The Serbs and the Macedonian Question

Source: The Serbian Questions in The Balkans, University of Belgrade, publisher – Faculty of Geography, Belgrade 1995.

By Slavenko Terzić












ne of the burning questions in the Balkan history of the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, until the Balkan wars 1912/13, was the Macedonian question. Not only the Balkan peoples and their states were engaged in the struggle over Macedonia but also the Great Powers endeavored to master this region, as it was rather significant for their political, economic, cultural, religious and other interests in the Balkans.Photos @

The policy of the Great Powers complicated to a great extent the natural and righteous solution of the Macedonian question by imposing those solutions that did not observe historical, economic, geographical and other facts, but paid attention to the long term strategic interests of the Great Powers instead.

On the other hand, it was Impossible to delineate clear borders between the neighbouring peoples, first of all the Serbs, Greeks, and Bulgarians, because of the ethnic and religious medley of the population of Macedonia and the entangled cultural influences of several civilizations. This was one of the main causes of the long lasting disputes between the Balkan states and the peoples, which was also strengthened by the insufficiently articulated consciousness of the Macedonian Slav population as regards their ethnic and national affiliation.[1]


After the Liberation Balkan wars in 1912/13 and the final expulsion of the Ottoman empire from Europe, the largest portion of Macedonia became part of the Kingdom of Greece, its minor portion was incorporated in the Bulgarian state and the northern part of Macedonia in the Kingdom of Serbia. The borders that were established among the Balkan states then, and slightly adjusted after World War I, remained the same until the present times. The boundaries were defined by many international agreements, starting with the London and Bucharest Treaties (1913), then the treaties of Versailles and Neuilly (1919)[2] between the Allies, on one side, and the defeated Bulgaria, on the other, and by a number of other international settlements, including the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. By all these treaties the territory of the present Republic of Macedonia was first defined as the part of the territory of the Kingdom of Serbia, then of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia) and, finally, of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e. the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

After the Communist Party of Yugoslavia came into power at the end of the Second World War, the southern pan of the territory of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which had entered the Yugoslav state as a part of the Kingdom of Serbia, was proclaimed one of the six Yugoslav federal units – the People’s Republic of Macedonia, later the Socialist Republic of Macedonia.

The borders between the new federal units – People’s Republic of Serbia and People’s Republic of Macedonia – were mostly arbitrarily set by several leading Yugoslav communists headed by Josip Broz Tito.[3] The ideological

In the ethnographic aspect, Macedonia has always represented a true medley of peoples and religions, mostly the Slav and non-Slav population. For this reason, the term Macedonian has always had a solely regional meaning, and not ethnic or national. The Macedonian Slavs, besides the feeling of closeness with the Serbs and Bulgarians, depending on whether the region in which they lived bordered on the one or the other people, also shared the feeling of regional adherence

creators of the interior borders among the federal units were the leading Croatian and Slovene communists (Tito, Kardelj, Hebrang, Bakarić). It was most important to them to inaugurate by such borders the political strategy which aimed at making the Serbian factor a marginal one under the pretext of the alleged struggle against “Greater Serbian hegemony”. The real political objective – the partition of the Serbian people by interior republic borders and the fragmentation of the Serbian ethnic area – was concealed by internationalist phrases and social demagogy. The Serbian people accepted the restored Yugoslav state candidly in spite of the clear fact that the principle of equality of the peoples was substituted by the union of the republic political oligarchies. By such ruling system and with the internal borders drawn in Yugoslavia in this way an artificial balance of power was established – the idea taken over from the Austro- Hungarian Balkan policy at the end of the 19th century. Having in mind this political background, it is quite clear why in the defining of the boundaries of the federal units none of the historical, ethnic or geographical reasons were observed nor was any opportunity given to the people to express their own free democratic will as to the boundaries within which they wished to live. The leading Serbian communists blindly served such political strategy for the sake of their careers and interests though it was meant against their own people. Thus, it was possible to happen that the territories that had for centuries been the part of the Old Serbia and within the boundaries of the restored Patriarchate of Peć (1557-1776), until its abolition,[4] became part of the People’s Republic of Macedonia.

In the course of almost a half-century long existence of the Yugoslav federal unit under this name, the concept of Macedonia expanded much beyond its historical-geographical boundaries in the north. By the one-sided secession of this federal unit not only was the heritage of the Serbian struggle for liberation in the 19th century endangered but also was the portion of the Serbian people living in this former Yugoslav republic separated from their motherland and pushed to the position of a national minority to which neither basic national nor human rights were guaranteed.

