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

Modern Macedonia: the levels of opposition

By focusing on the different modes that are involved in the shaping of a national landscape, it becomes possible to chart more specifically the politicisation of landscape that has taken place in post-Yugoslav Macedonia. In an earlier article (Brown 1994) I sought to highlight some of the influences at work in debates over state symbols. I focused there on the external and internal tensions surrounding the replacement of the Yugoslav petokratka the five-pointed star of the socialist period on the state flag. I argued that the initial selection of a symbol associated with ancient Macedonia was a response to internal pressures, especially those arising between Macedonian and Albanian political parties, rather than a deliberate provocation of Greece. I went on to trace the extent to which tensions between domestic groups are apparent in the built environment of Skopje, the Republic's capital city.

Yugoslav socialist monuments and symbols did not recall any ancient past so much as celebrate more recent history and political unity. Indeed, it could be argued that novelty and nonconformity were constituted as defining characteristics of Yugoslavia as a whole. There was no rhetoric of m ancient Yugoslav past: to be sure, it was acknowledged that South Slavs were groups that had been in the Balkans since the sixth century, but there was no suggestion that there had ever been such a 'Yugoslavia' before. The state of the same name which had existed on the same territory between 1929 and 1941 played no part in the new state's self-image. Instead, the post-World War II leadership constituted Yugoslavia along very different lines, as a federation of people's republics. The slogan of brotherhood and unity evolved from a partisan movement which began its struggle only after the invasion of Russia by Germany. It had never aimed at the restoration of a pre-war nation but, rather, had striven to establish a post-war federation of the Yugoslav peoples. [2]

The agency that had led to the state's establishment, then, was part of a recent past. The will of the citizens of Yugoslavia was at the forefront of the state's charter, which emphasised ties forged by struggle and common purpose, rather than assumed to derive from any prior history. In so far as 'Yugoslav nationalism' existed, then, it did so in a form which drew attention to its own novelty and its own volition in short, to its own constructedness, rather than its naturalness. [3]

Philip Kaiser, in a study of Southeastern European archaeology, states the extent to which the profession in socialist countries was influenced by three interwoven ideologies; ethnicity, nationalism and Marxism. He argues that with the collapse of socialist regimes since 1989 the importance of the latter has all but disappeared. Regarding Yugoslavia in particular, he suggests that ethnicity was always a dominant concern which wrapped itself in the guise of regional specificity until the 1980s. He takes as an example of the increasing involvement of archaeology with national politics recent Serbian initiatives to disprove any historical relationship between ancient Illyrians and modern Albanians as well as to preserve and protect Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosova (1995: 114 15). All this has accompanied an increasing Serbian police presence in Kosova, as well as steps to settle Serb refugees in the region.

Kosova offers an extreme case of opposing claims to legitimate ownership of territory. The Serbian government controls the apparatus of power and celebrates various sites, such as the battlefield of Kosova and frescoed churches and monasteries, as markers of the region's deep, historical connection with the Serbian nation. The demographics of the region tell a different story, as the inhabited landscape is predominantly Albanian. Two distinct varieties of force majeure meet, and the ideologues of each side challenge the basis of the other's claim. [4] The Albanian majority, according to some Serbian sources, is a recent phenomenon, brought about only by the terrorisation of Serbian inhabitants and a higher birth-rate among Albanians. The present Serbian regime is accused by Albanians of operating a police state in the present, and justifying it by the falsification of history.

Such a view is perhaps schematic, but it demonstrates the extent to which the battle-lines of legitimacy in Kosova are more or less fixed. In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, however, a broader set of players make claims to sovereignty in various realms. The two analytically distinct ways in which links are constructed between territory and people as aggregate of individuals or households, or as collective entity resonate with claims and counter-claims about the built environment. As noted above, there are calls for some form of self-government to be granted to areas in the north west of the Republic where Albanians constitute a local majority in cities such as Tetovo, Debar and Gostivar. One basis for such calls is an allegedly simple arithmetic of population statistics and the practices of everyday life.

However, Albanian activists have also worked to contend for legitimacy at another level, by seeking to invest particular sites with symbolic status. In the 1980s, for example, Albanian writers claimed that Macedonian authorities carried out a concerted offensive to prevent Albanian households from maintaining high-walled courtyards in front of village houses (Biberaj 1993: 5, 16). Whatever the official justification, this was presented as oppression by denying a particular cultural expression of Albanian identity. This reaction can be grouped with accusations of routine discrimination and state interference in Albanian private lives. Recent events in Tetovo, where an officially unapproved Albanian university was founded and defended against police intervention to close it down, demonstrate an extension of the grounds of dispute to include particular places of value (Schwartz 1996). The attention paid to mosques by all parties in Macedonia is a further reminder of the impact and significance of such punctate markers of collective presence.

