left at the mercy of the elements- which had been proving uncooperative, until this week. Now, however, the center reports over 40cm of snow coverage, many visitors, and predicts that the snow will remain for the duration of the season.

Macedonia’s other major ski center, Ski Centar Kozuf on the Greek border, did not open earlier due to cold temperatures, a company representative stated on December 30, adding that the resort would be opening soon. This new operation claims to have the most modern equipment in the Balkans, including artificial snowmaking guns and a state-of-the-art, six-person German-made lift.

Still a work in progress, the resort which opened just last year has yet to finish paving the 30km-long access road from Gevgelija, let alone to finish construct all of the facilities (though all of the allocated space for ski lodges has long since sold out). Here, the goal is to make an environmentally- and aesthetically-friendly resort; for example, while there will be a movie theater, it will be built underground.

The previous lack of snow, coupled with the general global economic downturn, have meant ski resorts in the region have been late to open or are seeing lessened demand. In Bulgaria’s leading resort area of Bansko, for example, there were still plenty of reservations available during the usually packed holiday period. The reduced number of skiers thus far has also meant declining profits for travel agencies booking tours and local hoteliers. Other, smaller Bulgarian resorts include Chepelare in the Rodopi Mountains (set to open on Jan. 7), are less hectic and cheaper as well- good for bargain-seekers.

Indeed, with no end in sight to the economic recession, regional ski centers can only adjust prices and hope that the skies at least will cooperate for the remainder of the winter season. However, the strange weather patterns of the past few years, perhaps caused by global warming, mean that nothing can be taken for granted and skiers should enjoy the conditions while they have them.

Top Balkan Ski Resorts

Want to make use of the good weather? The following Balkan ski resorts can be found online here.

Bulgaria

(See here)

Bosnia

Bjelasnica

Serbia

Kopaonik

Macedonia

Mavrovo

Ski Centar Kozuf

Greece

(See here)

Victor Friedman on Macedonia: the Balkanalysis.com Interview

Professor Victor Friedman is one of the world’s foremost experts on Balkan languages, and has been studying them for almost four decades, since 1993 as a linguist at the University of Chicago. Professor Friedman has a special place in his heart for Macedonia, which he first visited in 1971. This year finds him back in the country, as the recipient of a Fulbright-Hays Grant from the US Department of Education and a research grant from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.(All opinions expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the funding organizations.)

Balkanalysis.com Director Christopher Deliso caught up with Professor Friedman recently in Skopje for an interview. Their engrossing and wide-ranging conversation, covering everything from linguistic history, politics and lobbying to national identity and multiculturalism, is reproduced below for our readers.

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Christopher Deliso: Victor, thanks for taking the time to discuss your ideas and your research, it’s a great privilege.

Victor Friedman: Thank you, I’m always happy to speak about the Balkans and Macedonia.

Reminiscences

CD: Victor, the first time you visited Macedonia was in 1971. A lot must have changed since then.

VF: Indeed it has. When I first came here, during the height of Yugoslavia, many houses did not have telephones, and I recall you had to wait for 2 years to get one- even in 1994 when I was here for 3 months it was impossible for me to get one in the apartment where I was staying. Things have improved considerably since those days. And some of the damage from the 1963 earthquake damage was also still evident in Skopje.

CD: Even in the center?

VF: Even in the center. A lot of the new buildings were already completed, but there were still some piles of rubble near the Hotel Turist, today’s Best Western on the Ulica Makedonija pedestrian street. Sewer lines were being laid in the Stara Charsija (the bazaar quarter in the old part of town) so you had to cross some streets on boards. And there were an awful lot of buildings still housed in purpose-built ‘barracks.’

CD: Some of which still remain, for housing and offices.

VF: Probably so. And back then, the new main campus of University Ss Cyril & Methodius of Skopje hadn’t been built yet, and the new building for MANU (the Macedonian Academy of Sciences & Arts) hadn’t been rebuilt yet. It was housed in a mansion that I was told had once been owned by a Vlah merchant, and later served as the Italian embassy. There was one shopping center that just opened up in 1973.

CD: You mean the famous GTC (Gradski Trgovski Center)?

VF: Indeed, the GTC. And there were many ordinary consumer goods you couldn’t get here. People went to Thessaloniki or Belgrade to shop for many items.

CD: Interesting. Many Macedonians proudly claim to me that in Yugoslav times they were on a much higher social and economic level than the Greeks.

VF: Actually, the Greeks and Yugoslavs were about on the same level then. With hard currency, you could get a good rate on the drachma. But the difference was that Greece never had Communism, and in the 1970s Greece already had American style-supermarkets; one had to go to Thessaloniki or the US Embassy PX in Belgrade to get peanut butter.

Fewer consumer goods were available in Macedonia than in wealthier parts of Yugoslavia, of course. In 1973, for example, meat was hard to find. I was told that the price for meat was better in Serbia and all the meat went there. On the other hand, public sociability was more vibrant and relaxed. In mild weather all of Skopje went to what was then Marshal Tito Square for korzo (corso). In those days, Skopje wasn’t as big as it is now, and you could meet anyone you wanted to see there. It was also a great way to make new friends.

The Project of the Day

CD: So how about your project that brings you here this time. What is that about?

VF: My project investigates the continuing existence of multilingualism in Skopje.

CD: That’s an interesting topic. I suspect you are spending a lot of time in the Stara Charsija?

VF: Indeed. Among the craftsmen’s shops, tea houses, mosques, churches and open markets there, that is one of the best places in the city to find different social groups and languages rubbing elbows on a daily basis- Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Romani, even some Aromanian and Greek. My project studies the way that these languages are interacting today.

CD: And this idea was something you used to get funding for the project?

VF: Yes. As a linguist, I had to present my case, and the argument that won funding from the Fulbright-Hays (Department of Education) and Guggenheim is that Macedonia in general, and Skopje especially, represents the last place in the Balkans where the conditions that created the Balkan linguistic league are still present to some extent. So I wanted to study this and document its continuing existence today.

Grammatical Multilingualism

CD: ‘Balkan linguistics league’- what do you mean by this?

VF: Right. At the beginning of the 20th century, in the Balkans you had a range of diverse languages on the same territory- the Slavic languages, Greek, Albanian, local dialects of Turkish, three kinds of Romani, Romance languages like Romanian, Aromanian, and Megleno-Romanian and, before the Holocaust, Ladino (or Judezmo) – the language of the Sephardic Jews, a language derived from medieval Spanish with additions from Hebrew andlocal languages that too shape after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

In particular, the Slavic, Romance, Albanian and Greek languages share a lot of grammatical features that are the result of mutual multilingualism.

CD: Grammatical multilingualism? I can understand vocabulary, loan-words, shared by co-existing languages, but what examples are there of grammar influence in the Balkan languages?

VF: The replacement of infinitives by analytic subjunctive clauses using native material is an example of a shared grammatical feature among Balkan languages.

CD: Meaning the particle, like ‘na’ in Greek and ‘da’ in Macedonian?

VF: Yes. And what is really interesting is that even the Balkan dialects of Turkish, but only the Balkan ones, replace the infinitive with an optative- a verb form like a subjunctive but without a particle.

Linguistic Developments

CD: Wow- that’s fascinating.

VF: Yes, the Balkans are very interesting. We know what Ancient Greek, Latin, and Old Church Slavonic, and Sanskrit look liked, and we have Turkic texts going back to the 8th century. We know what these languages looked like in the early medieval period. For Albanian, our oldest significant texts are from the early modern period. We know these changes, these grammatical influences, were taking place in the late medieval and early Ottoman periods (although some are older in some languages). It was really in the Ottoman period that the Balkan languages as we know them today came to resemble one another.

