Ongoing Ethnogenesis in 21st Century Balkans: FYROM and the ethnic Slav majority

April 04, 2011 John James Smith

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is one of the world´s newest nations established towards the end of the 20th century. In September, 1991 the mixed population of ethnic Slavs (majority ca. 64%), Albanians (largest minority ca. 27%), Vlachs, Roma, Turks, and Greeks of this former Yugoslav state voted for independence in a referendum. From the outset, however, the constitutional name (e.g. Republic of Macedonia) and ethnic identity (Makedonski) of this young fledgling state have been at the centre of an intra-regional dispute spanning nearly two decades.

On the one hand, Greece, FYROM´s southern neighbour disputes any reference to the name Macedonia without a geographic qualifier. According to Greek arguments, FYROM´s constitutional name has irredentist designs on a Greek province of the same name. In addition, the Greeks consider the ethnonym Macedonian to be associated with their ancient heritage and in particular to those ancient Greek speaking tribes that lived on the lands corresponding to the Modern Greek province of Macedonia. On the other hand, Bulgaria also disputes the ethnic identity of the Slavs of FYROM, claiming that they are in fact, Bulgarians. Their claim hinges on ethno-linguistic grounds and on the historical figures which constitute part of FYROM´s pantheon of founding fathers, e.g. Ivan Hadjinikolov, Gotse Delchev, Boris Sarafov, Dame Gruev, Krste Misirkov, and Nikola Karev.

Indeed, can a nation which has yet to celebrate its 20th birthday be loaded with so much ethno-historical baggage?

Apparently so, according to the government in Skopje, the Slavic speaking majority have ample evidence to rightfully press their ancient origins as far back as Alexander the Great. They even found a group of long lost relatives among the Hunza tribes of Pakistan, who were invited and flown to Skopje by Gruevski´s government with much pageantry and fanfare and which according to the local historians, are descendents of Alexander´s troops and hence distant relatives of the ethnic Slavs of FYROM. Interestingly, while no foreign media at Skopje was able to interview the (suspicious) State guests, back in Pakistan word had spread of the tale resulting in the production of a local comedy loosely translated ´Iskander and the new Yunana (Greeks).´ The play ridicules the ethnic Slavs of FYROM as too backward, vulgar, and incompetent to be the descendents of the famous ancient Greek warrior Iskander (Alexander) reducing FYROM´s fanciful assertions to local tribal jokes. More amusingly, however, was that FYROM unaware, had not picked up on it at the time.

Arguably, the Skopje government is so highly determined to foster an ancient ancestry that its decision to import such questionable and dubious credentials reveals the government´s somewhat naïve yet desperate attempt to implement historical veracity to its national identity. One cannot help but wonder what sources the historiographers of FYROM have drawn on to produce their national narrative. Pretentious designs, not to mention the waste of thousands of taxpayer´s dollars, on exaggerated narratives with a hollow past only serves to alienate the very people who have faithfully witnessed the active engineering of their modern identity.

The question is, however, have the ethnic Slavs of FYROM accepted this monstrous deception by their government? In a recent national spree of impulsive nationalism the Skopje government set about renaming everything from highways, bridges, airports, and stadiums to controversial historical figures which has drawn the ire of some of its neighbours. Furthermore, the capital city of Skopje has been in the midst of a grand developmental building project called, Skopje 2014 which is said to feature statues, colonnaded buildings, and even a Roman styled Arc´ de Triumph. Unsurprisingly, many of Skopje´s citizens who were polled consider the Skopje 2014 project nothing more than an expression of ultimate kitsch reflecting a government in desperate denial.

Surprised? No, why should we. FYROM needs a historical past quick smart if it has any chance in establishing the ethnogenesis of a new, polished, and somewhat malleable Balkan identity whereby the ethnic Slav majority of FYROM will constitute the main ingredient in the famous regional Macedonian salad of Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Roma, Turks, and Vlachs.

