Tuesday

13th Apr 2021

Opinion

Nationalism and polarisation in Macedonia's referendum

  • The controversial statue of Alexander the Great, in Macedonia's capital, Skopje (Photo: Juan Antonio F. Segal)

With little over a third of eligible voters taking part a fortnight ago in Macedonia's controversial referendum on changing its name, the country's future hangs in the balance.

In an attempt to bury a three-decade-long dispute with Greece over the country's name, the referendum has thrown open as many issues as it sought to overcome.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

In the view of the many national government officials, local mayors and civic activists interviewed in Skopje a week prior to the vote, it exacerbated ongoing ethnic and nationalist aspirations.

For many, the insistence of Greece, first to impose the acronym FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and then to settle on the Republic of North Macedonia through last month's plebiscite, was a bitter pill to swallow.

The vote followed a deal negotiated between the centre-left prime minister Zoran Zaev and Greece's Alexis Tsipras earlier this summer, and was opposed by the country's nationalist president, Gjorge Ivanov, who called on Macedonians to boycott it altogether.

Many see access to Western institutions, chiefly the EU and NATO, as a way out of a paralysis born of, and sustained by, corruption and an ineffective politics.

For the Greeks, as members of both institutions, to block Macedonian accession is a reflection of their own internal nationalist issues. It has been less than what is hoped of an EU member in relation to supporting peace-building in its Balkan neighbour in the aftermath of the war.

Yet for a nascent country which is working hard at establishing its own post-Yugoslav national identity, the very name of the country may be a willing trade-off if it opens a path to integration into the transatlantic community and its institutions.

But so too have these international calculations aggravated longstanding local issues and prevented them from being addressed; they have ratcheted up national insecurity and made an already polarised community vulnerable to exploitative narratives.

Architecture as politics

Take "Skopje 2014", for instance, a vast construction project led by the then-governing party of nationalist president Gjorge Ivanov and launched in 2010.

Ostensibly aimed at the renovation of the capital to attract a greater tourist footfall, the €80m project would culminate in around 40 new monuments, sculptures, facades and public building.

Some €670m of public spending later and the project has riled many for its wastefulness and extravagance, most of all minority communities that do not identify with its mostly Christian Orthodox and Hellenistic imagery.

But just so that everybody had some cause for offence, a statue of Alexander the Great was erected in the main square with the caveat that it could not be officially titled Alexander the Great, thanks to concerns levelled by Greece.

Statue-building as a way to forge national identity doesn't necessarily merit condemnation in and of itself, especially so for an emergent nation state.

After all, it is far from anathema to EU and NATO members. But it's not just about pictures, it's about money too.

Central government budgets were tapped but they were complemented by local municipal budgets, including over €14m from the municipality of Cair.

Cair hosts a majority of largely Muslim ethnic Albanians (57 percent) and only 24 percent of its inhabitants identify as ethnic Macedonians (compared to over 66 percent of ethnic Macedonians and 20 percent of ethnic Albanians in the whole of Skopje).

Statues, or sewage?

While Cair's taxpayer denars were being redirected to Skopje 2014, some of its citizens were lacking the most basic infrastructure such as functioning sewage systems.

This brought a revitalised ethnic hue to issues of poverty, segregation and deprivation but combined with the narrative imagery of the statues to make nationalism the project of one group over another, rather than a consensus between many.

These grievances have contributed for a long time to Cair becoming a centre of heightened ethnic tensions. More recently, they are considered one among many factors in the small neighbourhood generating a high proportion of the country's 150 'foreign terrorist fighters' travelling to Syria and Iraq.

Cair was home to the infamous Jaja Pasha and Tutunsuz mosques, where radical preacher Rexhep Memishi became an influencer for a large number of fighters from Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.

As the country braces for their return and tries to reduce the risk of further radicalisation, it is these localised grievances that need to be prevented from adding weight to wider recruitment narratives.

Despite their prevalence in press stories and the engagement they draw from Western governments, these issues are not unique to Muslims or Albanians, or any other community.

Other municipalities are witnessing a growing, interconnected and pitifully under-researched resurgence of far-right and ethno-nationalist foreign fighters, travelling not to the Levant but to Ukraine.

Whilst those who pick up arms to drive their point home (or anywhere else) remain an extreme fringe, the point is they exploit and exacerbate a broader polarisation across the community.

The narratives that mobilise these trends are intimately tied to local issues and grievances that differ from one neighbourhood to the next and yet give succour to wider tensions.

They may not be new, but as the country considers just what price it will pay to settle one dispute and hopefully move closer towards Western integration, it is these issues that offer perhaps a yet greater challenge to the realisation of nationhood.

Daniel Hooton and Marta Lopes work for the Strong Cities Network, of 120 cities and municipalities across more than 40 countries, to share learning on preventing extremism and building resilience to polarisation, hate and violence. The network was launched and is led by the international counter-extremism organisation, ISD. The opinions presented in this piece reflect those of the authors and are not attributed to ISD

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU delays Macedonia and Albania talks

Accession talks to start in 2019, not this year as hoped, after France, Denmark and Netherlands force delay despite breakthrough on Macedonia name dispute.

Amending the constitution: A historic opportunity for Macedonia

After the fleeing of ex-PM Nikola Gruevski to Hungary, what Macedonia needs is an independent judiciary so that wrongdoers from all parties are brought behind bars, and a reconciliation between Albanians and Macedonians, based on full equality between communities.

Industry lobby to 'co-decide' on nearly €10bn EU public money

Several industry EU lobby groups are about to be entrusted again with the privilege of co-deciding how €9.6bn of public EU research funding should be used - in research areas as essential as healthcare, transportation, energy and IT infrastructures.

News in Brief

  1. US officials call for J&J vaccine pause over blood clots
  2. Putin refuses to talk about military build-up, Ukraine says
  3. EU bank to help Greece manage corona-recovery funds
  4. Johnson & Johnson vaccine deliveries to EU begin
  5. EU sanctions commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard
  6. UK opens investigation into ex-PM Cameron lobbying
  7. 'Significant differences' in EU-UK talks on Northern Ireland
  8. Bulgarian PM reveals price rise in new EU-BioNTech deal

Column

Why Germans understand the EU best

In Germany, there is commotion about a new book in which two journalists describe meetings held during the corona crisis between federal chancellor Angela Merkel, and the 16 prime ministers of its federal constituent states.

Why Iceland isn't the gender paradise you think

Iceland's international reputation masks two blunt realities that face the country's women - the disproportionate levels of gender-based violence that they experience, and a justice system that is frequently suspicious and hostile towards victims of this violence.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersDigitalisation can help us pick up the green pace
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region can and should play a leading role in Europe’s digital development
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Council to host EU webinars on energy, digitalisation and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAEU Code of Conduct can showcase PPPs delivering healthier more sustainable society
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersWomen benefit in the digitalised labour market

Latest News

  1. How the pandemic became an EU goldmine for crime
  2. China responds to 'low-efficacy' vaccine fears
  3. Merkel party chiefs support Laschet's chancellor bid
  4. EU refuses to bail out Montenegro's China loan
  5. Industry lobby to 'co-decide' on nearly €10bn EU public money
  6. Why Ursula von der Leyen won't go
  7. Incorporating gender in trade policy to benefit all
  8. Does Italian regionalism actually work?

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us