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There is hope that the installation of Zoran Zaev as Macedonian prime minister will bring an end to the political turmoil that has engulfed the country for months.

Macedonia's incoming prime minister, Zoran Zaev, pledged to uphold the rule of law, fight corruption, and serve the people. In many countries, that would amount to simply stating the obvious: Surely any prime minister's basic obligation should be to support the institutions of government and the rule of law.

But, in today's Balkans, the Social Democrat Zaev's vow to break with the authoritarian style of government borders on revolutionary. Zaev faces a potentially monumental task -- restoring confidence in a state that at times over the past three years has appeared threatened with paralysis or, worse, authoritarianism.

The new government that appeared headed for confirmation in the Sobranie, Macedonia's unicameral parliament, on May 31 could encounter strong opposition from legislative allies of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and a nationalist agenda.

They are expected to demand new elections before any of the ongoing investigations into possible corruption during Gruevski's decade-long administration reaches the courts.

There is hope, however, that Zaev's new government will bring to a close the political turmoil that has engulfed the country.

Following the April 2014 general elections, the opposition left the Macedonian parliament in protest, claiming that the vote was neither fair nor democratic. This was followed by a wiretapping scandal, broken by Zaev's then-opposition Social Democrats (SDSM). It emerged that around 20,000 Macedonian citizens had been wiretapped. A number of cases of corruption and obstruction of justice by government officials were subsequently uncovered, as well as attempts to control the media.

Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index this year ranked Macedonia 111th; in 2005, when the European Commission granted it candidate status, it was 43rd.

Oligarchs Play Ethnic Card

Macedonian oligarchs and others who enriched themselves during Gruevski's rule seemingly responded after December's elections by attempting to turn a confrontation between competing ideas of government -- authoritarian or democratic -- into an ethnic conflict.

Possibly as a result, Zaev's mandate to form a government was presented by some media outlets as a victory for "federalization" and a threat to Macedonia's integrity.

Russia's state-funded Sputnik news network has been running stories in Serbian about an alleged "Macedonian scenario" under which Macedonia's territorial unity and sovereignty are endangered by concessions that Zaev will make to ethnic Albanians, his coalition partners. (Ethnic Albanians make up around one-quarter of Macedonia's population and some of them previously partnered with Gruevski in government.)

Sputnik headlines have warned against Macedonians going in the direction of "color revolutions" and sought to remind them whom they should trust (Sputnik's answer: It's Time To Trust Russia, Not Trump, on Macedonia).

Yet Zaev does not seem to be looking for sponsors in Moscow or Washington, and appears above all to want good relations with his Balkan neighbors. Macedonia's closest neighbors -- Greece and Bulgaria -- stood neutral during this long cycle of political crises.

Even starting with a clean slate will prove to be a challenge. There is already a "spying affair" involving Macedonia's northern neighbor, Serbia. During a fracas when nationalists reportedly stormed the Macedonian parliament in April -- in which Zaev himself was bloodied by a blow to the head -- one of those present was an officer in the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).

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He turned out to be Goran Zivaljevic, an employee of the Serbian Embassy in Skopje. The Serbian ambassador was subsequently interviewed by Macedonian authorities, and an angry statement was issued by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic asking why they had not questioned other diplomats and members of other secret services who also happened to be in the Macedonian parliament during the session interrupted by the violence.

Meanwhile, Zivaljevic's name has arisen in connection with another scandal. Belgrade-based investigative-reporting unit Krik is said to have obtained recordings of a conversation between Zivaljevic and a prominent Serbian journalist who is also a member of the Serbian parliament. The purported transcript of their telephone conversation hints at a conspiracy to manipulate media coverage in ways that suited ex-Prime Minister Gruevski.

Strained Ties With Belgrade

Unlike with Macedonia's other neighbors, relations with Serbia have been strained since the transition of power in Skopje. Incoming Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has pointed to the political unrest in Macedonia as a disaster that Serbia would be spared thanks to him. Zaev responded simply that the comments were "inconvenient" and unhelpful.

In an interview with N1 regional television, Zaev insisted that the primary dispute in Macedonia is not ethnic but political, and that the country's future lies in multiculturalism.

When it was put to him that he might be unwittingly aiding the cause of a "Greater Albania," Zaev said that few people were interested in such a cause and that, in any case, the future of the Western Balkans should be "open borders and the mobility of citizens."

Within his government, Zaev said that he would strive for Macedonian unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and his government would work for the benefit of all its citizens.

Zaev's approach might be welcomed by many, and Macedonia could serve as a positive example for other states in the region that democratic change is possible despite the obstacles. But it is important to remember that those who base their power on identity politics and populism remain strong in the Balkans.

Zaev has a tough row to hoe.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
People in the northern Serbian city of Subotica celebrate the 71st anniversary of the establishment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, on November 29, 2016.

Seven independent countries have emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

But, as a recent Gallup poll shows, the residents of two of them are more nostalgic than the rest for the former shared state. In Serbia, around 81 percent of people think that the breakup of Yugoslavia harmed their country in its current context. Bosnians are not far behind, with 77 percent expressing regret over Yugoslavia’s dissolution. But what do they all miss, and are those the same things for Serbians as for Bosnians?

"Cockta," the Yugoslav version of Coca-Cola, "Kiki" candies, or cheap "Jugoplastika" flip-flops stuffed in a backpack and a ticket for a weekend train to the Adriatic coast are some aspects of daily life still fondly recalled by former Yugoslavs in Bosnia.

"I think that this [positive] disposition toward Yugoslavia is more a reflection of present-day problems than a result of Yugoslavism as an ideology," Vjeran Pavlakovic, a Croatian historian who led a team investigating nation-building processes in the Western Balkans, told RFE/RL.

