Macedonia dispute has an Asian flavor

Macedonia dispute has an Asian flavor

The New York Times

SKOPJE, Macedonia — It is one of Europe’s most bizarre – and stubborn – international disputes, and certainly the only one that invokes an argument about Asian tribes stretching back to Alexander the Great.

Greece insists that its northern neighbor, which calls itself the Republic of Macedonia, change its name. Ever since the tiny former Yugoslav republic became independent in 1991, the Greeks have argued that the name implies territorial ambitions on Greece, whose northernmost province is Macedonia, and an attempt to usurp the heritage of Alexander, the most famous Macedonian of all time, who is claimed by both countries.

Recently, in its 17-year fight to call Alexander its own, the Republic of Macedonia has reached out as far as the Himalayas, to the residents of the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, who claim descent from Alexander’s soldiers who stayed in the region 23 centuries ago.

What may appear an arcane argument is in fact a real conflict with serious consequences for this country of two million. Macedonia is among Europe’s poorest and most unstable states, facing deeply rooted political disputes with most neighbors and an insurrection in 2001 that originated in its large ethnic Albanian minority.

The country was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 using “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” as a provisional name, and Greece has previously agreed that its northern neighbor could use that name, though in recent negotiations it has not specified what name would be acceptable.

The Greeks’ most damaging blow landed at the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest in April, when they vetoed Macedonia’s bid to join the alliance. Greece says it will do the same when Macedonia tries to join the European Union unless the name is changed.

The name issue thus has international strategic repercussions. Further escalation, analysts warn, could even jeopardize Macedonia’s internal stability in an already volatile region.

At the United Nations in September, President Branko Crvenkovski of Macedonia told the General Assembly that “despite the obvious absurdity of the issue” his country was ready to compromise. He added: “We should not allow ourselves to be humiliated and to experience internal destabilization due to ill compromise.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Greece’s foreign minister and said again that the United States would like to see the conflict “resolved as quickly as possible.”

Both the Greek and Macedonian governments are using the issue to buttress popularity with nationalist posturing, says Biljana Vankovska, a political science professor at Skopje University. She said there are no politicians with the courage to present any debate on possibilities for compromise.

“The problem that had been kept to level of political elites is now spilling over and affecting the general public,” Vankovska said.

In Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, the word “Bucharest” still reverberates like a slap in the face, and anti-Greek feeling smolders.

Macedonia changed the name of the capital’s airport last year to Skopje International Alexander the Great Airport, heightening the dispute with Greece and drawing the attention of Barack Obama, who introduced a resolution in the U.S. Senate urging the two countries to resolve their dispute and asserting that the change of name for the airport violated an agreement hammered out between the two sides in 1995 by the United Nations.

So all-consuming is the nationalist quarrel that every local encountered on a recent visit was ready to ascribe sides to the U.S. presidential candidates. According to popular belief, Obama is pro-Greece, while John McCain is for Macedonia.

Macedonia is experiencing a renaissance of curiosity about its ancient history, stoked by the nationalist rhetoric of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. But It was the visit of Prince Ghazanfar Ali Khan, sovereign of the Hunza people, in July that set off intense soul-searching about the relationship with Alexander the Great.

The Hunzas believe they are descended from Macedonian soldiers who followed Alexander on his eight-year march to India and stayed. To support their claims, the Hunzas note their fair skin and eyes, and their practice of dodecatheon, or the ancient Greek religion of the 12 gods, before they converted to Islam in 1974.

When the royal Hunza delegation landed in Skopje, the entourage got a boisterous Balkan greeting, complete with some 20 men dressed as Alexander’s soldiers – with spears, helmets, shields and period uniforms. Several hundred well-wishers chanted “Macedonia!” and waved Macedonian flags. Some shouted “Welcome home!”

During the eight-day trip, the entourage was received by the prime minister, who offered 10 scholarships for Hunza students at Macedonian universities. They were blessed by the Archbishop Stephan, unrecognized head of the Macedonian Orthodox Christian Church.

Bishop Peter of Bitola proclaimed that the prince “looks like Alexander the Great.” One man signed over to the prince a plot of land near Lake Ohrid “so that he would always have a place in his homeland.”

The official organizer of the trip was the Macedonian Institute for Strategic Research 16:9, a private organization set up by Marina Doichinovska, a television journalist. (The name refers to Acts 16:9, a verse in the New Testament in which a Macedonian man appears to the Apostle Paul begging him: “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”)

Doichinovska says her group aims to investigate historical questions about Macedonia and to show its contributions to the world. She invited the royal family while visiting the Hunza Valley in 2005 for her weekly television program “Macedonium.” She said that officials got involved with the summer visit only at the last moment.

Meeting her first Hunza in Pakistan, Doichinovska said, “was like finding a long-lost relative.”

“They expressed their emotions in such a Macedonian way,” she said. “It felt to me like a 2,300-year break in communication had been resumed.”

At the end of his visit, the prince told Macedonian television: “We didn’t feel like we were in a foreign country.” He likened the attention showered on his entourage to a fairy tale.

But many Macedonian commentators criticized the emotional reactions to the visit as funny or pathetic. And Greece, for its part, finances a cultural center and provides social services for the Pakistani branch of the Kalash, who make similar claims, some 300 kilometers, or 200 miles, to the southwest in the Hindu Kush.

Maps of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia show that it spans the territories of both the contemporary countries of Greece and Macedonia. “No one can contradict that,” said Vladimir Misev, head of the Institute for Democracy, a private group in Skopje. “It’s geography.”

“But I can’t agree that only one country can have exclusive rights,” Misev said about the struggle to claim Alexander. “In a normal, civilized part of the world, this would be something we could share and be proud of and not fight about.”

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