At the institutional level, the Macedonian Republic faces other challenges. Although a compromise was finally reached on the state flag in late 1995, the protracted debate with Greece over the final name that the Republic should bear remains unresolved at the time of writing. Greek determination to make clear the absolute non-connection of a modern, Slavic state with that of Philip II and Alexander seems set to rule out a straightforward name like that of any of the other successor states to Yugoslavia. The use of 'Macedonian' to designate ethnic identity also remains problematic in the face of objections from Greece and Bulgaria, voiced by individuals from both states who claim the term for themselves (Danforth 1995).

A different level of dispute again arises with respect to one of the new bulwarks of national identity, the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Recognised within Yugoslavia after 1967, the church benefited from a state policy which acknowledged the cultural heritage of Orthodoxy. The property of the church in Macedonia was largely expropriated, but it was also preserved. In the twenty five year period 1945 70, 841 Orthodox churches and forty eight monasteries throughout Yugoslavia were repaired or restored, including the frescoed churches of Macedonia (Alexander 1979: 274). This could be argued to have been an inscription of an ethnic or religious identity in the Republic, which took place alongside the project of creating other sites, both ceremonial and everyday, where ideals of atheistic socialism were promoted. Now that the state's relationship with religion has changed and the Orthodox church is regaining control of these sites they appear set to play an influential role in the politics of the present. However, the Serbian Church never recognised the Macedonian, and nor did the rest of the world's Orthodox churches. The complication that this brings in its wake is that the Serbian church lays claim to all church property in the Republic that is dated prior to 1967. In so doing, it reprises the role it played when Serbia controlled the area between 1919 and 1941; a claim to proprietorship of cultural capital thus carries with it, implicitly, a claim to the control of the territory in which it stands. [5]

None of these disputes are new. Clashes with Greece over the name of the Republic and its Slavic inhabitants began in the 1940s (Kofos 1964); the Serbian church mounted opposition to the Macedonian church's bids for autocephaly throughout the 1960s (Alexander 1979); and Albanian citizens of Yugoslavia made the claims to the status of narod that Albanian citizens of Macedonia do today (Biberaj 1993; Poulton 1995: 126 36).

What gives these old confrontations new and critical salience is the passing of a Yugoslav regime that sponsored the construction of solidarity in the present, rather than its location in the past. Under its sway, the emphasis was thus not on excavation so much as construction. The result was a set of memorials and buildings that were self-consciously modern, marking a continuity with universal humanistic ideals. These ideals then informed an emphasis on reading the recent past. In the Republic of Macedonia academic energies were devoted mainly to history and, in particular, to that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the region was the base of revolutionaries with clear connections to those of the rest of Europe. Their activism was held to anticipate the founding not only of Macedonia, but of the federal socialist Yugoslavia of which it was a part. More distant history, obviously, raised greater problems in the location of such connections. Nonetheless Philip Silberman, visiting the archaeological site of Stobi, south of Skopje, in the late 1970s, found a largely abandoned excavation, and a young archaeologist who located not a proto-Macedonia, but a proto-Yugoslavia in the ruins (Silberman 1989: 20). More so perhaps than any of the other republics, Macedonia's history and solidarity were tied up with Yugoslavia. [6]

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]

2. For many of its citizens, especially those in what would later become the Republic of Macedonia, the 'first Yugoslavia' which existed between 1929 and 1941 was a Serbian-dominated police state. This perception, and the state initiatives which prompted it, was certainly tied to the existence of pro-Bulgarian sentiment in the area, clearly evident in the encounters that Rebecca West (1941) describes.

3. In this respect, Yugoslav nationalism differed decisively from that of its southern neighbour Greece within which the ancient past remains a primary source of symbolic capital in the present (Green 1989; Hamilakis and Yalouri 1996; Herzfeld 1982; Silberman 1989).

4. The clear distinction between the two rhetorics of legitimacy is neatly highlighted in a response offered by Elez Biberaj to potential Serbian fears over the survival of cultural monuments in the region. He suggested that international organisations take over the stewardship of the various monasteries and churches, thus in one stroke acknowledging claims that they represent a 'world class' heritage, and simultaneously denying their use to justify continuing Serbian military presence (1993: 22).

5. The particular dispute over church property in Macedonia has not yet been documented, but is currently being researched by Professor Stephen Batalden.

6. Silberman juxtaposed his description of Stobi's excavation with that at Vergina, site of the Macedonian Royal Tombs in Northern Greece. The historical fact that the peoples known as Slavs came to the Balkans only in the sixth and seventh centuries after Christ plays a significant role in discourses of legitimacy and heritage in the region. Significant, too, is the cross-cutting importance of the Christian heritage, which complicates the celebration of links to pagan predecessors. The result is that both Greece and the Republic of Macedonia at times strain to construct simple narratives of deep continuity.