Contests of heritage and the politics of preservation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, K. S. Brown

Political background

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is home to approximately two million people who are classified both within the state and by outside agencies as constituting a number of different ethnic groups. As well as Macedonians, who are in the majority, there are Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Roma and Vlachs. The census of 1994 relied on self-identification and primary language to draw lines between these communities. While some political parties, supported by various NGOs, strive to establish a multi-cultural model of 'civil society' within the Republic (Schwartz n.d.), other local actors promote the virtues of the nation-state, and argue that the only viable political units are those characterised by cultural homogeneity. Their agenda is served by the various external observers who stress the existence of 'ancient hatreds' in the region.

Within the Republic, the division that attracts most focus is that between the Macedonian Orthodox majority and the large Albanian minority, who are mostly Muslim. Albanian demands are various, and range from greater use of the Albanian language in higher education, through constitutional changes to make Macedonia a bilingual and bicultural state, to secession of regions with a local Albanian majority. Some claim discrimination of the kind suffered by Albanians in Kosova, although on a lesser scale. In all of this activism, the world community and those segments of it which particularly promote minority rights are part of the audience (Danforth 1995). Macedonian political parties respond in different ways, some by seeking compromise settlements, others by refusing to brook any departure from the ideal nation-state of ethnocracy.

The disputes are played out in a territory which bears the marks of a turbulent history. It remained part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912, when an unholy alliance of new Balkan states first defeated Turkish forces, and then collapsed in quarrels over the spoils. Serbia emerged from World War I with control over what is now the Republic of Macedonia, and treated it as an undeveloped area for colonisation. In World War II the territory was split between Albanian and Bulgarian control before being united again, within the pre-war borders, as one of the constituent republics of the new federal Yugoslavia. [1]

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1. The borders of the Republic have never followed specific geographical features, and so their exact locations have always been disputed. These disputes have often centred on the ownership of specific and highly-charged symbolic sites in the contested region. The monastery of St Naum, for example, at the base of Lake Ohrid, was included briefly in Albania after World War I (West 1941: 739) while the monastery of Prohor Pchinski, close to the border between the former republics of Serbia and Macedonia, is also a contested cultural monument.