"You do more harm than good." The words of a Greek friend were on my mind as our train pulled into Skopje. He was referring to a message of mine which was too supportive of the Macedonian position in their dispute with Greece. Skopje, Macedonia was the stop of our trip which I viewed with most apprehension, because it is the one Balkan conflict in which I have a personal connection.
My father was born in the Greek province of Macedonia, in the city of Thessaloniki. The name of the town where my grandfather was born was a bone of contention in a debate on a computer network I follow. Kozhani, says a Macedonian Slav whose family came from not far north of there, is derived from the Slavic word "kozha," or "skin," a reference to the leatherworking industry which once flourished there. Kozani, says a Macedonian Greek who grew up there, is absolutely not Slavic in any way. The name derives from a kind of goat which used to live there. It is my history they are arguing about. I am close enough to the issue to offend - to be mistrusted by the Macedonians, perhaps, due to my Greek ancestry, or to offend the Greeks, as I offended my friend, by a too ready (and, in his view, naive) acceptance of Macedonian claims.
As in Budapest, we arranged through a travel agency to stay in the room of a private house. The couple renting to us (like many people in Skopje) spoke no English or German. We made do with Joel's Croatian and my Russian. Renting a room in the same house was a Bulgarian journalist. We carried on a conversation in three languages, with him speaking Bulgarian, Joel Croatian, and me Russian. He had previously been in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. He had been to Osijek, Vukovar, and Sarajevo. He thought the war would last a long time, "It is like Lebanon."
The center of Skopje is filled with modern apartment buildings with nothing obviously Balkan about them, and people who could pass for Greek. Some men (Albanian Muslims) wear round caps, and some of the women have their heads covered with shawls - presumably Muslim women. Others dress much the same as people in Zagreb or Beograd or Athens - or any American city. Some of the men wear earrings - a style not so common in Zagreb or Beograd. The streets, like the streets of Zagreb, are filled with cafes and tables covered by umbrellas advertising various products, such as Marlboro. The public drinking fountains, however, are distinctive - Skopje has some of the best tasting water in the Balkans.
Marshall Tito Square is filled with red flowers. A restaurant there serves pizza Macedonian style (the sauce arrives on the side and is poured on the pizza) and "American style" chicken. We ordered some, and learned that Americans eat their chicken barbecued, served on a bed of French fries, and topped with paprika and a slice of bacon.
The Turkish bridge leading from Marshall Tito square was covered with street sellers; it reminded me of a scene in Andric's book "The Bridge on the Drina." At the end, a boy lay on the bridge, a pile of money collecting by his hand. When we went back the other way in the evening, another boy was in the same place - the next shift. Cross this Turkish bridge, and there in the middle of this modern city are buildings from a quite different time. Winding roads lead up stairs; small shops line the road. We walked down a few of these roads, and came to the Turkish bazaar. In the stalls of this open market and the shops of the streets leading up to it, people sell University of Arizona T-shirts, Athletics sweatshirts, Mutant Ninja Turtles children's clothes, plastic guns, and Barbie-like fashion dolls. Also folk music, jewelry, leather goods, and food. After much searching through this section of town, a pair of mitts hung outside led us to a shop which sold many traditional Albanian crafts - clothing, woven bags, rugs. In the shop stood a postcard from Dubrovnik - "Pray for peace" - sent by a friend of the owner who lived in Dubrovnik.
Having been so recently in Zagreb and Beograd, I was most struck by the absence of nationalist paraphernalia. We saw the new flag of Macedonia, a very striking yellow star, or perhaps a stylized sun, on a red background. (A controversial flag - Greece objects to the use of this star, on grounds that it was used in ancient Macedonia.) But you could not buy it anywhere, it seemed. I would have thought, if Macedonia were preparing for war with Greece, that I should see flags, T-shirts, buttons, products with Macedonian slogans - something like we saw in the US during Desert Storm, or what one finds in Zagreb today. There was nothing of the kind. Graffiti was about rock groups, and not about war.
I was surprised to find that even the streets still have their old Yugoslavian names. There, in the center of town, there is still a street named for Tito, and his portrait can still be seen some places. Perhaps Macedonia, once a Partisan stronghold, remembers Tito more fondly than Croatia (though Tito was also a Croat and Croats also served among the Partisans). One Macedonian woman (born in Florina, Greece) said, "Tito was a good man. Now we remember only the bad, but we should also remember the good." Or perhaps Macedonia, a poor country under much economic pressure, has better ways to spend its money. The postage stamps, for example, were still the ones of old Yugoslavia. The money, however, is new, covered with pictures of women picking crops and, in one denomination, a woman at a computer terminal.
I need not, as it turns out, have feared that Macedonians would mistrust me as a Greek-American. When we set out in the wrong direction from the train station, a man offered us a ride back into Skopje. On hearing that I was Greek-American, he said that it is good that I had come to know the truth. A taxi driver volunteered that he has a Greek wife. Americans are popular here ("America super," said the taxi driver), and Greek-Americans are especially happily received.
What is this truth that I was asked to learn? The main complaint of the Macedonians was of the oil embargo. The Macedonian man who gave us a lift back into town points to some parked cars and says, "No petrol. Greece is holding up a tanker at Thessaloniki." Another man reported a nine hour wait for gas. A woman told us that she is riding her bike because there is no gas. Nearly every Macedonian we spoke to brought up this shortage of gas, and the tanker which Greece had stopped at Thessaloniki. Macedonians also told me that they were no longer able to visit Greece, as they had in the past. All expressed puzzlement at Greece's behavior. "I never expected that Greece would do something like this," and "I don't understand" were typical comments. Macedonia, everyone assured me, had absolutely no interest in Greek territory and was no threat to Greece.
