It never ceases to amaze me how one of the smallest and oldest nations in Europe, Macedonia, is the centre of such great political turmoil, geopolitical tension, and con/tested national identity.
With a regional history of severe political upheavals and ethnocultural conflicts in the Balkans, modern Macedonia is dealing with failed regional trade agreements, national economic struggles, historical religious and political tensions with bordering nations, and internal corruption.
Macedonia is a South Eastern European country known for its beautiful traditional food, vast mountainous geography, preserved ancient towns at the intersection of Ottoman and European architectural influence, and folk music and dancing that remain central to celebrations today.
With a population smaller than Western Australia’s, Macedonia is the birthplace of Mother Teresa, the Cyrillic alphabet, Atatürk’s parents, and ancient kings Alexander the Great and Justinian I. Its capital city, Skopje, is said to be around 7,000 years old. In ancient times, the Kingdom of Macedon was founded in 808 BCE, and ended up conquering vast swathes of the Middle East, Africa and Asia under the rule of Alexander the Great. Afterwards, Macedonia was conquered by the Romans, and later by medieval neighbouring kingdoms and the Ottomans.
Today, as with many other nations, there is always a vast variety of issues in the news. From its name, flag, symbols, language, and borders, to the validity of its ancient and modern history; from religion, to its declaration of national heroes, to the very essence of its identity – I struggle to think of one element of the nation-state that has not yet been con/tested by a neighbouring Balkan country.
These battles lie at two primary points – internal and external. Internally, there are severe political disagreements and increasing polarisation, threats of the right wing populist rhetoric we see moving throughout Europe (and indeed the world), and concerns about deep-rooted corruption. Macedonia recently ranked a shared 111th place with Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Global Corruption Perceptions Index.
Externally, there are matters concerning trade, exacerbated by the land-lock of the nation following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, where the Treaty of Bucharest partitioned Macedonia and distributed 51% to Greece, 37% to Serbia, 10% to Bulgaria and 2% to Albania. The nation’s geopolitical challenges have been made contemporary by a struggle to secure a successful bid to join the European Union (EU); this is not just a negotiation of trade, but of existence, birthright, and the right to self-determination.
In order to gain admittance into the EU and NATO, each existing member state must agree to any new member. As such, the negotiations have been long and frustrating for Macedonia. Most notable here was the Prespa agreement signed in 2019, where Macedonia submitted to Greece’s demands to change the country’s name, and all major national icons that included said name, or praised Alexander the Great.
This included changing the constitutional name from the Republic of Macedonia to North Macedonia, as well as changing the name of the national airport, and ripping up tiles of the Kutlesh Sun (or Star of Vergina). This sixteen-point star was on the former flag of Macedonia, but was changed upon negotiations for the Greek government to cease a crippling three-year economic embargo in 1995.
Sure, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”; but I would deem this not a case of gardens, but rather a case of sacrificing sovereignty for uncertain reward.
Despite Macedonia yielding to these encroachments of autonomy, they still remain outside the gates of EU membership and benefits that will prove vital for the prosperity of the Macedonian economy. Bulgaria continues to block Macedonian EU membership over language and minority rights.
As a student of political science and international relations, a member of the Macedonian Diaspora, and a young woman incredibly passionate about her heritage, it has been interesting – to say the least – to view the last few decades of development in Eastern Europe, and to watch history unfold.
As such I must echo the sentiment that many of us shared during the ‘unprecedented times’ of 2020: living through major historical events is exhausting.
My greatest plea to politicians, leaders and changemakers, as someone who herself is blessed with perspective, higher education, and the beauty and joy that comes from growing up Macedonian-Australian in such a multicultural nation – refresh, rethink and re-question what is happening, what has occurred, and what needs to be done.
It appears to me that Macedonia is currently tip-toeing along one of the greatest crossroads of its modern history, with a very short time left to reset some of the pathways it walks along now. What is the likeliness of losing or cementing national identity? Will these sacrifices be fundamental to the success of its economy and citizens? What would a resolution of this cultural warfare look like?
What will the future of Macedonia look like?
My parents – my family – lived through the fall of one nation. I do not wish to live through another.
For those new to the nation’s complex, interesting and delicate history, present and future, I implore you to stay tuned – the next few years are sure to be worth following.
Izabela Barakovska went to Europe and it changed her life.
Image courtesy of the author.