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Macedonia Moves Closer To The Abyss

Supporters of the Democratic Union for Integration, Macedonia's largest ethnic Albanian party, protest in Skopje.
Supporters of the Democratic Union for Integration, Macedonia's largest ethnic Albanian party, protest in Skopje.
This month, Prince Gunzafer Aga Khan, from Pakistan's Hunza tribe, paid a visit to the Macedonian capital, Skopje. He is, according to Macedonian officials, a descendent of Alexander the Great, who occupied the territory that today is Pakistan some 23 centuries ago.

The prince was given a first-class state reception. The Macedonian Orthodox Church held a special liturgy for him. He was given a small piece of land so that he would "always feel at home" in Macedonia. In the provincial town of Bitola, where the ancient city of Heraklea once stood, the local archbishop declared that Aga Khan "looks like Alexander the Great."

Macedonia is in a tough spot. It is embroiled in a border dispute with Serbia and tensions over that country's refusal to recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Neighboring Albania is giving sometimes-unwelcome support to Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, as does neighboring Kosovo, which keeps its border with Macedonia almost completely open. Greece refuses to acknowledge Macedonia's name, and many in Bulgaria question the country's separate identity. Skopje signed a deal to begin accession talks with the EU immediately after Slovenia did, but Slovenia became a member in 2004 and Macedonia is being passed over by the other Balkan countries one by one.

This spring, that NATO summit in Bucharest was expected to issue membership invitations to Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia. But Greece blocked the move because of the name dispute, provoking deep disappointment and prompting many Macedonians to turn their backs on the alliance and the EU as well.

Almost before our eyes, Macedonia has closed itself up and turned its hopes to the past. Thus the interest in the country's favorite son -- Alexander the Great.

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, whose government will be reinstalled on July 26 following a strong election victory last month, has set off a patriotic campaign. He controls the media, quarrels with his neighbors, and has isolated his country. Spearheading a nationalist movement, Gruevski has the habit of raising big questions, but failing to resolve them. And the issues he highlights -- from the name dispute with Greece to the matter of recognizing Kosovo and beyond -- more often than not have an ethnic coloring.

And there have been little changes that seem to be forming a trend. Street names have been changed to reflect Macedonia's historical glory. Schools that don't even have running water are being rechristened with names from ancient times. An ancient Macedonian statute has been erected in front of the main government building in Skopje.

Customers in supermarkets can now measure their patriotism on a daily basis. The government has ordered that all store receipts clearly show how much money was spent on goods produced in Macedonia and how much on imported products.

And all these developments are cheerfully reported in the media. The prime minister, after all, has publicly asked journalists to "protect national interests" in their reporting.

The ecstasy of patriotism, history has shown again and again, is a great way of forgetting about plummeting standards of living. Inflation in Macedonia is running at over 10 percent this year. Earlier this month, the government hiked heating costs by 60 percent overnight. The state is opening up "people's kitchens," places where the most impoverished can get a hot meal for free. This evidence of policy failure is being promoted as a sign of patriotic success in Macedonia.

Earlier this month, the president announced he will not run for a second term, stating that he cannot work with a government that "is leading the country to catastrophe and is supported in that by the citizens." Not long ago, an opposition leader was arrested. Then antiterrorism police arrested a teacher and a doctor who stand accused of taking bribes in the amount of a few hundred dollars. The message seems pretty clear to everyone in the country.

Prime Minister Gruevski is very popular and is currently flexing his political muscles at will. When the EU encouraged him to get the opposition to return to parliament, he ignored the advice. In fact, he introduced new legislation that will likely be considered by the rump legislature.

None of this, to date at least, has really affected the country's ethnic-Albanian minority, which comprises 24 percent of the population. However, the country's two major ethnic groups definitely live side-by-side rather than together in any way. This separation increases the potential that growing Macedonian "patriotism" could explode into something far worse, just as dry, dead brush can be the precondition of a disastrous forest fire. This is the logic of radical nationalism in multiethnic societies.

Waves of radical, ethnically based nationalism have swept through virtually all the communities of the Balkans at some point over the last two decades. In fact, the only major ethnic group in the region that has not experienced a period of ethnic radicalization -- so far -- is the Macedonians. We can only hope the tragic examples of their neighbors will serve as a warning for Macedonia.

But there are worrisome signs this might not be the case.

Rising nationalist euphoria is usually a sign of weakness, lack of confidence, or doubt about one's self-identity. As economic problems grow, radical nationalism becomes more aggressive, with hot heads thriving among empty stomachs.

The infamous Balkan illness of ethnic division is marching south. And the conditions -- segregated ethnic groups, isolation from one's neighbors and the international community, a government that controls the media and uses patriotism to mask its own policy failures, etc. -- are right in Macedonia for another Balkan "perfect storm" of ethnic conflict. If the world ignores the mounting danger signs....

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL