Lucky Macedonia


Macedonia's Serendipity

The Good Fortune of Neighbouring a Human Catastrophe

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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In October 1998, the unreformed communists of the SDSM - the Socialists - lost the elections in Macedonia by a wide margin to an improbable coalition. It consisted of the VMRO - fervent nationalists with Bulgarian roots, headed by the poet-politician Ljubco Georgievski - and the Democratic alternative (DA). The latter was a hastily assembled party headed by Vasil Tupurkovski, a pro-US former member of the old Yugoslav nomenclature. DA enjoyed grassroots support especially by young professionals, businessmen and liberals. It imported Western campaigning techniques and made bold promises to revitalize and energize the economy.

When the news of the unequivocal victory of the VMRO-DA coalition arrived, the nation was swept by an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm, optimism and joy. Unprecedented because the young nation's history (its independence was declared in 1991) provided it with very little reason to be joyful. Its main trading partners were either boycotted by the world (the rump Yugoslavia) or themselves boycotted Macedonia - Greece in the wake of outlandish dispute regarding Macedonia's official name (hence the impossible FYROM) and Bulgaria because it refused to allow the use of the Macedonian language in bilateral documents. The economy collapsed, unemployment soared, investment all but vanished, corruption erupted and the Albanian ethnic minority became restive.

Macedonia was laid to economic waste by powers beyond its control. Its entrepreneurial inhabitants - fresh from 500 years of Ottoman training followed by 50 years of communism - resorted to smuggling (from Greece to Serbia through the Vardar river) and established a reasonably functioning underground economy. The IMF and the Central Bank maintained macro-economic stability (following years of hyperinflation) at an excruciating social cost. Trade was liberalized, inflation tamed, the currency was made freely convertible and the exchange rate eerily sustained (rather, suspended).

But under-currents seethed below the tattered facade. Disenchantment with the ruling classes and their mafia-like structure increased dramatically. Intricate webs of village and family loyalties were tested to the limit in affairs such as TAT, the collapse of a savings bank in a pyramid scheme in which some top level officials were implicated. Cronyism and nepotism led to the legalized robbery of the assets of the state through bogus privatization schemes. Some people grew exceedingly rich - others became inordinately poor. The tension was palpable. The youth felt trapped, facing a dead end future. Many emigrated.

Albanian nationalism was introduced into this explosive vapour in 1997-8. It existed long before (the KLA, for instance, became a force to reckoned with as early as 1993). It constituted the main concern of the ethnic Macedonians (of slav extract). People spoke ominously of an armageddon to be waged between the two ethnicities.

The two communities exist separately. There are no inter-marriages, very few common business ventures and the Albanians either live in ghettos within the main cities - or in Albanian dominated cities of their own (such as Gostivar and Tetovo) in western Macedonia, across the border from Kosovo. The ground was shaking long before 1997. The mutual hatred, loathing and, above all, fear of domination and cultural subjugation were real and under a very thin veneer of civility. The inclusion of a national Albanian party (there are three) in the government was greeted as a welcome omen and respite. But this was not to be.

The ethnic Macedonian's main fear is that the Albanians are aiming to recreate a "Greater Albania" comprising the current albania, Kosova and Western Macedonia. A natural Islamic axis (Albania-Bosnia-Central Asia) would then form and threaten the Slav peoples wherever they are (Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians). What started as the normal friction between two ethnic groups in close physical proximity ended as a mythical re-enactment of the Islamic (Ottoman) invasion of Europe in the 14th century. A nightmare revived fraught with the fears of an economically languishing Christian-Orthodox, Slav, Byzantine civilization. A very concrete issue of land and autonomy assumed the dimensions of a cosmic clash between the titans of religion.

Officially, the Albanians constitute 23% of the population in Macedonia. But Albanian did not take well to what they regarded as coercion: the population census. They refused to be counted and evaded the census takers - to their great detriment. as a result, their numbers are severely understated. It is safe to say that well over ONE THIRD of the population was of Albanian origin long BEFORE the wave of refugees swept over this 25,000 square kilometres country. Should one third of the refugees be absorbed by Macedonia - another 80,000 Albanians - the Albanian population stands to constitute more than 40% of the population. The Albanians marry younger, have double the number of children of the ethnic Macedonian (it is a much younger population) and almost never divorce. Their families are very cohesive and tend to stick together geographically. In the year 2015 - the majority of the population in Macedonia will be of Albanian origin, if this trend continues unperturbed and one third of the refugees remain. In 1912 Kosovo had a sizeable Serb majority. In 1972 This was no longer true.