Belgrade art historian Branislav Dimitrijevic has just published a book titled Exhausted Socialism, in which he argues against two dominant competing myths about ex-Yugoslavia -- on the one hand, that it was a country of prosperity and security, and on the other, that it was a "prison of the peoples."

"I teach in an art school, and new generations are more and more interested in ex-Yugoslavia, as in their regular education they learn virtually nothing about that country. And not only do they learn very little about it, but the information they are receiving from their parents about that period is contradictory," Dimitrijevic told RFE/RL in Belgrade.

His observation was supported by a poll conducted among young people in Belgrade.

Vuk Panic, 19, said he believes that Yugoslavia was a nice place to live: "With a Yugoslav passport, you could go wherever you wanted!"

But his friend Milos Mihajlovic, 22, has little good to say about the former country: "It was not possible to build a state with Croats," he told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau.

Interethnic Stability

Yet most residents of Serbia see the breakup of Yugoslavia as a negative development. Only 4 percent declared that the violent Balkan divorce that took place in the 1990s was beneficial to Serbia. The inhabitants of Kosovo and Croatia, on the other hand, have the fewest regrets when it comes to the breakup of the former country.

Asked what Bosnians miss about Yugoslavia, Besim Spahic said in a telephone interview that, above all, they miss the stability and harmony of interethnic relations.

"In [Josip Broz] Tito’s Yugoslavia, Bosnia was defined as a common state of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The focus was on shared values between different ethnic groups. Now the differences are highlighted and blown out of proportion."

"Bosnia was the most-Yugoslav of all the republics, with the largest number of multiethnic marriages," Spahic added. Twenty-five years later, only around 4 percent of all marriages in Bosnia are multiethnic.

Former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980)
Former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980)

"'Yugonostalgia' survives not because of Tito's dictatorship but because 'brotherhood & unity'" -- the motto of Socialist Yugoslavia -- "doesn't look so bad now," Robin Wilson of openDemocracy tweeted.

The gloomy present faced by many Serbians and Bosnians arguably makes them more likely than some of their neighbors to indulge a rosy vision of the past -- at least some of which is fantasy. This stereotype is seemingly perpetuated through popular culture and media that harken back to a better time.

Competing Pasts

The most popular radio station in Sarajevo, Stari Grad, only plays music from 1980s, apparently catering to the needs of listeners struggling to deal with the experience and memory of war (1992-95) and preferring to recall the comfort of the seemingly untroubled years before nationalist-inspired violence knocked at everyone's door.

But it may also reflect a bleaker future and a struggle between competing pasts. While Yugo-nostalgia has grown in Bosnia and other parts of the region in recent years, the goal of joining the European Union is becoming more distant.

Some former Yugoslav states may be less Yugo-nostalgic than others because they have been more successful in nation-building, suggested Pavlakovic.

"I think that Croatia has managed to secure its geostrategic goals, becoming a [relatively thriving] independent state, and maybe this is the reason why people support this new state [independent Croatia] more, influenced by this 'pumping-up' of the narrative of 'us as winners,'" Pavlakovic said, adding that he thinks the same would apply to Kosovo.

But according to Skender Lutfiu, a historian working at the Kosovo Institute of History, the absence of nostalgia among ethnic Albanians has as much to do with their experience in Yugoslavia as it does with the realization of nationhood in the present. Talking to BIRN, Lutfiu said that Kosovo Albanians "have no reason" to remember Tito fondly. He argued that Albanians in Yugoslavia admired Albania's communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, more than Tito.

"Albanians [in Yugoslavia] had to struggle constantly to defend their rights during Tito's time," he added.

While some might suggest that Albanians had greater cause for complaint than many in Yugoslavia, the Serbs were the largest and most dominant group -- too dominant, especially in politics and the military, some would say. Yet despite their preponderance -- and present-day Yugo-nostalgia -- many modern scholars have argued that the primary responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia lies with Serbia and the Serbs.

A woman touches a bust of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at his grave in the Serbian town of Pozarevac. (file photo)
A woman touches a bust of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at his grave in the Serbian town of Pozarevac. (file photo)

Although Croatia certainly was not blameless in the breakup of Yugoslavia, historian Tony Judt was one of many who have argued that "the primary responsibility for the Yugoslav catastrophe must rest with the Serbs and their elected leader Slobodan Milosevic."

"It was Milosevic whose bid for power drove the other republics to leave. It was Milosevic who then encouraged his fellow Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to carve out territorial enclaves and who backed them with his army," Judt said. "And it was Milosevic who authorized and directed the sustained assault on Yugoslavia's Albanian population that led to the war in Kosovo."

Selective Memory

In his highly-acclaimed book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt wrote that the destruction of Yugoslavia was not a case of spontaneous ethnic combustion. "Yugoslavia did not fall: it was pushed. It did not die: it was killed."

Some might regard it as paradoxical, then, that alongside rising Yugo-nostalgia, a parallel trend in Serbia has seen the steady rehabilitation of politicians who are allegedly most responsible for the disappearance of the former state.

Last year, Ivica Dacic, the Serbian foreign minister, was among those calling for a monument to Milosevic to be erected in Belgrade.

Meanwhile, Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin rarely squanders an opportunity to express his admiration for Milosevic.

Yet the contradiction may not be as striking as it appears.

Ultimately, both the nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia -- whether for a time when Serbia dominated its neighbors or, as many Bosnians remember it, a place of peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups -- and a desire to honor the architects of its demise are founded upon selective -- or faulty -- historical memory. The Serbian case in particular seems to bear out the 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan, who wrote that "Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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