Then, a couple of years ago there was also the so called ´Macedonian Prayer´ shown on national television, and according to the distributors (government sponsored?), emphasised the intricate significance and superiority of the so called ´Macedonoid race,´ presumably a race of people from whom, and unbeknown to the global scientific community, the white race was conceived. The video attempts to marry FYROM´s religious pulse with science by apparently having the voice of FYROM´s God dictate a Darwinian spread of the (white) human race from Skopje (not Africa) to the rest of the world. How can the scientific community interpret such flagrancy other than to simply shrug it off as just another case of pseudo-science whereby certain individuals in FYROM must feel both threatened and desperate subsequently establishing their own version of racial-evolution.

Again, the question is, were the ethnic Slavs of FYROM seduced by such unabashed discriminatory rubbish?

Regrettably, the expected response from FYROM´s Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU) to such public racism did not eventuate and was unfortunately quite muted. Conversely, the global academic community who were first and foremost appalled by the highly racist material (reminiscent of Nazi Aryanism), refused to comment on it and dismissed it on what they perceived as nothing more than nationalistic propaganda to score political points for the government in power. There was, however, global bemusement and disappointment for all those venerated (apolitical) scholars who work at MANU, and who did not openly and concretely distance themselves (and the academy) from such racist propaganda.

As this paper intends to only look at the recent construction of identity in FYROM, it is important to keep in mind that this means only the identity of the ethnic Slav majority of FYROM. While some ethnic Slav citizens of FYROM and in particular the Diaspora contend to be descendents of and believe to have legitimate rights to the ancient Macedonians, it is significant to point out that in pre-WW II Yugoslavia the vast majority of their ancestors openly proclaimed a Bulgarian ethnicity. This can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century when in a time when most of the Balkans were attempting to liberate themselves from the Ottoman yoke, a sense of collective identity was formulated on the grounds to unite the people to a common cause. The birth of a number of revolutionary organisations created by a group of Bulgarian intellectuals conceived the idea to free the region of Macedonia from Ottoman control, extract autonomy status with the support of the European powers, and finally unite the Bulgarian people of Macedonia with their Bulgarian motherland.

Many of these intellectuals (e.g. Hadjinikolov, Delchev, Gruev, Misirkov) perceived a Macedonian identity as nothing more than the regional appellation of the many ethnicities that straddled the land of Macedonia. This was most evident in the preamble of their revolutionary organisation BMARO – Bulgarian Macedonia Adrianople Revolutionary Organisation – which although a Bulgarian organisation, openly called to arms all the inhabitants of Macedonia regardless of ethnicity. Coincidently BMARO is the ancestor organisation of many contemporary political offspring organisations in both Bulgaria and FYROM under the acronym VMRO.

Here it must be stressed, that contra to the nationalistic rhetoric emanating from both Skopje and the Diaspora, the preamble was formulated and approved by its Bulgarian committee (e.g. Hadjinikolov, Delchev, Gruev, etc.) to mainly signify its Bulgarian roots and Bulgarian identity in the lands of multiethnic Macedonia and Thrace (hence Adrianople). Over the years we have put forward the same question to a number of nationalists in the Diaspora about the significance of the Bulgarian identity in the preamble whereby we mostly received a series of confused, mumbled, and contradictory replies. It must be said that most of the nationalistic propaganda stems from Diasporic groups that peddle nationalistic newsletters usually filled with a good dose of historical fiction and a few pages inflamed with current politics. Many of these Diasporic groups refer to themselves with geographic qualifiers, e.g. Egeski, a term relating to the Aegean Sea in Greece. These recently invented terms give the impression that they once resided along the Aegean littoral but in reality they all come from the mountainous border regions, e.g. Florina, and have no historical, cultural, culinary, or maritime tradition to the Aegean Sea. Some see the creation of these geographic terms as irredentist designs by FYROM and her Diaspora with intentions to usurp Greek territory.

