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Macedonia: How They Perceive One Another (Part 2)

  • Jolyon Naegele

Social anthropologists, historians, linguists, and crisis-prevention experts met in London earlier this month for a three-day conference on Macedonian identity issues. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele attended the meetings, and in this second of a series he reports on how Macedonians and Albanians perceive each other.

London, 28 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As fear, confusion, intolerance and violence grow in Macedonia, many residents -- both Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians -- are asking themselves whether, when the fighting finally comes to an end, they will be able to coexist once again.

Albanians perceive themselves as second-class citizens in a state in which the Macedonians are first among equals -- in rights, jobs, power, and influence.

A Bulgarian social anthropologist, Rozita Dimova, says that based on her field research in Kumanovo, the term "Macedonia" has different meanings for Macedonians and Albanians.

Dimova says Macedonians are in a relatively privileged position in a state whose very name signifies their ethnicity and citizenship. As Dimova puts it, "it is not the history but the name which provides the justification for Macedonian identity." But she adds that this is not sufficient for members of the country's other ethnic communities.

"I heard so many stories from my Albanian friends and informants that 'Macedonia is a mother for Macedonians but a so-called stepmother to us [Albanians]. It doesn't do the same things for us as for Macedonians.' And also I was struck by how analytical Albanians were in this sense. I would ask, would constitutional change really provoke radical change on the every-day level, would discrimination be eliminated if we change the constitution? And they would say, 'Yes, what is a state? What is a nation? It's the constitution.'"

Vasiliki Neofotistos, a Greek anthropologist who has been studying Albanian-Macedonian coexistence, says Macedonia, though a nation-state, has the potential to develop into "a viable multiethnic society." She accuses both the news media and scholars of overemphasizing ethnic identity and the politics of exclusion in the current Macedonian crisis.

Neofotistos says that in a year and a half of field work in Skopje, she found Macedonians accepted members of the Albanian community and other minorities as "co-ethnics" or "one of us" -- although on a selective basis.

"In local terms, the criterion an Albanian has to fulfill in order to be considered a Macedonian co-ethnic is to be 'fin' [derived from a Latin-based word meaning 'cultivated']. Being 'fin' is indicative of someone who is refined. Another local term that is more often used to indicate the properties of 'fin' is 'kulturen' -- someone who has 'kultura' is polite and considerate, and is willing to communicate. [In short,] a person with good manners toward friends and neighbors." Neofotistos says the length of time a Macedonian is acquainted with Albanians plays a key role in how he judges them -- whether as "Albanci," the standard word for Albanians, or as "Siptari," a pejorative term for Albanians used by both Macedonians and Serbs.

Neofotistos says Macedonians never consider "Siptari" as "ours." Instead, they are perceived as a threat to the well-being not only of ethnic Slavs but to Macedonia's national security and territorial integrity.

"As my friend Maria explains, 'We have lived together with 'Albanci' for many years. They are our people. They are used to living with Macedonians. We have no problems whatsoever with them. We have problems with 'Siptarite' [the Siptars], with those who have come to Macedonia from Kosovo and from villages. Those are the ones who deal in drug-trafficking, guns, and prostitution. As my evidence suggests, 'Albanci' are those Albanians who are domestic, tame, open, those who have been living in Macedonia for years and they are said to have 'besa' [Albanian for trust, honor]." Nevertheless, Neofotistos says being perceived as "Albanci" does not mean automatic inclusion into Macedonian structures. Rather, she says, calling Albanians "Albanci" simply gives them the benefit of the doubt.

Neofotistos says Albanians can become accepted by Macedonians in two ways. One is by shared experiences such as growing up together with Macedonians. The other is by being "modern" -- that is, dressing stylishly, driving a decent car, using deodorant, and the like.

But even then, the anthropologist says, "being modern is not enough." To be accepted by Macedonians as "ours," she says, Albanians must be open and willing to communicate with Macedonians.

Albanian perceptions of Macedonians are, predictably, different from Macedonian perceptions of Albanians. Neofotistos says that it was extremely rare for Albanians to accept Macedonians as "co-ethnics" or equals, even before the fighting began. Even in those rare instances, she says, Albanians do not describe Macedonian friends as "ours" but rather as "like an Albanian" -- as almost, but not quite, an Albanian. She says that is how Albanians perceive those Macedonians who qualify as "trustworthy, respectable, and communicative."

Neofotistos was asked by our correspondent whether the concept of "our person" (nas covek) is still valid in light of the recent anti-Albanian riots in Bitola.

Police protected the Bitola home of an ethnic Albanian deputy health minister, Muarem Nexhipi, in the first wave of riots 1 May, during which some 50 Albanian shops and businesses were destroyed. But the police failed to prevent rioters from burning down the deputy minister's home in a second wave of anti-Albanian rioting five weeks later on 6 June.

Neofotistos says that the concept of accepting others "as ours" is what she believes has so far saved Macedonia from an all-out interethnic conflict.

"Let's not forget that this recent crisis has been going on for five, six months now. And if these mechanisms of inclusion and moving across ethnic boundaries [had] not [held] true in Macedonia, then I believe that ethnic violence would have broken out much, much earlier. It's like testing the limits and the flexibility of Macedonian society -- this concept of 'nas covek.'"

Hugh Poulton is the author of numerous works on ethnic relations in the Balkans, including a recently published second edition of "Who Are the Macedonians?" Poulton disagrees with Neofotistos, insisting that ethnic-identity issues are the key.

"One can look at all the evidence you give, which I think is very interesting, and can come up with a very different conclusion. You can come up with a conclusion that the main majority group, the Macedonians, has a very inherently racist attitude to Albanians. It reminds me very much of Britain. I can remember Britain before the race relations act. It is very 'un-PC' [politically correct] now, but it's very similar to Britain's attitude to the blacks. 'They're' all this, that and the other -- except for you, because I know you, you're one of us, you're a mate.'"

Goran Janev, a Macedonian studying social anthropology at Oxford University, has still another perspective on the Albanian-Macedonian relationship.

Janev analyzed the setting that has allowed politics to dominate Macedonia's ethnic scene. He says kinship relations have helped the Macedonian population achieve a dominant position in society, barring Albanians from unrestricted access to the country's resources and forcing them, in turn, to maintain and strengthen their own traditional kinship structures. As a result, he says, "a tangible barrier developed between the Macedonian and Albanian communities."