by F. A. K. Yasamee
(Balkans: A Mirror of the New World Order, Istanbul: EREN, 1995; pp. 121-132)
More than seventy years ago the British scholar R. W. Seton-Watson published a work entitled The Rise of Nationality in the Balkans(1). Since then, nationality and its associated problems have remained at the heart of the politics, both domestic and foreign, of the peoples and states of the Balkan peninsula. Nationality has proved a persistent force, but not an immutable one. The perceptions, aspirations and expectations which define such notions as "Greek", "Bulgarian" or "Serb" have changed over time. They have been revised from above, by a succession of political regimes: monarchical, parliamentary, military, communist and post-communist. They have been more subtly affected by social and cultural changes, including the advent of mass literacy and mass communications. Above all, they have been altered by the great political upheavals which the Balkan peninsula has undergone in the course of the twentieth century: the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the First and Second World Wars, and the post-1989 collapse of communism.
A striking instance of the mutability of nationality is furnished by that group of South Slavs who today call themselves Macedonians. Not only does their nationality continue to be disputed by several of their neighbours, but they themselves have accomplished the feat, unique in the modern Balkans, of assuming one national identity, and then discarding it in favour of another. The Macedonians are an extreme case, but it will be suggested here that the forces which have governed the peculiar evolution of their sense of nationality are not, at bottom, different from those which have shaped the nationalities of other Balkan peoples. Before proceeding to a detailed examination of the Macedonian case, therefore, it is appropriate to make certain general observations on the subject of nationality in the modern Balkans.
This chronic sense of vulnerability, both to immediate neighbours and to extra-Balkan powers, has had important repercussions on the foreign policies of Balkan states. On the one hand, Balkan states and peoples have, at various times, sought to free themselves from domination by extra-Balkan great powers, and to assert their independence or "non-alignment". On the other hand, at other times, Balkan states and peoples have sought actively to involve extra-Balkan powers in their affairs, seeing in them strong patrons who might protect and advance their interests against those of their neighbours.
There is, however, more to the smallness of the nations of the Balkan peninsula than the objective facts of population size, and the implications of those facts for international power politics. Equally important are certain cultural and attitudinal characteristics of the small nations of the Balkan peninsula. The first of these characteristics, particularly marked in the case of the Macedonian Slavs, is a sense of vulnerability to cultural assimilation. This sense of vulnerability is grounded in historical experience: cultural and linguistic assimilation has played a large part in the "nation-building process" in the nineteenth and twentieth century Balkans. It is well established that the modern Greek nation was built up in significant part through the assimilation, or "Hellenisation", of originally non-Greek speaking elements, including Albanians, Vlachs, Slavs, and even Turkish-speakers of the Orthodox Christian faith. From the early nineteenth century onwards, the Greeks were pioneers in the use of schooling and educational propaganda as a device for assimilating non-Greeks, including not a few Macedonian Slavs.(3) In similar fashion, it has been suggested by competent scholars that at the time of the founding of the Bulgarian state in 1878, less than 50% of the new state's population may have been Bulgarian. Within a few decades this percentage rose to form an unchallengeable majority, partly, at least, through the assimilation of non-Bulgarian elements in the population.(4)
These assimilatory processes were facilitated by certain objective features of Ottoman and early post-Ottoman Balkan society. The population, whether Moslem or Orthodox Christian, was massively illiterate, living for the most part in scattered rural communities, and speaking dialects rather than "languages". Until the early nineteenth century, there were to most intents and purposes only two written languages in the region: Turkish, the language of literate Moslems; and Greek, the language of literate Orthodox Christians. Even in the "prenational" era, education, and its concomitant, social advancement, implied a degree of cultural and linguistic assimilation, at least for those whose mother-tongue was neither Turkish nor Greek. Finally, though statistics of any kind are lacking, there are grounds for suspecting a significant incidence of bi-or even tri-lingualism in the late Ottoman Balkans, particularly in urban centres in lingustically-mixed regions, of which Macedonia was a prime example.