CD: Was this line of investigation something that had been applied elsewhere, or received attention from linguists for a long time?

VF: Well there was some talk in the 19th century of that sort of thing, but in the 19th century, when modern linguistics first took shape with the discovery of the regularity of sound change, most linguists were spending their time trying to find out how languages genealogically resembled one another.

CD: Genealogically, meaning finding a common ancestor, yes? Was this a result of the influence of Darwinism, some sort of intellectual zeitgeist of the time?

VF: Well, some people might tell you that, but most accurately we can say that it coincided with Darwinism and similar trends. But what got people really interested in the genealogical approach to linguistics was the British conquest of India.

CD: Really! Very unusual.

VF: Well think about it: you had these cultured British gentlemen, who had been raised on the full classical education of Latin and ancient Greek, coming to this land of supposed primitives and savages- and getting completely blown away by the resemblances between Sanskrit, which they came across for the first time, and Latin and Greek.

The Balkans: A Special Place

CD: So then, to return to the former topic, can I ask whether this grammatical influence of different languages within a specific terrain is a rare thing? Do you find it in other parts of Europe like, say, Switzerland, with its four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansch) as well as the linguistically distinct Swiss German?

VF: Not to the same extent as in the Balkans. French, German and those languages had specific influences of different kinds on each other, but the ordinary populations were not necessarily multilingual until relatively recently, and even today each language in Switzerland is influenced significantly by the usage in the neighboring nation-states where they are standardized.

CD: So what was it about the Balkans that made it so amenable to multilingualism?

VF: Well, going back to Ottoman times, we could consider it partially an issue of pragmatism for city dwellers, traders and so on, for whom knowing other languages was directly beneficial to their livelihoods and businesses, with such diverse populations living together.

It’s also interesting to note that most linguistic studies of multilingualism today are being carried out in post-colonial areas of the world, or among immigrant communities living in wealthy countries. My research here in the Balkans is unusual in this context because this is a region with an endemic, long-existing, relatively stable and uninterrupted history of multilingualism.

Multilingualism as a Culture Value: A Telling Absence

VF: At the same time, multilingualism here was also a matter of a common cultural value, one shared by speakers of all the Balkan languages, except Greek. But we should also note that this language-ideological resistance on the part of Greek did not keep the language from being influenced by those with which it was in contact.

CD: Really! That’s unusual. How do we know Greek lacks this value?

VF: One telling aspect, from a linguist’s point of view, is that Greek is the only language in the Balkans that does not have a proverb to the effect that ‘languages are wealth’ or ‘the more languages you know, the more people you’re worth.’ All other Balkan languages have some such saying that indicates a value placed on multilingualism.

CD: Are we sure this is true, that Greek lacks such a value? Or could someone just invent one for the sake of it?

VF: To the best of my knowledge, there is no such expression. And over the years I have asked every Greek friend of mine for such a proverb and not one of them has come up with one. And I am talking about linguists, experts on the Balkans who are not subjective.

An example I recall comes from the introduction to a recently published book on the minority languages of Greece (which is, alas, still a highly political topic in that nation-state). The author was talking about Arvanitika, the Albanian dialect/language of speakers who migrated to Greece a millennium or so ago. The introduction was written by a respected Greek linguist- he wrote that among the Arvanites, and probably, emphasis mine, among the other Balkan peoples, there is this expression of languages as wealth. But he didn’t know of any such expression in Greek.

Confusion and Denial

CD: By the term ‘Arvanitika,’ you mean medieval Albanian?

VF: Most precisely, it refers to the Albanian dialects of Greece that separated from the main body of Tosk Albanian 600-1000 years ago. The dialects were spoken on many Greek islands, the Peloponnese, and in Attica and Central Greece. Greeks don’t like to admit it, but they have had large Albanian-speaking populations for a very long time, not just post-Communist economic migrants. While these dialects are now moribund owing to hegemonistic Greek language policies, they can still be encountered in places like Livadhia.

CD: An interesting detail-

VF: And I recall one vignette: many years ago at a conference, I met a woman who was Greek, but she knew Arvanitika. So we communicated, I in standard modern Albanian, she in Arvanitika. It was close enough to communicate.

I asked her, ‘how do you know you this language?’ As a linguist, it was an interesting detail. She replied, ‘well, I learned it from my grandmother.’

CD: Which would have meant she was of partial Arvanitika descent?

VF: Well, I asked innocently enough – I wasn’t really aware of the politics at the time – ‘why would a Greek learn Albanian if they weren’t Albanian?’ She was somewhat confused.

The next morning, however, when I saw this woman she said to me: ‘I couldn’st sleep all night thinking about what you said.’ She was a bit upset. ‘I thought about it,’ she said, ‘and no! I am Greek! I am Greek!’ It was the last time I tried to suggest to a Greek that if they learned another language at home, it was because that was the native language of the speaker.

The Nationalist Trap and State Policies

CD: (Laughing) on that note, let’s talk about the Macedonia issue now. Greece denies the Macedonian identity, referring to ancient history. What do you think about this?

VF: Unfortunately, with independence, some Macedonians fell into the nationalist trap set by Greece. The Greeks came up with a line claiming the Macedonians could not claim the name Macedonia unless they were descended from the Ancient Macedonians.

Well, no one can reasonably claim to be descended from the Ancient Macedonians, but this became part of the argument, instead of other more pertinent things. And so the issue has remained. But the Greeks have been denying the existence of Macedonia and the Macedonians all along.

CD: From your perspective, how far back does this go as a state policy? To the breakdown of Yugoslavia, or further?

VF: Oh, it’s been that way ever since modern Macedonians began to call themselves Macedonians. The Greeks have been denying the existence of its Macedonian minority since acquiring Greek Macedonia at the Treaty of Bucharest following the Second Balkan War (1913), except for a brief period in the 1920s. In 1957, an otherwise respectable Greek linguist named N. Andriotis published a polemical and, from an academic point of view, deeply flawed booklet entitled ‘The Confederate state of Skopje and Its Language’ – referring, of course, to Macedonia and Macedonian within Socialist Yugoslavia.

CD: This is very interesting to me, because as you know, many Greeks today refer to the whole country of Macedonia by the name of the capital, and the people as ‘Skopjeans.’ So they were using this reference even then?

VF: Of course. But already in the 19th century, Macedonian speakers were calling themselves Macedonians (Makedontsi), their language, ‘Makedonski.’ This is documented.

CD: But they were also calling themselves ‘Bulgarians’ then.

VF: Yes, some were, and speakers identified as Serbs or Greeks or Turks, depending on religious loyalties, but most of the time, speakers called themselves Christians or Turks (Muslims).

CD: Because the Ottoman system used religion as the main factor in classifying its subjects?

VF: Yes, but not just because of the Ottomans- religion was more important then as well. It was the late 18th/early19th century ideas, developed from the French Revolution that led to nation-state ideologies.

Organized Obliteration?

VF: But even well before this, some have made a case – and this refers again to the social resistance against other languages – that the Greeks have been trying to destroy Slavic culture in this area since the Middle Ages.

CD: ‘Greeks,’ meaning the Byzantines?

VF: Yes. For example, John Fine in his book The Early Medieval Balkans (p. 220) cites Vladimir Moshin, who published an article in1963 in a Russian academic journal in which he made the argument that the reason there are no Slavic language manuscripts from this region prior to 1180 is owing to their deliberate destruction by the Greeks/Byzantines.

