March 3, 2001
Special Edition

Mayhem in Macedonia

I know right away that some readers will take exception to this title. Why "Macedonia?" they will say, when that name has not been officially recognized? Why not call it Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), as the US and the UN have made it customary?

One possible answer would be that is neither a global empire, nor a giant bureaucracy, and prefers not to use acronyms and lengthy phraseology. Another, more tactful point would be that "Macedonia" is the name the people of that country prefer, and it is generally considered appropriate to call people by the terms they prefer – unless one is an Albanian from Kosovo, in which case calling them "Shqiptar" makes one a "Serbo-aggressor" and a racist. But I digress…


No one can deny that at the present time there is a state in the south-central Balkans calling itself "Macedonia", nestled between Yugoslavia in the north, Greece in the south, Bulgaria in the east and Albania in the west. That last fact was a topic of numerous jokes in the former Yugoslav federation, which Macedonia was a member of until 1992.

Macedonia’s neighbors are a mixed bunch. Serbs accept Macedonians as a separate nation and people, most of all because their language is different, though the capital of today’s independent Macedonia used to be the capital of the medieval Serbian empire under Tsar Stefan Dushan. Yet language is precisely the criterion on which many Bulgarians base their claim that Macedonians are not really a separate people, but Bulgarians with a drawl. Albanians agree that the people and the language are different from theirs – so different, they recently launched a drive to separate one third of the country’s territory and join it to a "Greater Albania." Last, but not least, come the Greeks – who do not dispute the existence of the country, the ethnicity of the people, or their distinctive language, as long as they do not use the name of "Macedonia" or claim Alexander the Great in any way.

And this is the simple explanation.


Macedonia – for the sake of shorthand – is now facing a far more serious crisis than a blockade and protests by Greece. Albanians thrived in the relative well-being of Socialist Yugoslavia, in a marked contrast with their kin across the border. The effects of that prosperity were wealth and a skyrocketing birthrate, turning western Macedonia into an Albanian-majority region.

The first serious warnings of possible trouble in Macedonia surfaced in 1998, when Kosovo Albanians rose up against the Serbs, and again after NATO took up arms for their cause and occupied Kosovo in mid-1999. During the war, Macedonia became inundated with refugees to a point in which Macedonians were close to being outnumbered by Albanians.

After Kosovo was systematically cleansed of non-Albanians – Turks, Roma ("Gypsies") Slavic Muslims and most of all, Serbs – by the triumphant KLA, Albanians in inner Serbia started their own insurgency. It escalated in the fall of 2000, when Slobodan Milosevic fell from power and Yugoslavia became more pliable to NATO pressures. Protected by NATO’s insistence on Yugoslav restraint, the Albanians have occupied the supposedly "demilitarized" zone along the borders of occupied Kosovo.

Thwarted in their attempts to take out the last Serb enclaves in Kosovo, contained in the DMZ by the Yugoslav Army, and biding their time in Montenegro, there was only one place left for the Albanians intent on carving out a Balkans empire – the country called (by some) Macedonia.

Maps of this envisioned Albanian state clearly include Kosovo and a large chunk of inner Serbia, a strip of Montenegro, a part of Greece and about half of Macedonia. They move down the path of least resistance, attacking where they estimate they can succeed, and always intent on repeating the experience of Kosovo and dragging NATO into the fray on their side.


Macedonia survived the wars of Yugoslav secession physically unscathed. It has a small military, untested in battle and armed mostly with Bulgarian weapons. Even so, it is more than a match for Albanian bandits which invaded its border in late February – unless the Macedonian Albanians rise up and support the bandits the way Kosovo Albanians joined the KLA. NATO is already attempting to wash its hands of the situation, so the government in Skopje should not expect any help from that quarter, and possibly even hindrance. The only natural allies it has right now would be the Serbs – though NATO would likely not allow any military aid from that side – and Greeks, who are next on the Albanian list. But Greeks are unlikely to help a country whose name they don’t recognize.

To a true classical historian, the name controversy is somewhat moot. When Alexander the Great conquered most of the civilized world in the 4th century BCE, he spread Greek language and culture throughout his empire. But despite that, and the fact that his tutor was Aristotle himself, Alexander the Great was a "barbarian" – an outlander.

On the other hand, the ancient Macedonians, had merged with the Greeks by the time of the Roman conquest in the 1st century BCE. Today’s Macedonians are Slavs, whose ancestors came to today’s Macedonia in the 9th century CE, $ well after Rome had fallen. Obviously, they have nothing to do with Alexander, either – except for inhabiting his ancient homeland.

Yet Alexander the Great, a military genius who died before he could consolidate his vast empire over 2300 years ago, is the very root of the current dispute between Greece and the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." According to agency reports, Greece and Macedonia were just about to reach an agreement over the issue, when a new menace appeared from the West. If that menace is allowed to have its way, neither Slavic Macedonians nor Greeks will soon have much to argue about.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed

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