It should be emphasized that the type of assimilation under discussion was voluntary: nobody was beaten up. Rather, once a particular linguistic and "ethnic" group achieved a position of social and political dominance, so members of other groups proved willing to assimilate to its language and culture. Of course, there have been certain clear barriers to assimilation. Religion remains one of the most important, as evidenced by the Slav-speaking but Moslem Pomaks and Torbesh, and by all three religious-national communities in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Nor is it at all easy to assimilate a population once it has been raised lo the level of independent national consciousness through literacy, education, and the acquisition of its own social and cultural leaders; the Macedonians in the first Yugoslavia are a case in point. But the continued existence of non-coercive assimilatory pressures should not be overlooked. As recently as the 1970s, for example, it was possible to hear intellectuals in Skopje speculate that the long-term fate of the Macedonians of Yugoslavia would be Serbianisation. It was not that such pessimists believed in "dark plots" hatched in Belgrade, but that they feared that the pressure of the general Yugoslav popular culture, which was largely Serbo-Croatian speaking, would ultimately erode the cultural and linguistic particularity of the Macedonians.
One further aspect of the "small nation syndrome" may be termed "cultural provincialism", by which is meant simply the observable fact that the various national cultures of the modern Balkans, with their distinctive institutions, habits and ways of life, are not regarded by their participants as being for export. This is in marked contrast to the modern cultures of Western Europe, Russia and America, and also in contrast to the dominant pre-national cultures of the Balkans, the Ottoman Moslem and the Byzantine Orthodox, both of which were regarded by their adherents as being, in principle, exportable to those who would accept them. Throughout the modern era, the nations of the Balkans have been major cultural importers, from Western and Central Europe, and also from Russia in its Tsarist and Soviet forms. In culture, as in politics, the modern Balkan states' insistence upon "national" independence and particularity has gone hand in hand with a marked reliance upon external patrons and partners.
A second general observation concerns "national identity." In the modern Balkans, as elsewhere, group identity has proved to be more complex than appears from standard nationalist accounts of the subject. One plausible view of the development of national identity in the Balkans since the early nineteenth century would point to the progressive dissolution of larger religious identities (Orthodox, Moslem) into smaller linguistic "national" units (Greek, Serb, Bulgarian, Romanian and Macedonian in the case of the Orthodox; Bosnian, Albanian, and Turkish in the case of the Moslems). An equally plausible view, placing its emphasis upon the processes of assimilation alluded to above, would point to the progressive absorption of smaller, local identities into the larger linguistic nation. What is misleading about such views, however, is that they imply that an older set of identities has been entirely displaced by identities which are essentially new, or at least, "revived". For one thing, most, if not all, of the modern national identities were at least prefigured in the "pre-national" era: terms like "Albanian", "Serb" and "Bulgarian" were used, and in senses which were not fundamentally different from those in which they are used today. "Macedonian" is perhaps the most important exception. For another, "pre-national" identities have persisted: the old Moslem and Orthodox religious solidarities have not lost all appeal, and nor have some of the local, "particularist" identities, one notable example being "Montenegrin." Finally, it is worth noting that the modern, "national" era lias also brought with it new identities which transcend the boundaries of the nation-state as conventionally understood, among them being "Slav", "Yugoslav" and "European". In sum, in the modern Balkans, as elsewhere, group identities are comprised of an amalgam of allegiances, and the emergence of national identities in their modern form is best understood not as a process of displacement, creation or rebirth, but as a process of reconstruction and reinterpretation, in which old and new allegiances combined and were partially redefined. This process was not of necessity definitive: there remained the possibility of further change, particularly under the pressure of compelling events.
This leads to the third general observation, which concerns history, and how history is perceived. The teaching of history has played a positive role in the development of modern national consciousness in the Balkans. History, in those countries, is a highly politicised subject of study. It is not simply that history i.s used to foster a sense of past achievement, and to legitimise the present: it also arouses expectations for the future, and not only territorial expectations. Balkan history-writing, whether of the nationalist or Marxist schools (the two are not mutually exclusive), treats modern Balkan history as rational: as the unfolding of logical processes of clear tendency and direction. For the nationalist school, Ihe focus is on the "re-birth", affirmation, consolidation and self-assertion of the "nation". For the Marxist school, the focus is on the unfolding of the iron laws of social development, and the successive transitions from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to socialism. "History has a trend."(5)
There is an alternative view of modern Balkan history: namely, that far from having a clear trend, it has been catastrophic. In the present context, the use of the term "catastrophic" implies no value judgements, bul simply suggests that the course of nineteenth and twentieth century Balkan history has been marked by a series of trend-breaking events, most, though not all, the product of external forces, which have diverted history from its anticipated courses, nullified expectations, and in the process, undermined and redefined identities, including national identities. This point is crucial to an understanding of the evolution of the national identity of the Slavs of Macedonia.