Besides historical and ethnic reasons, the geographical ones are obvious when the union of this area with the area of the Serbian and Yugoslav state is in question: the Morava-Vardar river basin which “unites” this area into a single geographical whole offering natural communication and economic entirety and compatibility.[5] Besides the geographical role, the Morava-Vardar basin also has an important geopolitical role and for centuries it has been the pivot of the political and cultural development of the Serbian people.

Unfortunately, neither the public here nor the international public are aware of the facts that the Serbs, the Serbian cultural heritage and tradition are present in the area of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (F.Y.R.M.). This is not surprising if one considers that this topic was not to be tackled in this Republic and in others as well, primarily for ideological reasons. Every attempt to present facts was interpreted as an expression of “the tendencies and territorial claims on the pair of the Greater Serbia”. This position resulted from the ideological viewpoints of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia on the nation and the national question in Yugoslavia. The substance of the concept lay in the idea that the national question was a “revolutionary question” and, actually, by stirring up regional and religious feelings the “capitalistic creation” could be most easily destroyed. The term which was used for the Yugoslav state by the communists.[6] That was the milieu in which the idea on the Macedonian nation and the Macedonian federal unit was born. Some local features of the Macedonian Slav population served as an argument in favour of proclaiming a separate nation. This led to neglecting a whole array of historical and other facts decisive for understanding the Macedonian question as a whole and the problem of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in particular.


In the ethnographic aspect, Macedonia has always represented a true medley of peoples and religions, mostly the Slav and non-Slav population. For this reason, the term Macedonian has always had a solely regional meaning, and not ethnic or national. The Macedonian Slavs, besides the feeling of closeness with the Serbs and Bulgarians, depending on whether the region in which they lived bordered on the one or the other people, also shared the feeling of regional adherence. This feeling of regional adherence never appeared in the form of affiliation to any particular nation nor was a strife for a separate state.[7] Only some sort of consciousness of autonomy appeared, but primarily as the result of the Serbian-Bulgarian dispute over Macedonia. One should not overlook the fact chat, apart from the Slavs, the Greeks and Cincars have always lived in the region of Macedonia, and later the Turks, Albanians, Jews and others. This ethnographic medley characteristic of Macedonia was also characteristic of the area that was later delineated as the area of the Republic of Macedonia. This was not the case, however, for the area that entered the Greek state after the establishment of the Serbian-Greek border in 1913. As for the Slavs, besides those that felt as Serbs or Bulgarians, there were transitional zones in which either the Serbian or Bulgarian influence was somewhat more felt.[8]

On the territory of the F.Y.R.M. both the Serbs and Bulgarians started exerting their Influence as early as in the 9th century, the Bulgarian influence being more political by nature and earlier in time, and the influence of the Serbs from the end of the 13th and in the course of the 14th century was not only political but also cultural, as it can be seen in the numerous Serbian monuments of culture preserved till the present day. In the 19th century, the government of the Principality of Serbia took care of the destiny of the Serbian and Slav people in Turkey and in Macedonia as well. It was an integrational effort to help the Slav revival in the Balkans, in which Serbia had a leading role. As early as in 1848, the Serbian government prepared The Motion to the Porta on the Interior Structure in Macedonia with two main requests: the independent election of the district and nahye princes as it was in Serbia in the times of Hadzi Mustafa pasha, and the nomination of bishops and metropolitans of the Slav nationality. The renowned Serbian statesmen Ilija Garašanin wrote a detailed study in which he pointed to the suffering of the Slav population in Turkey and to the oppression of the Slavs by the “Turkish rulers and Greek bishops”.[9]

A stronger Bulgarian influence was resumed in the mid 19th century, particularly after the proclamation of the Bulgarian Exarchos in 1870, whose aims were more of a political than spiritual nature and served, besides the righteous struggle for the national emancipation of the Bulgarians, as a means to Bulgarize a pare of the Serbian and Macedonian Slav population. This activity of the Bulgarian Church served the unconcealed tendency to ensure the hegemony of Bulgaria in the Balkans (Bulgaria of San Stefano). The Serbian presence and tradition were a great hindrance to such tendencies of the Bulgarians and also to their patrons among the Great Powers whether this be Russia, on one side, or Austria-Hungary and England, on the other.

The Serbian rulers and the Serbian medieval noblemen built numerous churches and monasteries in the central Balkan regions in which the Serbian art boomed. The evidence of this is found in the sources of different origin. Around Skopje, Prilep, Ćustendil (in western Bulgaria today), Kumanovo, Kratovo, Štip, around Tetovo, in the Crna Reka river valley, around Debar and Ohrid, and in other regions, there are dense clusters of Serbian churches of which many still exist.[10] Moreover, under the Ottoman Empire, the districts of Skopje, Kumanovo, Tetovo, Poreč, Kratovo, Štip and Radovište belonged to the Patriarchate of Peć until its abolition.

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