It is no secret that there is a new wave of neo-nationalism in FYROM and the Diaspora, and a lot of it is hand fed by incumbent figures who have resigned to the use of the internet as a field of propaganda to further fabricate an imaginary historical past dotted with mythologizing figures and events. Obviously, the lack of sociological knowledge in arm-chair nationalism clearly reflects the monolithic premise behind the absolute ignorance (and chauvinistic arrogance) of how the social construct of ethnic identity has always been in a state of flux or in a constant realm of becoming. The unsophisticated assumption that a regional identity (e.g. as that proclaimed in FYROM and her Diaspora) is static, rigid, and distinct to one people shows how little such assessments understand the social and conscious parameters of human agency and endeavour.

Obviously, the problem pertaining to the Skopje authorities over the years has been how to reconcile what has been termed as their antiquisationist projects (e.g. the deliberate grafting of ancient historical figures, symbols, events, onto modern national narratives) with that of their most recent past which, according to the revolutionary figures (e.g. Sarafov, Sandanski, Delchev), were deemed to be of Bulgarian stock. Ironically, it is these same Bulgarian intellectuals such as Hadjinikolov, Delchev, and Gruev whose memoirs are left to posterity, effectively dismantle FYROM´s antiquisation fairy tale based on the fact that these men (and many others) recognised and traced their Bulgarian roots back through the historical Bulgarian struggles. They saw as their direct ancestors Bulgarian revolutionaries such as Hristo Botev, Georgi Benkov and the martyr Vasil Levski (also known as the Apostle of Freedom) whose struggle to free Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke cost him his life. For example, Gotse Delchev considered Vasil Levski as his faithful ancestor, and was once restrained by his comrades from attempting to strangle to death a 16 year old youth for publicly slighting the ´Apostle.´ In addition, they drew on their Bulgarian identity to create BMARO (and later VMRO) which was a carbon copy reproduction of Levski´s revolutionary organisations. BMARO´s preamble, the slogan ´Freedom or Death,´ as well as the symbol of a crossed pistol and dagger all find their origin in Levski´s organisations in the Bulgarian struggle for freedom. Others who get mention as Bulgarian forerunners in the intellectual´s memoirs are medieval leaders such as Samuel, defeated by the Byzantine ruler Basil who not surprisingly was also known as the Bulgarslayer.

What is certain is that none of the BMARO revolutionaries had any qualms or confusion in openly declaring the Bulgarian identity of the people the preamble was meant to defend. One must not forget that the existence of BMARO was in effect just another link in a chain of revolutionary freedom movements going back to Levski as the only alternative left for freeing the Bulgarian people of Macedonia and Thrace from Ottoman rule. Hadjinikolov, Delchev, Gruev, and many others repeatedly declared their Bulgarian identity in their memoirs something that was never contradicted by their followers and the rest of the Bulgarian people of Macedonia and Thrace. In spite of all this evidence, some FYROM and Diasporic commentators unconvincingly argue that these intellectuals must have been, nevertheless, confused of their ethnic identity. This then should not come as a surprise that some of these same commentators who are obviously ´confused´ by their own immediate ancestry can naively turn and claim ethnic continuity reaching back into the Neolithic period (some even claim 70,000 years), long before the conceptual birth of ethnicity, culture, and identity. Sensibly, many international academics have reasonably dismissed this and many other similar quasi-science assertions.

Even pro-FYROM academics such as some anthropologists (e.g. Danforth) and historians (e.g. Borza) have openly disclosed the recent ethnic construction of the Slavic speaking people of FYROM and distanced themselves from any ancient hyperbole. Others have likened Skopje´s (and certain Diasporic elements) antiquisation insistence as the likely outgrowth of an ´Inferior Slav Syndrome´ perceived and embodied in the national identity and fearful of being equated as a new Balkan upstart. Essentially, the theory of creating/inventing/fabricating ancient roots to provide instant ethnic legitimacy is in effect the Gordion knot which unfortunately for FYROM has yet to find Alexander´s intuition.