The Bulgarian revival in Macedonia was not unopposed. For one thing, the population of the region was ethnically and religiously mixed: Orthodox Slavs were the largest ethnic group, but they did not constitute an absolute majority of the population, which also included large numbers of Moslem Turks, Albanians, Pomaks and Torbes, Orthodox Greeks, Vlachs and Serbs, and a significant Jewish community. The Greeks and Serbs, too, had national ambitions in the region, and believed that these could be furthered by a policy of cultural and linguistic assimilation of the Macedonian Slavs, to be achieved through educational and church propaganda. Nonetheless, by the 1870s the Bulgarians were clearly the dominant national party in Macedonia; it was widely anticipated that the Macedonian Slavs would continue to evolve as an integral part of the modern Bulgarian nation, and that, in the event of the Ottoman Empire's demise, Macedonia would be included in a Bulgarian successor-state. That these anticipations proved false was due not to any intrinsic peculiarities of the Macedonian Slavs, setting them apart from the Bulgarians, but to a series of catastrophic events, which, over a period of seventy years, diverted the course of Macedonian history away from its presumed trend.
The first of these catastrophic events was the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877. This led to the establishment, in 1878, of a de facto independent Bulgarian state in Moesia and parts of Thrace; Macedonia, however, remained under direct Ottoman rule. This political separation weakened the Bulgarian cause in Macedonia in a number of ways. In the first place, the Bulgarians lost the confidence of the Ottoman authorities, who took steps to constrain Bulgarian national activity in Macedonia. In the second, the Serbs and the Greeks seized the opportunity to intensify their own assimilatory national propagandas in the region. Finally, a significant proportion of the Slav intelligentsia of Macedonia, the leaders of the Bulgarian revival, emigrated to the new Bulgarian state in search of jobs and careers. However, the fact that the political separation of Macedonia from Bulgaria in 1878 has proved permanent should not lead us to exaggerate its significance at the time; lo contemporaries, the setback to the Bulgarian cause seemed temporary. By the 1890s Ottoman hostility was abating, and the authorities were tolerating a renewal of Bulgarian ecclesiastical and educational activities in Macedonia; Greek and Serb propaganda made but little headway among the Slavs; and a new generation of Bulgarian intelligentsia was emerging in Macedonia.(8)
It was, however, members of this new generation who were responsible lor provoking the second catastrophe to face the Slavs of Macedonia. They did so by launching an attempt to overthrow Ottoman rule in Macedonia by force, the vehicle for this attempt being a body conventionally known as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO). Formally, IMRO did not seek Macedonia's annexation to Bulgaria, but only Macedonia's autonomy - a point which has encouraged misleading suggestions that IMRO viewed the Slavs of Macedonia as an independent "Macedonian" nation, ethnically separate from the Bulgarians. In reality, IMRO never questioned the Bulgarian national identity of the Macedonian Slavs; its apparent preference for autonomy over annexation was essentially a matter of political tactics, and at most, implied a recognition that the presence ol numerous non-Bulgarians in Macedonia might render outright annexation to Bulgaria impractical. From the late 1890s onwards, IMRO embarked upon a campaign of revolutionary agitation and terrorism in Macedonia, culminating, in 1903, in an unsuccessful attempt at a mass uprising. The consequences lor the Slav population of Macedonia were grave. Faced with repression on the part of the Ottoman authorities, and also with armed attacks, tolerated by the Ottoman authorities, by local Greeks and Serbs, many fled to Bulgaria, or renounced their Bulgarian identity and declared themselves to be Greeks or Serbs. Others look advantage of new opportunities for emigration to the United Stales of America. For the first time, or so it appeared, the Bulgarian national movement in Macedonia might he in danger of losing its principal asset: namely, the Bulgarians' status as (the largest ethnic group in Macedonia. As to IMRO, in the face of failure it rapidly lost its organisational coherence, and broke up into mutually hostile factions. The Young Turk Revolution of 1908 afforded some respite, offering the Slavs of Macedonia some opportunities for legal political activity and representation in the Ottoman parliament; but they were by now too weakened to derive much advantage from these concessions.(9)