CD: Really!

VF: Up until his article, people had been saying it was the Turks who destroyed everything. But there are Greek-language manuscripts from this period that survived in this region, whereas Slavic ones did not. And it is not as if the latter were not being composed in an organized way; the Ohrid literary school which began in the late 9th century is just one place where manuscripts were being written in large numbers. Which means that Greeks have been trying to destroy Slavic culture and literacy for a very long time.

CD: Many Bulgarian politicians and academics claim that Macedonian is just a dialect of Bulgarian. What do you say on this topic?

VF: The answer is of course Macedonian is a distinct language.It is similar to Bulgarian, but just as Swedish and Norwegian are similar languages, but separate, so, too, are Macedonian and Bulgarian.

CD: Why?

VF: Both sets of languages have different dialectal bases. And for this reason it is not at all like the case of Moldovan and Romanian. The Moldovan standard language is not based on Moldovan dialects; it is based on the same Wallachian dialects as standard Romanian.

In the case of Macedonian, however, the standard language is based on the dialects spoken in the west-central geographical area defined by Veles, Bitola, Prilep and Kichevo. It is not identical with any specific dialect, and has elements from the eastern ones as well. Standard Bulgarian is not based on a single dialect, but is based on eastern Bulgarian dialects, from Veliko Tarnovo to the Danube and further east.

CD: Why were these specific dialectal areas chosen, in both cases?

VF: What happened was that in the 19th century there were two major centers of literacy and prosperity- one in southwestern Macedonia, the other in northeastern Bulgaria. The Bulgarians decided to impose those eastern dialects from the area north of the Stara Planina range, east of the dialectal division called the yat line, and south of the Danube, on the whole state.

CD: What was the thinking? Was this an organized campaign for specific reasons?

VF: We’re talking about the phenomenon of intellectuals fighting over what’s going to happen when they get their own state- just like with the Congress of Manastir (Bitola) in 1908, when the Albanians were worrying about agreeing on a common Albanian alphabet before there was an Albanian state (in 1912). The Bulgarians didn’t have a state until the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.

CD: What about the situation in Greece at the time, where different propagandists were at work from different sides? Were these dialects considered Bulgarian or Macedonian, or both? What can linguists reconstruct today?

VF: There are a number of dialectal studies. Some speakers considered themselves Macedonians, some Bulgarians, and some Greeks, and some Turks, depending, in part, on religious affiliation (Exarchist, Patriarchist, and Muslim for the last three at that time). Firsthand accounts are available in some books published in, e.g., Australia and Poland, and Canada, but the Aegean Macedonians who were victims of Greek abuse at that time are mostly dead.

The generation that suffered during the Greek Civil War (1946-49) however, is still alive. The ones who are still alive often do not want to tell their stories because they are afraid or the memories are too painful. Even for curious foreigners, if you go to Greece to do research on Macedonian, you run the risk that the police will take your tapes, destroy them, and kick you out for expressing an interest in what is still a taboo topic for them.

CD: Really! Are there some examples?

VF: Yes, and it happened to a colleague of mine who was doing dissertation research in a village whose name I will omit to protect the inhabitants.

CD: aha, the village near Kastoria?

VF: Yes, and precisely for this reason it is one of the most interesting Macedonian dialects, because it is the most southwestern Macedonian dialect. It is transitional between eastern and western types of Macedonian. And the Greek police confiscated the tapes of this linguist and interfered with his research. However, he did finish his dissertation on this dialect. In fact, in his introduction, he made a point of thanking the Greek police for teaching him to always keep backup tapes!

CD: Ha! So with all of this intimidation, not to mention the journalist arrests we saw recently, what are the Greeks so afraid of?

VF: They’re incredibly insecure. No, they’re not just insecure. They have a linguistic ideology that insists on wiping out all other languages. This is an old ideology. It is the origins of the term barbarian. Think about it.

Why don’t we have any traces of other languages preserved? As a matter of fact we do. There are some ancient inscriptions in Thracian.

CD: I thought the Thracians had no written language?

VF: They did. The inscriptions are in Greek script, but the words are Thracian. And the inscriptions are sitting in Greece, gathering dust. They know they’re there, but no one’s going to work on them because the language is not Greek. So they’re not going to let anyone see them. I have this from a colleague of mine who is a classicist and interested in the subject.

CD: Your Greece vignette reminds me of being the village of Amyndaeo south of Florina last year. I came across these two old men speaking to each other in Macedonian. I said dobar den (‘good day’s). And you know what? This man was so alarmed that he reacted before he could think, instinctively, by blurting out ne razbiram Makedonski (‘I don’t understand Macedonian’). This was one of the most ironic examples of fear of speaking one’s language I could imagine.

VF: Indeed.

CD: So I guess my question for you is, we asked the local people in Florina what percent of the people there speak Macedonian, since public life is mostly in Greek it was an interesting question. And several people said, ‘oh, everyone speaks it.’s What is your experience?

VF: Well, as far as I was told everybody in the area around Florina, or Lerin in Macedonian, over the age of 40 speaks Macedonian, whether they’re Macedonian or not. This is according to a colleague of mine who has done recent research. However, the younger generation is not learning it. But it is a topic that requires further (unhindered) research.

CD: From what I understand from different stories, this is because it is not helpful to advancement in Greek society, and can even be a strongly negative factor-

VF: Yes. The Greek government is effectively carrying out ‘linguicide’ on the Macedonians of Greece. And it has been a long-running policy. For another example, I have a photo of a sign in Greek, from the 1950s, printed up in blue-on-white, urging people to forbid anyone from speaking in ‘Vlahika, Makedonika etc.’ There used to be many such signs in Greek Macedonia.

CD: Really! That is quite compelling. Do people know about this?

VF: I don’t know-a friend sent the photo to me, I am finally getting around to publishing it in a review article in the journal Balkanistika next year.

But the Greek policy was always trying to kill the language. It was especially horrible in the 1930s. Macedonian kids would go to school, and if they spoke their language, the language they learned at home, numerous ‘corrective’ methods were used: teachers beat them, or stuck their tongues with needles, or rubbed a hot pepper on their tongues; anything to make them stop speaking Macedonian.

CD: Really! That sounds very extreme.

VF: Oh, they were terrible. In the 1930s, people were put in jail just for speaking Macedonian. The Greek government had people skulking around the windows of people’s houses, listening to hear if they spoken Macedonian so that they could report them to the police. Mothers were thrown in jail for speaking Macedonian to their babies. They terrorized the Macedonians, and then, with the Greek Civil War, they drove many of them out.

CD: Never to return-

VF: And then there’s the infamous ‘race clause’ in the amnesty law of 1982; it stipulated that to return the country and reclaim one’s property, all those who had been banished had to declare they were Greek by genos, by race or birth. Macedonians who were expelled, many just children at the time, in 1949, were never allowed to reclaim their property. It was racism, pure and simple.

CD: Do you recall what was the reaction here in Macedonia, from the locals? And what about the European countries? Surely this would have been considered a great breach of European values?

VF: I was actually here at the time this was announced. The people were very upset, because they have been so badly mistreated all along. The ‘Great Powers,’ of course, said nothing.

CD: Well this is interesting, because here we have in America a new president, a black man who surely knows something about the meaning of racism, and indeed the issues of race and injustices resonated throughout Obama’s campaign.

