By Timothy Li
When people hear about the name Macedonia, usually they would think of one man, and that man is no other than Alexander the Great. Though the conquests of this Macedonian conqueror are well known and documented, the exact ethnicity of this great man has led to historical debate, and the facts are considered blurry by some. Besides Alexander, the term Macedonia can easily arouse the anger of angry keyboard warriors and incite even international conflict. But why are the names Alexander the Great and Macedonia sources for so much tension?
To fully understand the situation, one must know about the history of the Balkan Peninsula, where the region of Macedonia is situated at. The borders of the historic region known as Macedonia have changed numerous times due to political reasons, but it currently covers parts of Northern Greece (with the important city of Thessaloniki), the Republic of Macedonia, and bits of Bulgaria and Albania). Prior to the arrival of the Slavs, the region was predominantly Greek-speaking, and it was the case until Slavic raids in the 6th century against the Greek Byzantine Empire. Historians have long believed these Macedonia-inhabiting Slavs to be Bulgarians, due to the similarity of the language. However, the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans in the 14th-16th centuries greatly altered the demographics of Macedonia, when great cities like Thessaloniki became predominantly Sephardi Jewish and Skopje Turkish and Muslim. During the Ottoman occupation period, the Greeks and Slavs of Macedonia did not fight over ethnicity or nationality, since the empire was religious by nature and identified all the Orthodox Christian subjects as “Rum” (Rome) or simply Christians.
The ethnic problem began in the 19th century when Russia’s support for the Pan-Slavic movement gained momentum in the Balkans. With countries like Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro gaining independence by the mid-1800s, the Bulgarian nationalistic movement gained much support from the Macedonian Slavs. The revolutionary Georgi Pulevski was the first to openly identify as an ethnic Macedonian instead of Bulgarian, and the idea of this new ethnicity gained support from many intellectuals in Northern Macedonia. A pinnacle moment for Macedonian history was the Ilinden Uprising (1903), when the Macedonian Krusevo Republic was proclaimed. However, the uprising was not an ethnic one, since the leader of the uprising, Nikola Karev, understood that the region of Northern Macedonia was an incredibly mixed region of Turks, Albanians, and Slavs. Even though the republic only lasted for 10 days, it laid the groundwork for the future Macedonian state.
With ongoing sentiment against the Ottomans in the Balkans, the pivotal moment of the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First Balkan War granted Northern Macedonia to Serbia, and Southern Macedonia to Greece. This greatly angered the two countries’ ally Bulgaria, since it laid claim to the Macedonian region due to historical and nationalistic reasons. Outnumbered by an alliance of the Balkan League and ironically, the Ottomans, Bulgaria was defeated in the Second Balkan War with further territorial losses. The Macedonian national movement dimmed due to Serbia’s forced removal of Bulgarian-speaking schools and clergy, and the region underwent a period of Serbianization. It wasn’t until the formation of Yugoslavia, and especially Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia that Northern Macedonia formally had its own legal Macedonian language and recognized status. It is important to understand that Southern Macedonia returned to being predominately Greek after the population exchange between Turkey and Greece in 1923, and the Sephardic community was decimated after the Second World War. With Yugoslavia’s slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity”, the inter-ethnic tension between Serbs and Croats, Christians and Muslims was briefly suppressed during most of the nation’s existence.
The important moment came in 1991 when the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) officially gained its independence, and was the only ex-Yugoslav country to do so peacefully. The future looked bright for this little country, since its economy was growing and the people did not have to endure the hardships of the neighboring Yugoslav Wars. But the unfortunate nation of FYROM was embroiled in controversy since the very beginning of its existence. The confusion mentioned in the title is attributed to the still ongoing dispute between Greece and FYROM. Similar to every country, the small republic needed its own national history and language, as they are great political tools for unity and patriotism. But FYROM was not a very homogenous country, with over a quarter of the population being Albanian, and the rest including Turks, Bosnians, and Roma. Besides ethnicity, the country was also divided religiously as well, with around 2/3 Orthodox Christian and 1/3 Muslim. This greatly complicated the issue of Macedonian nationalism since the neighboring Bulgarians argued that the history of FYROM was undeniably Bulgarian, with Skopje being a former capital of the Bulgarian Empire and Macedonian simply considered another dialect of Bulgarian. The naming issue between Greece and FYROM only intensified in the mid-1990s when the republic used the Vergina Sun, a traditional Greek Macedonian symbol, as its national flag. The decision to name the capital’s airport Alexander the Great Airport only infuriated the Greek government and populace even more. This conflict has led to Greece denying the country’s attempt to enter the EU and will only continue until an agreement in the change of FYROM’s official name. FYROM’s identity is further questioned with recent censuses showing that the Albanian and Turkish populations have significantly grown while the ethnic Macedonian one declined, nearing a 45% to 55% ratio, respectively. The relationship between the Macedonians and Albanians have also greatly deteriorated since the fall of the communist regime, with the 2001 insurgency started by the Albanians for more autonomy and representation to just recently when Macedonian nationalists stormed the parliament tried to attack the Albanian speaker of the assembly.
For the foreseeable future, the little country of the Republic of Macedonia will continue to face ethnic tension, naming controversy, and international prestige loss, and the growth of the economy may seem as a small compensation for all the losses of this confused nation. As Macedonia is another country, similar to the ones that we have visited in our travels, experienced communist governments for a few decades, it is struggling to regain a true national identity after a system that dismisses tradition and religion. Along with the East Central European countries, Macedonia will have to take years, or even decades to adapt to the conditions and globalized culture of the 21st century.