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Where is Macedonia? In central Skopje two storeys of poured concrete and plate glass house the National Museum of Macedonia. On a Saturday afternoon the place is deserted, except for the warden and some friends who have set up a TV in the entrance hall. They slouch in front of dubbed American soap opera, spellbound. The warden follows me round, switching the lights on and then off as I enter and then leave each gallery in turn.

There is no money to replace the old displays, so they still relate how Macedonia joined Tito’s Yugoslavia and fulfilled its destiny. But the Yugoslav Federation, which it left in 1991, is only the most recently discarded of its ‘destinies’, and the demise of that federation re-opens a ‘Macedonian Question’ of great historical complexity.

The area’s strategic position meant that any medieval power wishing to control the southern Balkans had to secure Macedonia. Bulgaria, Byzantium and Serbia all did this when powerful. The region fell to the Turks in the 1380s.

In the nineteenth century, as the Balkans threw off Turkish rule, Britain and Austria feared growing Russian influence there. Macedonia was originally to form part of Bulgaria, but the Western powers insisted that it remain under Turkish rule. They ruled brutally. State-formation meanwhile proceeded apace in Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, and soon they were ready to take matters into their own hands. They expelled the Turks in the First Balkan War (1912), only to quarrel over how ‘free’ Macedonia should now be divided. In the event Greece and Serbia partitioned it between them, defeating Bulgaria in a brief second war (1913). Resentment over this treatment is still strong in Bulgaria.

Serbia christened their portion ‘South Serbia’ and pursued ruthless policies of assimilation there from 1919 to 1941. The Bulgarians, who occupied the territory from 1941 to 1944, often behaved no better.

What then of the Macedonians themselves? Somehow none of the nationalist labels quite stick. Of those who agitated and fought for freedom from Turkey most sought autonomy within a Balkan federation, but some sought union with Bulgaria, with which linguistic ties are closest. After 1945 Tito promoted Macedonian ethnic consciousness as a bulwark against Stalinist Bulgaria. The first grammars of the Macedonian language were published in 1947 and 1952. Democratic Bulgaria has recognized the Macedonian state but not its language, which it calls a Bulgarian dialect.

As sole heir to Alex-ander’s legacy, Greece meanwhile cut off Mace-donia’s oil supply, arguing that the new state’s name implies ‘territorial ambitions’ in northern Greece where there is a region with the same name.

Macedonia is in no state to fulfil such ambitions, if it has them. The Yugoslav Peoples Army left, taking all its equipment with it. Turbulence in the Balkans has badly damaged the economy. Unemployment is high.

A large Albanian Muslim minority – officially 23 per cent of the population – is also an urgent concern. The tensions are again expressed in arguments about language, this time over creating universities where courses can be taught in Albanian. This Skopje refuses to do.

Conflict in Kosovo, where a largely Albanian population is under quasi-colonial Serb rule, would probably draw western Macedonia into it. The wider conflict which this might trigger would be very frightening.

It is through this thicket of cultural and political claims and counter-claims that Macedonia must find a path. It does not promise to be easy.

Horatio Morpurgo


A Macedonian market

Leader President Kiro Gligorov

Economy GNP per capita $820 (Australia $18,000).
Monetary unit: Denar.
Main exports: Vegetables,sugar beet, cheese, lamb, tobacco, footwear, textiles, metals and ores.
Main imports: Raw materials, machinery, transport equipment, wheat, beef.

People 2.1 million.

Health Infant mortality 26 per 1,000 live births (Japan 4 per 1,000).

Culture 67% of the population is Macedonian, a large minority (22.9%) Albanian. Smaller minorities are made up of Gypsies (2-3%) and Serbs (2-3%).
Religion: Christian Orthodox (majority); Muslim.
Language: Macedonian, written using the Cyrillic script. Albanian, Turkish and Serbian are also spoken.

Sources: The World Guide 1997/1998; State of the World’s Children 1997; Europe Review 1997.

Not previously profiled


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The war, the embargo against Serbia, investment-scheme frauds, collapsing state-owned industries – all have taken their toll; 25-30% unemployment.
[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Adult literacy rate un-available. Primary-school enrolment: male 88%, female 87%; secondary-school enrolment: male 53%, female 55%.
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Very dependent on its often unco-operative neighbours. Always among the poorest of the Yugoslav republics, now poorer still.
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Some heavy sentences handed down to Albanian activists, but in practice these are always cut short.
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Even 10 women out of 120 MPs is an improvement, but under-representation is a key issue in this year’s elections.
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
72 years. Similar to Albania (72) and Bulgaria (71), but less than Greece (78) and the best (Japan, 80).


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The situation here is a good indicator for the Balkan peninsula as a whole. Its increasing poverty and sharpening ethnic divisions are inseparable from that wider context.

NI star rating

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New Internationalist issue 300 magazine cover This article is from the April 1998 issue of New Internationalist.
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