The ethnic Macedonians are appalled by this demography. They are scared. They do not believe that they can co-exist with the Albanians. Stereotypes abound: the Albanians are backward, criminal elements, illiterate, violent and expansive, say the Macedonians. And their main goal in life - for which no sacrifice is too great - is to seize land from their neighbours. Kosova is a first step - the Macedonians are convinced - Western Macedonia is next, a civil war is imminent.

Marginal efforts at reconciliation aside - the Albanians themselves did not make any special effort to assuage the fears of the Macedonians. Quite the contrary. Radical, young and nationalistic leaders abound. Rufi Osmani, the former Mayor of Gostivar, was jailed for his activities and pardoned by the President after the new government threatened a constitutional crisis. He and his associates demanded the right to use Albanian in official transactions with state and municipal institutions - which is a reasonable demand. But they also demanded the right to hoist the Albanian flag and sing the Albanian anthem rather than the Macedonian one. Then they disobeyed the rulings of the Supreme Court and instigated violent clashes with the Police (which resulted in deaths). The establishment of a Tetovo "university" in the Albanian language did not help matters much. Regarded by Macedonian as a hotbed of much nationalism but little learning - the Macedonians refused to accredit it. Riots and counter-riots ensued, culminating in violent demonstrations of Macedonian students in the streets of Skopje, the capital.

The average salary in Macedonia is 200 Euro (=180 US dollars)  a MONTH. There are c. 300,000 unemployed in a total working age population of 930,000. There is a constant balance of payments deficit of 8% of GNP. Macedonia is POOR - real poor, not relatively poor. It is poorer than any other country in Europe, with the exception of Albania. It is also insecure. Albanians and Serbs from within and from without threaten its very existence. It would do wisely to remain on good terms with Yugoslavia - not only because 50% of its trade is conducted with it - but because Yugoslavia is THE big neighbour of the north. Long after Clinton is gone and perhaps NATO in its current form as well - Macedonia will have to deal with its perceived betrayal of Serbia. Serbs never forget and rarely forgive. They visit the sins of the battle of Kosovo (1389) upon other Moslems - 610 years later, in the same location. They are a dangerous, tenacious, resilient, ruthless and unrelenting foe to have. Macedonia is so small and helpless (no army to speak of) that it is terrified and caught between the NATO rock and the Serbian hard place. It feels blackmailed, used and exploited without real regard to its problems now and after the war is over. NATO showed its real face when it placed Macedonia (with Albania) in the last category of NATO applicants. Macedonia is a military base to NATO - here today, gone tomorrow. Who will protect Macedonia from Yugoslavia when the foreign media circus is engaged elsewhere? This is the age of the soundbite and the videoclip. It is the generation of expediency. Macedonia can - and will - easily be forgotten. Hence its refusal to allow ground warfare from its soil (a position shared by many, including, for instance, Hungary, a NATO member, with less to lose than Macedonia).

And this is where Macedonia made a mistake. It did not manage its public relations properly. It absorbed as many refugees as Albania (10% of the population - the equivalent of 25 million Mexican refugees in the USA) and treated its refugees with reasonable decency - under hellishly impossible circumstances. The USA and the EU reneged on all their commitments: financial as well as humanitarian. It costs Macedonia (UNHCR figures) c. 300,000 US dollars a day in direct expenses to host the human outcome of the NATO blunder. That's 15,000,000 US dollars in direct costs since the war started - or almost 1% of the GDP. Add to this a drop of 50% in exports and 26% in industrial production and the costs are already at least 10-15% of the GDP. These are surreal, mind boggling numbers. It is the equivalent of the Great Depression in the USA.

Macedonia received hitherto 3 million US dollars (2 from Taiwan and 1 from UNHCR after a LOT of pressure). Oh, I forgot: and a gigantic pile of promises - to reschedule debts by one year (not to write them off, which would have constituted real help). The West lies through its teeth and when exposed it wags a moral finger at this poor, crumbling, neophyte of a country. It is a disgrace of unprecedented proportions.

Albania behaved more slickly - perhaps because its government is more veteran and perhaps because it really empathized more heartily with its suffering kin. They made the right noises and posed to the camera using the right, complimentary, angles. It won much more help than Macedonia and is universally accoladed by the West.

This is what Macedonia SHOULD have done. Open its borders in a great display of camaraderie and human passion. Wine and dine the bored, frustrated journalists on its turf, pose for the cameras, hair dishevelled, Tony Blair-like. Instead its leadership went about the business of absorbing a human wave of unheard of proportions while, at the same time, trying to defuse tensions from within and from without. No one informed them that in today's world it matters not what one does - as what one is SEEN to be doing. This is the vital lesson. Albania will rebuild its future on the back of the serendipitous refugees of Kosovo. Macedonia will pay the price of its lack of savvy.

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