And at the same time, Obama signed that anti-Macedonian senate resolution, and has been a big supporter of the Greek lobby, who are probably counting on a return on their investment. Has anyone, to the best of your knowledge, pointed out this blatant hypocrisy regarding his support for a country that has a history of racist policies against its own citizens?

VF: No, I haven’t heard anyone put this to his people. It would be nice if the message could be gotten out, but so far I haven’t seen this happen. The Macedonians don’t seem to know enough about public relations and American politics- they should be using lobby companies, getting their message out every day in Washington.

CD: Yes, I concur with that-

VF: And, at the same time, the Greeks get away with this ‘cradle of democracy’ image! Give me a break! Ancient Greece was a slave-owning society. And you know, some scholars argue that Modern Greece is a creation of the Western European romantic imagination- for example, Lord Byron’s romanticized view of Ancient Greece projected, on the modern population. This is persuasively argued in a book of academic Michael Herdzfeld, called Ours Once More.

CD: That is an interesting school of thought, I had not really conceived it as such but there is something to it. What was the reaction to this book?

VF: I do not think there was a huge reaction, but Herzfeld was involved with another book, Anastasia Karakasidou’s Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood, which did generate a great deal of controversy. Published by the University of Chicago Press in 1997, this book was actually a very mild challenge to Greek hegemonistic notions. What it dared to do, based on fieldwork in Greek Macedonia, was to state that there were citizens of Greece who did not feel themselves to be ethnic Greeks and that they still spoke their own language.

Cambridge University Press had committed to publishing the book with minor revisions, and then they suddenly decided not to publish the book. They had committed to it and suddenly changed their minds. Prof Herzfeld was on the editorial board of CUP’s anthropology series at the time, and he resigned in protest, as did other members of the board.

CD: Yes, they cited ‘the safety of their staff in Greece’ as their reason, right?

VF: Well they said that. However, the way I heard it, CUP had a monopoly on English-language testing in the schools of Greece as well-

CD: Do you believe that the Greek government threatened that they would lose this privilege?

VF: I have no idea, but assuming that they had a monopoly- two plus two, what are you going to make of that, four or twenty-two?

CD: But then you guys saved it-

VF: Yes, the University of Chicago went ahead and published the book, to their credit. But the whole situation is just disgusting; it makes Europe look like what she was called at the beginning of the 20th century, as depicted in the Bulgarian film Mera spored Mera, made in the 1980s. It was somewhat provocative, and received criticism from some quarters of the Communist government, because it used Aegean Macedonian dialects, as it was about the post-Ilinden period just after 1903.

The memorable line from the film, which was part of a real folk song dating back to 1878, was something like this: ‘be thou cursed and thrice cursed Europe, O you whore of Babylon and murderer of Macedonia.’

CD: So, what do you think then of the international negotiations over the name issue, and the constant pressure for Macedonia to ‘compromise’ with Greece here?

VF: There is no real compromise. There can’t be. Think about it: if a thief comes up to and holds a gun to your head and says ‘give me your money,’ do you say, ‘I’ll give you half,’ and call that a compromise? That’s Greece. They are trying to destroy Macedonia’s identity, plain and simple.

Note that no one on the Macedonian side is saying that Greeks cannot call themselves Macedonians, or their province Macedonia. But they never call themselves as such out of this context- they are, to themselves, Greeks first and foremost. So nobody actually needs the name Macedonia, and no one needs to call themselves Macedonians for their primary identity, except for these people in this small country that is not a threat to anyone.

CD: On that note, to conclude, let me ask this: based on your research, do you think that Macedonia gets enough credit for preserving its multiculturalism? And does it reflect at all on the temperament of the people here that it has been able to do so?

VF: First of all, Macedonia doesn’t get any credit. And in fact the isolation that Greece has succeeded in imposing on Macedonia in the last 17 years has been a major factor in adding to inter-ethnic tension here, as we saw unfortunately in the 2001 conflict.

If the Greeks had just left the Macedonians alone to begin with, there would have been fewer such problems, or at least greater capacity to deal with the existing ones. But it was the Greek government (especially after 1991) and the Serbian government (especially after 1981) who exacerbated most of the problems, for their own purposes.

You know, the vast majority of normal people of all ethnicities in this country live together peacefully. There is a saying in Macedonian: nie sme krotok narod: ‘we are a mild people.’ A peaceful people. This is something that is constantly overlooked by the Great Powers- that, relative to the rest of the Balkans and much of the world, for all the very real problems that exist, Macedonians are still among the most peaceful and tolerant people you will find anywhere.

CD: Victor, thank you very much for your time and insightful comments. I appreciate it.

VF: And thank you.

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Good Cheer, Cooperation Prevail as Macedonians Plant 6 Million Trees

Text and photos by Christopher Deliso

On Wednesday, Macedonians made history – for the second time this year – by planting some 6 million trees in a single day. An initiative of the non-governmental organization Den na Drvoto (‘Day of the Tree’), this astonishing event was the second coming of the inaugural efforts of March 12, when 2 million trees were planted all around Macedonia, representing one for each of Macedonia’s citizens.

Although Wednesday’s planting efforts had been envisioned back then, they were given extra urgency by the fact that, as in 2007, summer wildfires destroyed vast tracts of forest around the country. 2008 was a very dry year- good for the winemakers, but bad for rivers, lakes and forests, and so the Tree Day events were especially welcome.

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Macedonian Army soldiers made a big contribution to planting trees at the ridge above Miladinovci, as elsewhere in the country.

The plantings were held at about 100 locations throughout Macedonia, with only a few of the more elevated locales being canceled due to freezing conditions. Organizing the logistics alone was a monumental task, involving hundreds of volunteers, the guidance of forestry officials, and a great effort from the Macedonian army. Soldiers alone planted around 120,000 trees.

Incredibly enough, the whole organization was spearheaded out of a single office in the center of Skopje. Of course, the Day of the Tree enjoyed the wholehearted support of the Macedonian government, something that was the decisive factor in creating the conditions for the event to be successful.

Indeed, the prime minister himself, Nikola Gruevski, was greatly impressed and persuaded by the Den na Drvoto planners into supporting the venture. Sadly (but predictably) the government’s support for this environmental movement led newspapers supporting an opposition perceived to be arrogant and disdainful of the people to make petty criticisms. Organizers shrugged them off, however, stating that any past planning mistakes would be corrected in the future.

balkanalysis-dennadrvoto-drill

Boring away, this drill was going full throttle all day on the ridgeline, digging holes for volunteers to plant trees in.

Despite the influence and efforts of the organizers, the Day of the Tree succeeded primarily because of the good cheer and eager cooperation of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Macedonians, who steadily streamed from their homes, or were trucked in by bus to out-of-the-way locations throughout the day. Not only were they in a good mood because of the public holiday from work and school, but planting trees proved to be genuine good fun, bringing people back in touch (literally) with the earth- ground that was in many places sodden and soggy from morning rains.

These conditions made just getting to some of the sites a challenge. In Miladinovci, a village near the OKTA oil refinery on the Skopje-Kumanovo highway, many hundreds set out on a walk of almost an hour just to reach the planting site, comprising rolling hills that had been denuded of trees by fire. The way was muddy, slippery and steep, but everyone from schoolchildren to retirees got there (some special individuals, like EU representative Erwan Fouere, got to travel by Jeep, of course). One of the main foreign supporters of the initiative, Dutch ambassador Simone Filipini, laughed off the poor conditions: ‘this is what I brought my boots for!’ she said.