Neither the first nor the second of these catastrophes had significantly affected the Macedonian Slavs' sense of their national identity, which remained predominantly Bulgarian. Not so the third catastrophe: the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. These put an end to Ottoman rule, but left the bulk of Macedonia, and its Slav population, partitioned between Serbia and Greece. Only a small portion of the territory and population went to Bulgaria. This territorial verdict was confirmed at the end of the First World War, exposing the national identity of a majority of the Macedonian Slavs to sustained assaults. Within Greece, and also within the new kingdom of Yugoslavia, which Serbia had joined in 1918, the ejection of the Bulgarian church, the closure of Bulgarian schools, and the banning of publication in Bulgarian, together with the expulsion or flight to Bulgaria of a large proportion of the Macedonian Slav intelligentsia, served as the prelude to campaigns of forcible cultural and linguistic assimilation. Within Greece, the Macedonian Slavs were designated "Slavophone Greeks", while within Yugoslavia, they were officially treated as "South Serbs". In both countries, schools and the media were used to disseminate the national ideologies and identities, and also the languages, of the new ruling nations, the Greeks and the Serbs. These cultural measures were reinforced by steps to alter the composition of the population: Serb colonists were implanted in Yugoslav Macedonia, while in Greek Macedonia, the mass settlement of Greek refugees from Anatolia definitively reduced the Slav population to minority status. In both countries, these policies of de-bulgarisation and assimilation were pursued, with fluctuating degrees of vigour, right through to 1941, when the Second World War engulfed the Balkan peninsula. The degree of these policies' success, however, remains open to question. The available evidence suggests that Bulgarian national sentiment among the Macedonian Slavs of Yugoslavia and Greece remained strong throughout the inter-war period, though they lacked the means to offer more than passive resistance to official policies.(10)
It was the fourth catastrophe, the Second World War, which was to have decisive consequences for the Macedonian Slavs' sense of national identity. The German invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece in 1941, and the Soviet invasion of Bulgaria in 1944, destroyed the established political regimes in each of these countries, paving the way for successful communist seizures of power in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria (and also in Albania), and for a protracted civil war in Greece, which ended, however, in the defeat of the communist-led side. Prior to the Second World War, the various Balkan communist parties had enjoyed limited popular support and influence, and their views on the Macedonian issue had been of little practical importance. During the 1920s, the Comintern had advocated a "united and independent Macedonia." This line was enthusiastically supported by the Bulgarian communist party, which continued to stress the Bulgarian national identity of the Macedonian Slavs, but it was regarded with embarrasment by the Yugoslav and Greek communist parties, who were fearful of offending nationalist sentiment within their own countries. Between 1933 and 1935, however, the Comintern shifted its line, and gave its support to an original thesis, developed by the Yugoslav party, which held that the Macedonian Slavs were neither Serbs nor Bulgarians, but constituted a separate Macedonian nation. Whatever the reasons for the Comintern's change ofattitude,which appear to have derived from its concurrent pursuit of a "united front" of progressive forces against fascism, the new thesis on Macedonian nationality was scarcely welcomed to the Bulgarian party, and nor docs it appear to have aroused much of an echo within Macedonia, even among communists.(11)
Nonetheless, having emerged, during the course of the Second World War, as the most powerful communist party in the Balkans, the Yugoslav party was able to impose its notion of a separate Macedonian nation on the Bulgarian and Greek communist parties, evidently with Moscow's blessing, and to draw up ambitious plans for the unification of the whole of Macedonia, including those parts held by Greece and Bulgaria, within an expanded Yugoslavia or a Yugoslav-led Balkan federation. The Tito-Stalin split in 1948, and the defeat of the communists in the Greek civil war a year later, prevented the realisation of these territorial ambitions, and also led the Bulgarian communist party to distance itself from its earlier endorsement of the Yugoslav notion of a separate Macedonian notion.12 Within Tito's Yugoslavia, however, the notion of a separate Macedonian nation and national identity continued to be emphasized. The Macedonians were given their own republic within a federal Yugoslavia, and great efforts were made to promote an independent Macedonian culture. Crucial to these efforts was the creation of a new Macedonian literary language, taught in all schools and propagated through the mass media/The new national language could scarcely fail to bear a close resemblance to Bulgarian, but its separateness was emphasized by a new orthography, by the cultivation of local dialect forms, and by the importation of Serbian vocabulary. The language was followed by a national literature, an officially-approved national history, and eventually - in a communist state - a national Macedonian Orthodox church. By implication, at least, such a programme amounted to a new form of de-Bulgarisation. As officially promoted, the new Macedonian nationalism contained clear anti-Bulgarian elements: historic links with Bulgaria were denied or played down, while those with the other nations of Yugoslavia, including the Serbs, were played up.(13)