To Greeks, the Macedonian identity is a recent, artificial creation, to be viewed with suspicion as a tool to be manipulated by the Serbs. The Macedonians are linguistically and culturally closely related to the Bulgarians, and Serbians are said to have promoted this nationality to distinguish these people from Bulgarians. (They have some support for this view from historians who say that the Macedonian national identity solidified only in the twentieth century. On the other hand, there is a lot of disagreement among historians about when and how the idea of a Macedonian nationality evolved - judging who is right is way beyond my competence and outside the scope of this article.)
To the Macedonians, it is the nationality they have grown up with. "It is in their folk songs," said a friend of ours from Beograd. Though the Republic of Macedonia as it now stands is a post-WWII creation, Macedonians argue that the idea of Macedonian nationhood is older. One Macedonian activist told me that the Macedonian national identity began in the nineteenth century. Our guidebook, _Skopje and Its Surroundings_ (written in 1986, before the breakup of Yugoslavia) goes farther, saying, "the end of the first millenium brought the first Macedonian state and the Macedonian Emperor Samuil (976-1014)." (It does not, however, trace Macedonian identity as far back as Alexander the Great - a distinction is made between those Macedonians and the Slavic ones.) The money of the Republic of Macedonia is printed with a picture of a monument to the Ilinden uprising of 1903, an uprising which our guidebook to Skopje describes as "a message to the whole world about the desire for freedom and the great hardship of the Macedonian people."
Why is Greece acting as it is? In some ways, this Greek reaction is not hard to understand. At the beginning of this century, Greece fought a war with Bulgaria over the possession of Macedonia. During World War II, Bulgaria occupied part of Macedonia and imported settlers. After World War II, Greece suffered a bitter civil war in which Yugoslavia supported the losing side (and during which Cominform attempted to promote the idea of an autonomous Macedonia). Fifty years is a long time in international relations, long enough for massive changes in nearly all of the governments of Eastern Europe. But it can be a short time in the memory of the people of the countries which suffered these wars. As my father says of the Balkan Wars, "This is recent history. My grandfather fought in that war." One of my uncles lost a hand in the Civil War. I met him later in Greece - he walks and even runs with the hand always in his pocket. Those who think that this historical memory is a peculiarly Balkan malady may do well to ponder our own anxieties about a newly reunited Germany. And those who are puzzled by the intense Greek reaction to the name and flag of the new country may do well to ponder our own feelings toward the Confederate flag.
Yes, it is recent history. But not, I think, current reality. Current reality is a poor, not very well-armed country which is not now making any actual threats toward Greece (which, in fact, has written into its constitution a disavowal of territorial claims). And yes, the symbolism of the name and flag is deeply felt in Greece. But symbolic affronts, however deeply felt, deserve only a response in words and symbols. Unfortunately, Greece instead has chosen to respond by cutting the oil supply.
The one real sore spot that I can see between Greece and Macedonia is the issue of the treatment of the Slavic minority in Greece. The status of the Slavic minority in Greece was not the first concern we heard expressed by Macedonians. The war in Bosnia, the refugees from that war, and the situation in Kosovo all weigh on the minds of Macedonians, and, of course, the lack of gas is an ever present concern. However, under prompting some will say that there is a Macedonian minority in Greece which is mistreated. There is a private organization which concerns itself with the rights of this minority. I have a document produced by the Macedonian Human Rights Movement which lists offenses against the Macedonian minority in Greece and Bulgaria; Greece, for example, is accused of forcing Macedonian parents to send their 2- 3 year old children to "integrated kindergartens." Greeks who fear a Macedonian-Bulgarian alliance may take comfort in the fact that the list of Bulgarian offenses is as long as the list of Greek offenses, but I am sure that this fact will not sweeten the accusations by much. (The document does deny that its minority concerns stem from any claims on Greek territory, "The movement expressly renounces any separatist or irredentist goals . . . ")
On the other hand, Macedonia itself faces the task of building up a country with sizeable Albanian, Turkish, and Roma minorities, and Macedonians seemed for that reason not inclined to draw any claims from the presence of a Slavic minority in Greece (though they disagree with Greeks about its size, national identity, and whether its rights are respected). As Macedonian peace activist Vladimir Milcin (a founding member of an Albanian theater group) said, "Having minorities is normal."
On our last day in Skopje, we met with several women of Women for Peace and heard about their organization. Like Beograd, and unlike Zagreb, Skopje is well-supplied with older activists; the women are mostly middle-aged. Through an interpreter, Teuta Terckova told the story of the organization, "The Women's Organization of Skopje started the peace movement in Skopje after the war in Slovenia and Croatia. We made contact with ecologists in other countries, with the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly, and with other groups. Nowadays we have about 20 peace groups [in Skopje] . . . These organizations are non-governmental and non-partisan . . . They are all members of the Peace Conference."
The Women's Organization of Skopje maintains communication (despite some difficulty in telephone communication) with peace organizations in other parts of former Yugoslavia, in Europe, and in the US. It organizes to get supplies for a children's clinic in Skopje, to find families to take in Bosnian refugees, and support conscientious objectors (Macedonia itself is out of the war, but the war came so unexpectedly that some Yugoslavian soldiers were left in Macedonia, and the women's organization supported those who chose not to fight). Their chief problem is a lack of medicine.
After we concluded the interview, we got an unexpected lift to the train station. Vladimir Milcin, on foot when we interviewed him the night before, was now able to drive us; that morning he had managed to buy five liters of gas.