Up on the hill, serrated by long rows of carefully dug shallow trenches, teams of volunteers led by Trajanov planted tiny saplings. Each was set firmly in holes that were being dug with gusto by a man with a huge hydraulic drill- the definite MVP of the day. Ardent supporters of Tree Day from the entertainment world, such as pop singers Karolina and Rebeka, planted dozens of trees in the muddy ground as cameramen jostled for shots- a new approach to getting the dirt on celebrities.

balkanalysis-rebeka-dennadrvoto

Macedonian celebrities like pop singer Rebeka were happy to help the Tree Day organizers finish the job.

Organizers such as Trajanov were kept informed of the proceedings at other sites in the rest of the country all day by phone. The mastermind of the Day of the Tree was delighted to announce that by 1 pm, approximately 5 million trees had already been planted. The result left him optimistic about the future.

‘You know, this morning, I didn’t really know what to expect,’ said Trajanov at that moment. ‘But seeing this turnout, how much the people really love Tree Day, and really enjoy being out and making a difference for our environment, it makes me very certain we can actually plant 20 million trees on March 12.’

This incredible goal is something the campaign is preparing for during the winter ahead, in terms of both organizational and promotional work. The tireless efforts of Boris Trajanov internationally have also resulted in agreements with several neighboring states, such as Montenegro, to simultaneously participate in the March planting. ‘It is a great way for the people of the Balkan countries to show their common dedication to cooperation for a better future,’ said the singer, who also serves as a UNESCO Artist for Peace. ‘And eventually, who knows? Maybe we can spread this movement to the whole world!’

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Good news! Organizers from around the country inform Boris Trajanov and manager Viktor Pavlovski that they've surpassed the 5-million-tree mark.

The massive tree planting on November 19 was preceded by a week of promotional activities around the country and small, symbolic plantings in several places.

On November 16, the Den na Drvoto team visited Kokino, that wonderfully weird set of stone formations atop a windswept hill in eastern Macedonia where astronomical observations were carried out in remotest antiquity.

During the visit the archaeologist from the Museum of Kumanovo who discovered the site, Jovica Stankovski, vividly explained the topography of Kokino and its uses to an appreciative audience. Renowned Macedonian poet Svetlana Jocic read pastoral works of her own and poems of famous Macedonian poets of yesteryear.

Three trees were planted at the base of the site, which may be used in the future for operatic performances and concerts, according to the organizers.

Later in the day, they planted more trees on the grounds of the Staro Nagoricane municipality, joined by Mayor Vlasta Dimkovic, and then were given a detailed tour of the village’s 14th-century Church of Sveti Georgi, known for its sublime original frescoes.

balkanalysis-dennadrvoto-singulickids

At the Singulic 'Children's Village' for orphans, Boris Trajanov gets some planting assistance from eager kids.

The following day, the Den na Drvoto team visited the ‘Children’s Village’ in the eastern Skopje suburb of Singulic, an Austrian-funded ring of homes for children abandoned by their parents. These children, who come from all Macedonian ethnic groups, live in the surprisingly modern facilities under the watchful eye of several ‘mothers’ who look after them.

In a touching moment, the excited children performed a carefully rehearsed song for Trajanov and the other representatives of the Tree Day initiative.

They then got to help plant trees in their yard, and play host to their special guests, offering drinks and desserts with great hospitality.

The day finished with another symbolic tree planting, outside the newly built Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall in Skopje- a somewhat easier venue for foreign luminaries to reach than the muddy hilltop trenches of Wednesday.

Here, a row of trees was planted following a short speech by Trajanov in front of a crowd that included the foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, US ambassador Phil Reeker, several European ambassadors and representatives of international organizations, singers and many journalists.

balkanalysis-dennadrvoto-karolina

Singer and Tree Day supporter Karolina Goceva lends a shovel outside the Boris Trajkovski Sports Hall.

This dedicated flurry of activity of the week past indicates that a handful of determined individuals, even from a small country like Macedonia, can indeed make a big difference, and set an example for their neighbors- most of which have also suffered from fires and man-made environmental depredations in recent years.

If the Tree Day initiative catches on, as indeed seems to be the case, a little Balkan country that many project to be foundering in the back of the pack will have found a way to take a leading role on the international stage- one tree at a time.

balkanalysis-dennadrvoto-boristrajanovsimonefilippini

Boris Trajanov gets some assistance from a major foreign enthusiast for the Den na Drvoto campaign, Dutch ambassador Simone Filippini, outside the sports hall.

Confronted with Greek Obstructionism, Macedonia Appeals for International Justice

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)- At a special press conference at 4pm today in Skopje, Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs Antonio Milososki announced that the government has opened a case against Greece at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. At issue is Greece’s blocking of Macedonian NATO membership at the alliance’s April summit, which occurred due to the unresolved name dispute between the two countries.

According to the foreign minister, this act of obstructionism violated the September 13, 1995 Interim Accord, in which Greece pledged not to block its smaller and weaker northern neighbor from joining international organizations under the name it had forced the country to adopt for UN usage (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

There was no immediate Greek reaction to the announcement, which occurred just as Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and President Branko Crvenkovski, frequently critical of each other’s diplomatic acumen, were supposed to meet to hammer out a common position on the name issue.

Indeed, at least as harmful as Greek intransigence for Macedonia’s predicament has been the chronic disunity of its political leadership- a situation that Athens has been skillfully manipulating for years. Predictably enough, the president reacted to the government’s announcement by claiming he had not been consulted on the issue, and declared that “the Prime Minister (Nikola Gruevski) and his government are completely taking over the responsibility for the UN talks as well as for our European Union and NATO integration,” reported Balkan Insight.

Crvenkovski, whose approval ratings domestically are so low that he has assured the citizenry of his desire to abdicate (in the form of not running again in the March 2009 elections), recently raised eyebrows when he fired the long-time negotiator on the name issue, Nikola Dimitrov. The president and his yes-men in the media, politics and academia are frequently depicted in pro-government and independent media, including satirical spots, as being exceptionally eager to satisfy Greece.

As if on cue, Left-wing ally Ljubomir Frckovski, a professor and former interior minister, reacted by condemning the government’s action on Kanal 5, claiming it would lead to Macedonia’s ‘international isolation’- the favored threatening vocabulary of the Karamanlis regime. On the other hand, pro-government experts surveyed were quick to call the action a ‘historic decision’ that had been delayed far too long.

In fact, one of the first questions Minister Milososki received in his press conference was that of timing, or, why Macedonia had not raised this case in April, immediately after the Bucharest rejection. He replied by stating that even organizing the case was a process that took months, and required consulting numerous foreign legal advisors.

However, the verdict of the court case, which is expected to take from 2-3 years to be known, will not necessarily have any great effect. While a Macedonian victory at the Hague would certainly shame the Greeks, “the country’s decision on whether to comply with the court’s rulings or not is a political question,” stated Balkan Insight, quoting a court spokesman. If recent history is any indicator, few in Greece will lose sleep over the outside world’s opinion of them.

Further, Macedonia could not expect automatic NATO membership either, since there are any number of criteria which could be raised – rightly or wrongly – to keep it barred indefinitely.

In fact, there is growing talk in diplomatic circles in Skopje these days about some form of extra requirements being envisioned, or even sanctions that will be levied on Macedonia, should the name issue remain unresolved. Vexed about the chronic failure to resolve the dispute, the thinking goes, international diplomats are likely to take out their frustrations on the weakest party available- Macedonia.

If there are indeed any such extra reform stipulations raised, they will likely refer to an alleged lack of political maturity stemming from last June’s violence-plagued elections.