What then, is it that makes a segment of FYROM society (and many in the diaspora) seek their identity in antiquity? We know from reading many of the Diasporic articles that there is no shame in misappropriating historical material for nationalistic consumption. For instance, we have seen how on certain web-pages Diasporic individuals have altered the original Carnegie report of the Balkan Wars in 1912-13 to deliberately change and substitute every ethnic Bulgarian village in Macedonia (and unwittingly Thrace) to a more digestible reading along nationalistic lines for their national narrative while attempting to completely erase every Bulgarian presence from pre-Yugoslav Macedonia. This has also been the case where the Bulgarian language has been concerned.

The present Slavic language of FYROM was first codified in 1944 to purposely cleanse it of what was considered by the authorities to be to close to Bulgarian (something FYROM has yet to properly address). The question that should be asked here is, does the reassembling of various Bulgarian dialects constitute a new language (and identity)? Much of the original Bulgarian alphabet that was taught throughout the region of Slavic speakers was substituted with Serbian attributes. While I myself learnt Bulgarian in America and after nearly 35 years of research in the Macedonian region of Greece, Bulgaria, Albania, and FYROM, I have still to meet a villager who I did not understand. Sure many of the Bulgarian dialects spoken could be a little challenging at first, but it was never problematic in conducting our interviews. To conduct research one needs a good command of language, knowledge of customs, and most importantly mutual respect. It became obvious last year, while on a field trip researching the dialects in the southern Balkans that the Bulgarian speakers in the region of Thrace (in Greece) could (as we could) understand with amusing ease the Slavonic (or Bulgarian?) spoken in FYROM, Albania, Greece (Macedonia), and Bulgaria. One should normally ask how is it possible that a number of Bulgarians from Komotini in Thrace (Greece) were able to clearly understand the Slavic spoken in Kastoria (Greece), Ohrid (FYROM), Korce (Albania), and Goce Delchev (Bulgaria) if it is a supposed distinct, separate language to Bulgarian as some linguists attempt to claim.

The Slavic language of FYROM was recognised as an international (non-Bulgarian) language only after the assistance of the linguist Horace Lunt. One begs the question, had the highly admired linguist (Lunt) not endorsed the newly codified language in Skopje would Tito (with Stalin´s assistance) have continued on his anti-Bulgarian ethnic construction in the newly born Yugoslav state. Stalin was, nevertheless quite clear, creating new ethno-linguistic national identities seemed to be normal practice in the Soviet Union, e.g. Belarusian. Yet, in the last 30 years many Slavic linguists have made it clear that the Slavic spoken in present day FYROM is as different to Bulgarian as Austrian is to German, American to English, Brazilian to Portuguese, or Mexican to Spanish. It is said that the difference between a language and a dialect is that unity brings about a dialect, and with separation a language. This model fits like a glove with FYROM´s past. Under Ottoman rule Bulgarian dialects were present from the Black Sea across to Lake Ohrid. With the recreation of Tito´s post-WW II Yugoslavia the regional Bulgarian dialects were subsequently stripped, raped, and reproduced as a new language complete with a new Yugoslav state border and identity. Unlike Slovenian and Serbo-Croation, which are not mutually intelligible to Bulgarian speakers, although a superficial understanding can take place (e.g. such as the Romance languages – Italians can make some superficial sense of French or Spanish), the Slavic speakers of FYROM have a linguistic bond to Bulgarian even after the fervent though flawed attempts in the post-WW II period to cleanse the dialect (come language) of its Bulgarian roots.

