Macedonia is a land of myth. Nothing is ever as it seems, and things that seem like nothing are everything. It is a nation, an idea, and a state, all at once and all hazardously dependent on a past that is both bloody and ambiguous and a future that looks to be wavering atop a very steep cliff. And so Macedonia's rich history, and all it drags with it, often seems more like a blessing than a curse. Unhappy memories of Ottoman domination, the skepticism of both Greece and Bulgaria over the nation's very identity, and ongoing Albanian intransigence have all led to the strange mix of qualities that constitute the Macedonian spirit. Proud but peace-loving, fatalistic yet determined, the Macedonians exemplify the Balkan experience.
Slowed by interminable subjugation, ringed by hostile neighbors, they have developed both a bunker mentality and suspicion of outsiders. Yet too often these characteristics are emphasized too much, to the point where they block out the best qualities of the Macedonians: a joyous national pride, hospitality, and a genuine tolerance and love of peace. These qualities should be brought out from the darkness of myth, and into the light of day the ideal they dreamt of on the vivid red-and-yellow sun of the Macedonian flag.
The myth of Macedonia derives not only from its tortuous past. It is sustained in a different way by the physical dimensions of the country itself. Macedonia is small; it can be traversed from one end to the other in well under a day. The war of 2001, so much of which has faded into a willed obscurity, has therefore left its mark across the commonest and closest of places. Driving down the Skopje-Tetovo highway, one can see the very curve where Macedonian soldiers were killed in an ambush from the hillside, or where the civilian roadworkers were kidnapped and mutilated by the NLA. In Tetovo itself, one gazes at the bullet-holes in the sides of houses destroyed in the glaring heat of August, and the mountains above from where the shots were fired. It is now Winter, and the hills are silent, brooding and fog-strewn, but the army checkpoint remains and who knows what the next season holds.
The winter fog, and the snow that accompanies it, clutch Macedonia in a protective embrace; no fighting is likely to occur as long as they stay. Hidden somewhere in the same fog are the truths and half-truths of a complex aggregate of events. "Look," says my guide, as we pass through an underpass on the road from the airport to Skopje. "This is the place where the British soldier died." And indeed, through the thick, icy fog crouches the spot where Sapper Ian Collins met his mysterious end.
The cause of Collins' death, if we remember, was attributed to a rock hurled from the bridge above. Never mind that the Macedonian police found all traces of the accident had been moved immediately by NATO; never mind that the coroners later concluded the type of injury indicated some other cause. The fog of Skopje conjures up another fog, the one made famous by Geraldo Rivera's plea that "the fog of war" was responsible for his fraudulent reporting from Afghanistan.
"The fog of war" did not, of course, slow the frenzy of incoherent reports that were constantly being produced throughout the fighting of 2001. In retrospect we can draw some conclusions, separate some of the truths from the fictions, but this is little solace to the victims of the war, to the refugees and to the relatives of the kidnapped. Like every war, there are not only innocent victims and open antagonisms, but also darker and more unknown currents. And so Macedonia remains not only a land of myth but one of insinuations, whispers, and clandestine alliances. In this sense, it is precisely the same country as it was a century ago, when the "Great Powers" and the various Balkan rivals were playing a complex chess match for control of Macedonia, as an ideal and as a physical space; as the saying went, "he who controls the Vardar controls Europe."
I can see them everywhere, in restaurants, in the streets, in a dingy open-air shopping mall. The protagonists and the unlikely ones swept along into this mess, in 2002, and the new Great Game. They say that the war is over, or at least resting, but I see no letup in the preparations and provisions for a new one. In the hotel bar, men who might be spies stir their drinks, while British soldiers in full camouflage chat on mobile phones. Loud Americans who might be arms dealers talk over breakfast, about how NATO was irritated when the last shipment was botched. "X is our man there," one guy growls, "he's supposed to be on top of that stuff." A Frenchwoman spreads a portfolio out on the next table, illustrating its contents to her peers. Are they business plans? NGO guidelines? They could be anything, but in Skopje, they are certainly not nothing. This snow-stricken, drab city is merely functional; it would not attract anyone who did not have a job to do.
And these are merely the foreigners. The Macedonians themselves are even more suspicious, more conspiratorial, and more convinced of their own fellow citizens' lack of good intentions. Those who believe in their own patriotism are certain that their comrades lack it, and those who see the situation as a lost cause believe that no Macedonians really love their country anyway. Corruption, secret deals, and black betrayals are on everyone's lips; yet even these sentiments are shared only by those who have a perceptible interest in their country. The others are resigned to the disintegration of Macedonia. "Do you know," says one young woman, "that last year, over 70,000 Macedonians moved to Canada? 70,000! Next year, I will go, too."
A curious mixture of fatalism and pride feature prominently in the Macedonian character. The current crisis frozen temporarily by the snow, concealed by the fog is one for which nobody has a solution. There are many theories, and many who would cast blame on both those within and without the country. But in general, Macedonia is locked in a slowly-moving battle of conflicting forces; and all of them have neither the means nor the insight to manipulate the larger situation. Macedonia remains, therefore, both fluid and static, both hopeless and full of possibility. The complexity of the situation on the ground cannot be overestimated. In this complexity especially, there is great similarity to the days of the Balkan Wars and World War I. While one hopes that the final outcome will be less catastrophic this time, talking to anyone here reveals definite reasons for pessimism.
In the next few days, I will present this situation as I have witnessed it, in order to set the scene well in advance of what looks likely to be a larger war in 2002. Whether or not Macedonia will survive as a state, or simply pass over entirely into the realm of myth, is now an open question.
Previous articles by Christopher Deliso on Antiwar.com
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire – the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia.
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