Considering that presidential and local elections are coming up – on the Ides of March, of all days – it is likely that any repeat of election-related violence will be immediately cited as a reason to keep Macedonia out of NATO, despite its major contributions to NATO missions and completed military reforms.

Greek Crackdown on Macedonian Journalists Draws International Condemnation, New Questions

By Christopher Deliso

The tense ordeal of four Macedonian journalists detained by police in a northern Greek village on Monday is gaining wider attention, and has caused an international outcry against the perceived heavy-handedness of Greek authorities- and what their apparent contempt for the free press may be covering for.

For their part, the Greeks are claiming that the Macedonian government is trying to stir up trouble; Greek Foreign Ministry Spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos accused Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of engaging in “a provocative effort to blatantly distort the truth,” reported Kathimerini. By daring to speak out against the crackdown, the Macedonian leader is, according to Koumoutsakos, making “a new, unacceptable attempt to intervene in Greek domestic affairs.”

However, the Greek version of ‘the truth,’swhich states that the journalists were somehow blocking military movements, and in the end left Greece of their own free will, is wildly at variance with what the journalists themselves experienced, as we will see below. It also ignores what local witnesses claim is a recent legacy of violence against civilians, and broken promises by the army in this normally quiet border region.

The journalists, from A1 Television and the Nova Makedonija newspaper, were detained by police near the Florina-area village of Lofi (Za’sbrdeni in Macedonian) and interrogated, after they had sought to interview ethnically Macedonian villagers involved with protests against a Greek Army military operation in the region (a newspaper report cites the villagers as being opposed to the operation because “the army’s use of live ammunition interferes with their farming.”

The journalists, who were consistently barked at in Greek by police despite not knowing the language particularly well, were threatened with having their equipment confiscated and ordered to leave the country. It is uncertain as to whether they will ever be allowed to return.

On Wednesday, the Vienna-based South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO, an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), released a sharp critique of the Greek authorities’s actions. In a press release, the organization said the arrests left it “alarmed at recent restrictions on reporters’ ability to freely carry out their work in Greece,” with SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic condemning it as a “clear infringement of the free movement and freedom of expression of journalists.”

The Macedonian Foreign Ministry also cried foul, saying that the journalists’ detention “breaches Article 10 of the European Convention for Human Rights and OSCE documents on freedom of speech and expression,” reported the Sofia Echo. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was quoted in the same report as saying, “when [military exercises] are practically taking place in front of the yards of citizens and are not relocated after numerous demands of the population, it becomes obvious that some other motive is in question. We are talking about a demonstration of power and attempt at spreading fear among the population, which is a far from democratic move by an EU member country.”

Clearly, Greek officials were eager to prevent any on-the-ground interviews that could further prove this speculation. “Despite carrying valid press cards and visas for Greece,” the SEEMO summary added, “the [Macedonian] media representatives were detained because they did not have a special filming license and requested to hand over the material they had gathered at the demonstration. After their release, a police escort strongly advised them not to talk to eye witnesses of the protest and eventually escorted them to the border.”

The irony of it all is that one of the journalists detained, Goran Momirovski of A1 TV, has attained such a reputation for objectivity that he is frequently quoted in major Greek media. And he has often helped his Greek journalistic colleagues on their visits to Macedonia, in some cases personally intervening to get them access to facilities such as Parliament for which they had not obtained correct accreditation in advance.

Most recently, Momirovski took part in a special ‘excellence in journalism’straining program at the headquarters of the prestigious Christian Science Monitor newspaper in Boston, Massachusetts last month, in his role as a collaborator with the only English-language daily newspaper in Macedonia, the Macedonian Daily News.

According to Momirovski, who shared his experiences today with Balkanalysis.com, his team’s recent experiences in Greece were quite a departure from the norm. He states that he has visited Greece around 50 times in the past three years, and “never had any problems” before, even when filming in ethnically Macedonian areas.

What was so different, then, about the latest visit? The timing – just after the unveiling of another unpopular name ‘compromise’ solution from UN Mediator Matthew Nimitz – was not incidental. The story that drew the attention of the Macedonian journalists was a popular protest held by locals in Lofi against Greek military exercises in the area.

According to Momirovski, the military had entered the area two weeks ago but left after locals protested- as had been the case in areas of the Peloponnese and Thessaly. “However, it was only in this area [of Greek Macedonia] that the army actually returned,” he says. The resulting protests against the army’s comeback attempt resulted in injuries and arrests, and thus drew the attention of the Macedonian media.

Stating that his team had arrived around 11am on Monday morning, after having faithfully told the Greek border guards where they would be going, Momirovski adds that “we were not able to speak with any of the protesters, because we were told by locals that they had just gone to bed two hours before- they had been held by the police up until that time.”

Instead, the local villagers suggested the journalists go to two nearby villages where they could perhaps find more information.

After driving out of the village on a secondary road, however, the television team was followed by military vehicles and stopped by police who barked at them in Greek and detained them. While he notes that the police acted “very correctly with us” (i.e., no threats or beatings), Momirovski questions the reasonableness of their demands. “They told us that we cannot take photos or videos, because it is a border area, but could stay as ‘tourists,'” he states, noting however that when he inquired repeatedly three years ago with officials in Athens about obtaining permissions, with no response, the Greek Press Office in Skopje informed him that “no one will bother you” for filming in the area.

Later, at the border between Florina and Bitola, the journalists were then told they had to surrender all of their cameras and equipment. Of course, they refused. Greek officials tried to claim that the Macedonians were illegally filming military installations. When asked about this, Momirovski gives a pained look. “Would I be stupid enough to try and film a military installation? Besides, there were not any such installations near enough for us to film!”

Indeed, reminds one nationalist commentary website, MINA, “the journalist crews did not take photographs in the restricted area, as claimed by Greek authorities. Zero photographs were found during the check up of the journalists’  equipment.”

The frustrated police told the television crew that they could only return to the village under police escort. But when they returned to Lofi, they were then suddenly informed by the police that they had somehow “disturbed the locals” with their presence and, says Momirovski, “we were ordered to leave the country at once, and the police escorted us to the border.”

Why, in his opinion, were the Greek authorities so eager to prevent contact between the Macedonian film crew and the local villagers? The journalist gives a wry smile. “They didn’t want us talking to these Macedonians, as it would be very obvious [to all viewers] that there really are Macedonians in their country.”

On the other hand, Greek journalists visiting Macedonia face no such hassles, and regularly take extraordinary liberties- as was the case when Greek reporters burst into a secondary school near Strumica to see if the students were learning about Alexander the Great, etc. in their history books, so as to fabricate yet another international “scandal” in place of sound journalism.

The political chill between the two countries and frequent miscommunications have made media cooperation very difficult, even for well-meaning sorts like Momirovski. In April, when Greece infamously blocked Macedonia’s NATO membership at the alliance’s Bucharest Summit, Greek journalists flocked to Skopje, eager to ‘take the pulse’ of the population.

As the present author can recall, it proved very difficult to arrange interviews for them, however, because numerous local and foreign officials and public figures expressed misgivings over how any potential quotes or footage of themselves would be presented back in Greece. “We’ve been burned too many times by the Greeks,” was a typical answer, given by a diplomat who ruefully recalled having spoken for the Greek media in the past and then felt wrongly depicted in the end.

Through it all, Macedonian government officials are sanguine, believing that ugly incidents such as Monday’s journalist crackdown will ultimately play into their hands. A senior diplomat told Balkanalysis.com that “the Greeks continue with this kind of bad behavior, and the world is starting to see it€šÃ„¶ world opinion is now steadily moving towards our side.”