There can be no doubt that the Yugoslav communists' promotion of a separate Macedonian national identity has been a considerable success. The recent disintegration of the communist regime, and the Macedonian republic's secession from Yugoslavia, have been accompanied by no domestic questioning of the Macedonian national identity, and by no significant resurgence of Bulgarian national sentiment among Macedonians. The success of this communist exercise in 'nation-building' is difficult to explain with precision, given the inaccessibility of much of the historical evidence. However, the following general points may be made. First, the promotion of a separate national identity began in the 1940s, a full generation after the likeliest source of opposition to it, the Bulgarian-minded intelligentsia, had been in good part driven out of Macedonia; not surprisingly, active rejection of the new identity appears to have been rare. Second, the decision to create a Macedonian literary language for everyday use was genuinely popular, as was the initial talk of establishing a united Macedonia. Third, the period of communist rule after the Second World War brought about major social changes, including mass literacy and unprecedented urbanisation, which greatly facilitated the dissemination of the new Macedonian identity. So did an unprecedented expansion of the mass media. Fourthly, an examination of the age-structure of the population of Yugoslav Macedonia shows that a large majority were born after 1944, and have, in consequence, been exposed exclusively to the Macedonian national idea.(14)
It remains to consider the fifth and most recent catastrophe to face the Slavs of Macedonia: namely, the collapse of communism, and of the second, communist Yugoslavia. This has led, for the first time in modern history, to the creation of an independent Macedonian state: the republic of Macedonia officially seceded from Yugoslavia in December 1991. As noted earlier, secession from Yugoslavia has led to no questioning of the Macedonian national identity, which continues to be expressed and defended, within the new Macedonian state, in the same historical, linguistic, and cultural terms as were formerly employed in communist Yugoslavia. If anything, this sense of national identity has been reinforced by the recent behaviour of some of Macedonia's neighbours. Greece has refused to recognise the new state, insisting that the name 'Macedonia' is the sole property of the Hellenic nation, and that its appropriation by 'Skopje' threatens Greece's own territorial integrity. Post-communist Bulgaria, for its part, has recognised the Macedonian state, but pointedly added that it does not recognise the Macedonian nationality. Within the Serb-dominated remnant of Yugoslavia, too, ultra-nationalists have revived the pre-Second World War claim that Macedonia is in reality 'South Serbia'.(15)
Yet if, in the short run, Macedonian nationality has been strengthened, it would be dangerous to make predictions as to the longer term. For one thing, the political situation in the Balkan peninsula remains highly volatile, and the survival of the independent Macedonian state is not finally assured. As the foregoing account has suggested, political upheavals have played a decisive part in shaping the Macedonian Slavs' sense of nationality: fresh upheavals may engender Further reshaping. For another, the Macedonian nation remains small and relatively new; and as such, potentially vulnerable to cultural assimilation. In this respect, there is an intriguing question-mark over the Macedonians' future relationship with the Bulgarians. On the one hand, there is room for conflicts which would strengthen the Macedonians' sense of separateness. For some, if not all, Bulgarians, the Macedonians remain 'unredeemed' Bulgarian brothers, whose Macedonian 'nationality' is a fraud perpetrated by the Yugoslav communists. To further complicate matters, there have recently been signs that the idea of Macedonian nationality may have taken root in Bulgaria itself, among some inhabitants of that portion of Macedonia which has been Bulgarian since the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, and also among some descendants of the Macedonian emigre community in Bulgaria. Yet on the other hand, the possibility of rapprochement should not be overlooked. Freed from the ideological control exercised by the Yugoslav communists, the Macedonians may, over time, come to take a more positive view of their historic links with the Bulgarians, and may also, over time, prove, susceptible to the influence of the more deeply-rooted and developed Bulgarian national culture. Anything resembling a comprehensive re-Bulgarisation of the Macedonians seems out of the question: the two peoples have lived apart for too long. But it is not inconceivable that there might develop a revived sense of kinship and solidarity, which might in turn have important consequences for international ralations in Balkan peninsula. All this, however, is speculation.