There are those Slavic linguists (e.g. Friedman) who adamantly espouse the distinctive quality of the language spoken in FYROM but one needs to take their assertions with a grain of salt. Just as one needs to also remember, that all academics (linguists included) need a thesis to validate their position. And as such, we come to a good example of mutual intelligibility that took place in 1995 when FYROM´s President Gligorov attempted to have interpreters present to translate the proceedings between himself and his Bulgarian counterpart. He was promptly denied on the grounds that both the Bulgarian diplomats and his (Gligorov´s) entourage (especially his interpreter) found the exercise ridiculous. Later, one diplomat commented that Gligorov thought, that by having an interpreter present he would help validate a distinct FYROM language separate from its Bulgarian origin. In other words, while everyone at the diplomatic meeting agreed that the language spoken by all parties was mutually intelligible, political maneuvering by Gligorov failed to vindicate his claim. For example, Gligorov´s (interpreter) attempt was nothing short of seeing, for instance, Barak Obama requesting the services of an interpreter to translate David Cameron´s British English.

In the end, it is noteworthy to mention that no matter how much linguistic engineering took place in 1944 (even with Lunt´s approval) the social construction of FYROM´s language was absolutely incapable if not outright inept of erasing its Bulgarian origins.

Elsewhere (and quite disappointingly), there has been the FYROM government´s constant refusal to assist local and foreign research on the subject of the country´s ethnogenesis. For example, for many years applications have failed to access post-WW II archives in Skopje to understand the mass and sometimes brutal enforcement of the erasure of Bulgarian surname suffixes (e.g. –ov/ev (masc.), -ova/eva (fem.), into –ovski/evski, -ovska/evska) in a period when Tito accepted (with Stalin´s blessing) both a newly constructed ethno-linguistic Yugoslav identity with a newly created Yugoslav state. Research revealed that every region of the newly created post-WW II Yugoslav state (FYROM´s predecessor) was forced by the Skopje authorities of the time (sometimes under pain of death) to change their Bulgarian surnames into their newly constructed identities. It has remained one of the most secretive periods of FYROM´s past and continues to assert much hate among the few surviving older generation who as children remember those terrible times. Many of the eye witness accounts retell the horrific events that led to the sufficient rebaptism of the general populace. For example, many who refused to change their Bulgarian family names were first beaten in front of their families, and then forced to watch the rape of their wives, daughters, and mothers before being led away, mostly never to be seen again. This period of enforced ethnogenesis has and still remains, one of the most tragic stains of selective amnesia on the country´s conscious. It has been argued that even if the Skopje authorities opened their post-WW II archives there would be no trace of any documents alluding to both the codification of the language and the brutal enforcement of a new Yugoslav surname to promote the new post-WW II ethnic identity of what has today become FYROM.

It has taken many years of interviews and field work to capture the essence of the ethnogenesis of a new former Yugoslav state in the late 20th early 21st century. But ultimately, apart from some elements in both FYROM and the Diaspora who are firmly entrenched in some half baked fantasy of being linked to antiquity, let alone to Alexander the Great, the vast majority of ethnic Slavs of FYROM are not easily persuaded by the kitsch of historical statues or by the nationalistic overtones of the Skopje 2014 project.

No instead, it is said among many ethnic Slavs in the villages of FYROM that if we have food on the table and constant work the authorities in Skopje can build, fabricate, and rename anything they want, but please don´t leave us – Unemployed. Incidentally, another area of concern was revealed recently when Transparency International (the anti-corruption body) indicated that over 70% of people in FYROM paid bribes to receive public services. If we were to use such findings to reflect and measure socio-economic success in FYROM society today, then it is possibly safe to assume that constructing a putative ancient ancestry in FYROM receives precedence over peoples´ livelihoods.

The continuing ethnogenesis in FYROM´s national narrative is, unlike other modern European nations, still in the process of (re-)inventing itself. Eventually, it will embrace a modern identity compiled, if not completely fabricated from the mosaic of regional ethnicities whose histories, languages, cultures, and historical figures will pave both its streets and its conscience. An upcoming article will continue to explore the road of modern ethnogenesis in FYROM and assess the hybrid nature of the people of FYROM as well as the recent emphasis (and invention) of a variety of regional traditions to highlight the ongoing process of becoming.

Joan Walker and Sally Monroe

Students of Ethnogenesis

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