There is a silver lining in all this, at least for fans of black humor. Stung by the US government’s recent refusal to lift visa requirements for Greek citizens, the fastidiously hypocritical Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyiannis stated, “Greece has never accepted the logic of the exertion of pressure between allies.”

Or, as a forthright Greek intellectual told this author not long ago: “our government compensates for its inferiority complex vis-a-vis Turkey by intimidating its small and weak northern neighbor- that’s this ‘name issue’ for you!”

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At Macedonia’s Concert for Tose Proeski, a Huge Outpouring of Love and Sadness

By Christopher Deliso

Macedonia, and indeed the entire Balkans, were transfixed last night by an event much larger than its confines in Skopje’s City Stadium. The massive humanitarian concert for Tose Proeski, held on the one-year anniversary of what would sadly prove to be the 26-year-old singer’s last concert, left tears in the eyes of the more than 40,000 people in attendance, as well as the many many morbalkanalysisstobi800e watching on television (the concert was broadcast in nine European countries, and projected on a special screen in Proeski’s hometown of Krusevo).

Hosted by famous Macedonian actor Toni Mihajlovski and Macedonian Television presenter Eli Tanaskova, the concert featured a stream of performers from both Macedonia and abroad, all of whom had been friends of Tose, including pianist Simon Trpcevski, pop singers Adrijan Gadza and Kaliopi, ethno-pop group Synthesis and even Ukrainian singer Ruslana (winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest). The Macedonian Symphony Orchestra, and Tose’s own touring band, contributed to many of the songs.

Most of the performers sang a selected one of Tose’s classic songs- eerily, often in tandem with the deceased singer. Indeed, throughout the almost five-hour show, the background screen conveying scenes from Tose’s performances and life, floating through the dry ice and haze of stage lights, added a spectral dimension. In any case, the cumulative energy of the stadium, sustained by the massed fans, showed that the spirit of Tose remains alive throughout the land.

The phenomenal love and admiration Tose inspired in those he met was evidenced also by the many well-wishers beamed in by TV links from countries like Croatia, Slovenia and Bulgaria. This format only reaffirmed the importance of the event and the late singer, whose popularity transcended borders and gave the occasionally fractious natives of the various ex-Yugoslav republics a subject for common adoration.

The show began on a chilly but dry night, one day after torrential rains, with a video presentation of Tose’s unforgettable rendition of the traditional song Zajdi, Zajdi, recorded last year in Belgrade; Tose’s are considered among the finest interpretations of the song ever (listen here). And then the guest artists continued to take turns enlivening Proeski’s repertoire, with occasional interludes of comments about his life and even an appearance by the Macedonian prime minister, Nikola Gruevski. However, the most touching moment came near the very end when a posthumously recorded song featuring Tose’s 11-year-old nephew and budding singer, Kristijan, was played.

The common view of both the presenters and other famous people in attendance, as well as the multitude of ordinary folk asked to voice an opinion for the media, was a lonely one: for despite all their attempts to re-eulogize the man who died on October 16, 2007, they all knew that ultimately there was nothing to say. Everyone understood what the late singer meant to them as a nation, his kindness to children and the forgotten, his incredible musical talent, his down-to-earth nature as a country boy from Krusevo who never forgot his roots or his values.

Despite that everyone knew everything already, they all braved at least a sentence or two. Decorum demanded it of them. Macedonians, who have always been known for being able to survive anything, exhibited their trademark dignity in the face of tragedy. In the end, the grace and love generated at the concert seemed for many further affirmation that this small country, most often riven by intrigue, scheming and mutual enmities will indeed survive.

Throughout the concert, viewers in Macedonia and other Balkan countries were invited to send text messages on special numbers to their domestic mobile operators, which will then be donated to childrens’ charities. Tose’s love for children was well known, and was frequently attested when in his concerts he would allow them to come up onto the stage and hug him, awestruck presenting a teddy bear or flowers to their hero. And he donated to children’s hospitals and other charities. At the concert, his foundation made available 200 free tickets for Macedonian children in orphanages and special needs children.

In 2004, when he was a rising star, Tose played in the same City Stadium for approximately 20,000 people. Balkanalysis.com captured that moment for posterity in words and pictures. Here is the link to that article.

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Macedonian Peacekeeping Contributions Recognized at International Defense Conference in Sofia

By Christopher Deliso

Two Macedonian Army representatives were among the chosen expert speakers at a conference last week in Bulgaria devoted to peacekeeping issues involving the former conflict in Bosnia and the Balkan security situation today. The conference was organized by the Bulgarian General Staff and NATO, and held at the prestigious G.S. Rakovski Defense and Staff College in Sofia.

The Macedonian army’s positive and ongoing activities in NATO peacekeeping operations and the military reforms made by Macedonia for NATO were also presented in front of a group of experts from the defense ministries of countries including the USA, France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Serbia, Latvia and Bulgaria. The Macedonian experience was thus presented on an equal level with other notable presentations from the military representatives of these countries.

The two Macedonian representatives, Lieutenant-Colonel Mitko Saraliev and Major Robert Tasevski, are undertaking advanced training at the G.S. Rakovski Defense and Staff College, as part of a bilateral agreement Macedonia has with Bulgaria. Macedonia has similar agreements with Turkey, Estonia, England, Germany, Croatia and the USA, so that Macedonian officers can undertake new training in special programs at staff colleges in these countries.

Before the distinguished guests, Lieutenant-Colonel Saraliev spoke on the participation of Macedonian peacekeeping units in the EUFOR Althea operations in Bosnia, and lessons learned from the experience of Macedonian helicopter detachments and medical teams in Bosnia. Major Tasevski, who is a Military Police commander, spoke about the lessons learned from IFOR and SFOR missions in Bosnia and how to improve institutional cooperation and planning among the NATO countries, and the need for Macedonian soldiers to improve English-language skills for dealing with allied peacekeepers.

tasevsi-schiller-russova-saraliev-rakovski-conference-2008

(Left to Right) Major Robert Tasevski, Dr. Mark Schiller, Lt-Colonel Rossitsa Russeva, Lt-Colonel Mitko Saraliev

In the conference, numerous Bulgarian experts also provided their insight, such as conference organizers Dr. Dimitre Minchev and Lieutenant-Colonel Rossitsa Russeva of the defense college, who spoke, respectively, about the historical context of the Bosnian conflict and the Bulgarian peacekeeping contribution there. The conference’s special guest was Dr. Mark Schiller of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, USA. Dr. Schiller spoke about information tactics in peacekeeping operations and the importance of having good public information officials and keeping good relations with journalists, from an American perspective. Numerous complementary perspectives were also provided in presentations from representatives of the aforementioned countries.

The Macedonian representatives also made the point that the ARM will continue its reform efforts. “Our reform process did not stop because of the negative result at Bucharest, and we will continue until we join NATO,” said Major Tasevski. “We will never give up from the NATO path and our American allies.” According to him, the USA has provided help with everything for Macedonia, from equipment to training and know-how.

Major Tasevski says that through training from the Vermont National Guard he has made many American friends and learned a lot. “I learned from the American colleagues that we must respect and trust everybody in our ranks- it doesn’t matter if the person is a soldier, Non-Commissioned Officer or officer. From the American training, I have learned to value the collecting of different opinions to make informed decisions.”

The US soldiers have also said that Macedonian soldiers are eager students, and learn very quickly. Said Major Tasevski, “I think this is true because we enjoy the job and the Americans are excellent teachers, who make it interesting for us, providing real experience in the training.”

The Macedonian advanced military students are also very happy with their cooperation with the Bulgarian military, and the professional working of the G.S. Rakovski Defense and Staff College. Lieutenant Colonel Saraliev is finishing his two-year assignment in Bulgaria in a few weeks and will return to his regular work in the Department of Inter-army Cooperation in the ARM General Staff. He reflects on his Bulgarian experience, saying, “I am very happy because here I have had the opportunities to use libraries, to be present at technical conferences that discuss strategic and tactical issues, and to present briefings.”

He also has good opinions of his Bulgarian colleagues. “Whenever I asked for help of any kind, or to find information, I was helped without any problems and with hospitality by our Bulgarian colleagues,” he says.

Major Tasevski agrees, saying that he has experienced only good cooperation and friendship with the Bulgarian colleagues. “In the beginning, I was a little nervous because of the difficult history and sometimes disagreements between Macedonia and Bulgaria,” he admits, “but after two weeks it disappeared. At the Rakovski Defense and Staff College, they always want to help us with everything, and even just keep us company so we don’t feel lonely here. I have made many friends and visited many places with my Bulgarian colleagues.”

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Vermonter Helps Macedonian Jews Plant Hope

By Christopher Deliso

It’s a clear warm spring day high on a barren, charred plateau in Macedonia, and Mike Goldstein is holding a Hebrew prayer book in his hands, with a row of tiny saplings decorating the freshly-turned earth at his feet.

A retired general in the Vermont National Guard, Mike has been asked by the tiny Balkan country’s Jewish community to lead the ceremonial planting of some 7,200 trees with a recitation of the sheheheyanu, the Hebrew prayer that marks new beginnings and hope for the future. It is a number heavy with significance; the little saplings are meant to honor the memory of the 7,200 Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust. Flanked by community members young and old, schoolchildren and even a few local officials, Mike pronounces the prayer for hope, as well as a second, the elegiac kaddish invoked at times of mourning.

How this kindly old military man from Burlington ended up on this unlikely Balkan bluff, between a spectacular gorge and majestic, snow-covered peaks, is a fascinating tale that reveals not only one man’s life-changing personal experience, but also a unique connection between Macedonia and Vermont, one which will probably come as a surprise to most Vermonters.

Mike fell in love with Macedonia in 1996, after being sent with a Vermont Guard corps  to help train the fledgling ex-Yugoslav country’s  army  under the auspices of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. About as large as Vermont, dotted with lakes and rippling with forested mountains stretching over 6,000 feet high, Macedonia had obvious natural appeal. It also had millennia of history, with signs of civilization dating back to prehistoric times and rich archeological remains of civilizations such as the ancient Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians and Ottoman Turks. But most of all, says Mike, he developed a fondness for the people: “the kindness and friendliness of the Macedonians was remarkable,” he notes. “I realized that these were the kind of people I enjoyed being around.”

One local group made an especially deep impression. Through the suggestion of his translation assistant, this Vermont descendent of Lithuanian Jews decided to make contact with Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community, who numbered only around 200 people. On March 11, 1996, Mike was invited to attend the community’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. On that date in 1943, the Nazi-allied Bulgarian army, which then occupied Macedonia, deported 7,200 Jews – some 98 percent of the whole Jewish population – to the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.

This catastrophe all but destroyed Macedonia’s once thriving and culturally rich Jewish community, which traced its roots back to Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain following the Inquisition in 1492. Taken in by the Ottoman Turkish sultan, the Jews had been resettled within the empire’s extensive Balkan territories, with Macedonia becoming an especially significant center of Sephardic Jewish culture.

Following Macedonia’s peaceful separation from Yugoslavia in 1991, it began taking steps to make restitutions to descendents of Holocaust victims, and to the larger Jewish community in cases where no living heirs could be found. American Jewish groups, the State Department and the government of Israel have all credited the Macedonians for their efforts, which have surpassed those of several larger and wealthier countries in central and eastern Europe. Presently, a Holocaust Memorial Center is under construction in Skopje, on the same spot where the city’s Jewish quarter once stood along the banks of the winding River Vardar.

Although Mike Goldstein retired from the military in 1999, he found that his bond with Macedonia was a permanent one, and he has been coming back every year to show solidarity with the Macedonian Jews as they commemorate the tragedies of the past. This year, the remarkable convergence of that event with another symbolic act made Mike’s visit even more historic. The day after the Holocaust memorial ceremony, Goldstein and the Jewish community did their part in an extraordinary nationwide event: the planting of over 2 million trees by volunteers of all ages, including politicians, celebrities, grandparents and grandchildren, and even border policemen from neighboring states. Spearheaded by Macedonian opera singer Boris Trajanov, the mass planting was meant to help replenish the country’s forests, following last summer’s unfortunate spate of wildfires.

“The day was symbolic on a lot of levels,” says Mike, noting that the planting was a gesture of commitment to Macedonia’s ecological restoration, while for the Jews it “helped dignify the memory of those who died.” In the bigger picture, as the organizers had hoped, the Den na Drvoto (“Day of the Tree,” in Macedonian) proved that Macedonia’s sometimes fractious ethnic groups could indeed work together for the common good. Only seven years ago, Macedonia stood on the brink of civil war with an uprising from the ethnic Albanian minority, bolstered by Albanian volunteers from northern neighbor Kosovo. However, an internationally-brokered treaty soon restored the peace, and since then the country has been slowly but surely working towards its goals of economic development and membership in key international bodies such as the European Union and NATO.

While the former is still some years away, Macedonia is an EU candidate country and hopes to be given a date for the opening of membership talks later this year. Regarding NATO, however, Macedonia suffered an unfortunate setback when Greece threatened to veto its membership invitation at the Alliance’s April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, Romania. Greece, which also has a northern province called Macedonia, demands that the Republic of Macedonia change its name, claiming that the latter has territorial ambitions towards Greek Macedonia- something which the Macedonians deny and which everyone except Greece finds absurd. Despite the impassioned personal intercession of President Bush at the Summit, the Greeks were unmoved, and so Macedonia’s NATO invitation remains conditional on resolution of the name dispute.

Mike Goldstein was one of the many Americans saddened by Macedonia’s failure to gain NATO membership, feeling that the country was eminently worthy of joining the Alliance. He has a strong personal connection here. As a Vermont National Guard general, Mike helped guide Macedonia through the military reform and training process that eventually brought it up to NATO standards. Despite Greece’s mean-spirited action, Mike has nothing but praise for the Macedonian soldiers he has worked with and known over the years. “They were always eager students, and quick learners,” he recalls. “When we had them here [at the National Guard’s School for Mountain Warfare] in Vermont, they really showed their aptitude- and they loved the ice climbing training we do here.”

Indeed, says Mike, the country is richly deserving of NATO membership. It has carried out reforms, downsizing and professionalizing according to instructions, and for years already has unquestioningly committed troops (around four percent of the entire army) to American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have seen action. In fact, notes Mike, “at least one Macedonian soldier has received a medal from the US military, for saving the lives of American soldiers in a combat situation.”

As the negotiations continue in the coming months between Greece and Macedonia, Mike will be one of the many Vermonters previously involved with training the Macedonian army who is pulling for the small country- one which has, despite so many obstacles and problems, managed to cling to its identity and culture, and which continues to provide Mike with moments to treasure, liking planting trees in solidarity with Macedonia’s welcoming Jews.

*This article was originally published by the Burlington Free Press on April 13, 2008.

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