North Macedonia’s quest for its own national identity

Al basar de Skopje, una parada ven banderes macedònies i albaneses.
Al basar de Skopje, una parada ven banderes macedònies i albaneses. Author: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez
Who are the Macedonians, the inhabitants of North Macedonia? Bulgarians will say that they are a division of their community, an artificial creation of late Yugoslav leader Tito. Most Macedonians, however, will point to an earlier identity division in the last decades of the 19th century, born in the geographical region of Macedonia. Some will go further, to differences in tribes that reach the periods of Cyril and Methodius —the creators of the Slavic alphabet— or Alexander the Great. A few, the most exaggerated, will claim that all Europeans are actually Slavs. In North Macedonia, after so much forcing reality, after so much looking for references for political odysseys, its inhabitants do not know what they are, or at least they lack a unified discourse about the genesis of their identity.

The closest and most notorious example of this identity mess is the Skopje 2014 project. In 2010, two years after Greece vetoed Macedonia’s accession into NATO, Nikola Gruevski’s populist government began a public campaign to insist on ties with ancient Macedonia. His gamble led him to transform the city centre with neoclassical style buildings and thousands of statues of historical figures including immense ones of Alexander the Great —now called “Warrior on Horseback”— and Philip II of Macedon. Following the approval of the controversial agreement with Greece to change the country’s name and reject ties with antiquity, as well as ratifying integration into NATO and the EU, Skopje can be said to be honouring leaders who do not officially belong to its nation.

A part of the society, anchored in a propaganda that predated Gruevski, now believes that an international plot is in place, aimed at humiliating Macedonia. “The problem is that many people believed in Gruevski. That hurts a nation that is trying to find its identity. Look at Slovenia, with which we lived together in Yugoslavia: no one is trying to seek ancient ties there. They just say that they come from a medieval Slavic leader. Many empires have invaded this region, and if you look at my DNA, you might find links to the Armenian community. What I mean is that in Macedonia, which sits at the centre of many influences, there is no point in looking for 2,000-year-old ties,” says Zoran Dimitrovski, former editor of well-known magazine Fokus.

The statue of  Philip II of Macedon, in Skopje 29 metres tall. / Photo: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez

Once again, in a political scenario without Gruevski, the thesis of Kiro Gligorov, the first leader of Macedonia after independence, who said that Macedonians are Slavs who arrived in the Balkans in the 6th century, seems to prevail. This is what was taught in school textbooks, which hardly contained any reference to Alexander the Great and were conditioned by Yugoslavia’s ideology. “We do not need to claim a pure Macedonian identity: Gruevski tried to falsify our past. Macedonian is a Slavic language. We understand each other with Russians and Ukrainians. We grew up with books that taught us that we are southern Slavs, which is what ‘Yugoslavia’ means,” says Katerina Kolozova, director of the Institute of Social Sciences and Humanities in Skopje.

“Some people think that we have a connection with ancient Macedonia, but I presume that the more educated ones admit that we are Slavs. It’s not bad to be part of the Slavic culture, of the Russian culture. It is a pride. But the damage has already been done, and it will take decades to alter such perception,” Dragi Gjorgiev, director of the Institute of Macedonian History, told me in late 2018.

Macedonians are Slavs, but unlike Slovenes or Serbs, they have no tsars or medieval epics recognised in history books or Wikipedia. Their historic figures are the same, in many cases, as those of Bulgarians, from whom they began to separate at the end of the 19th century. The gap widened in the 20th century. Today, in spite of similarities, they are two different nations that scramble for the heritage of Cyril and Methodius, Tsar Samuel (Samoil) —who established a medieval empire that fought Byzantium and had its capital in Ohrid—, and the revolutionary figures who fought the Ottomans since the end of the 19th century.

“The two countries have a common history. In the case of Cyril and Methodius, we are happy to note that they were a founding part of the Christian culture of the Slavic peoples, and that their feats were preserved and developed thanks to the cultural centres of the medieval Bulgarian state, which then included present-day North Macedonia. In most cases —adding the examples of Tsar Samoil and Saint Clement of Ohrid— our common history depends on the Bulgarian state, or the Bulgarian people, which in several periods of history also included the lands of North Macedonia,” points out Naoum Kaytchev, Bulgaria’s representative at the joint commission on historical and educational facts.

A conflict with Bulgaria —an even more difficult one than the dispute with Greece— exists over the account of these, and other, historical events. It also affects the building of the Macedonian identity, a process that began at the end of the 19th century with the rise of intellectuals who rejected annexationist impulses from Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria over the region. This is the version accepted by Macedonian scholars, the genesis of the last nation to develop its identity in the Balkans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The modern genesis

For more than five centuries, the Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans. Social divisions revolved around religion. Slavs, for their most part, were Christians. Until the 19th century, recognizing the Hellenism of Alexander the Great, religion served as a cloak to cover the nations. Then, even in the former medieval Bulgarian Empire, the concept of nationhood did not resemble the one that centuries later would be imposed as the basis of modern nation-states. “One cannot reduce the medieval identity to the contemporary Bulgarian identity. It was a medieval Slavic identity, a Christianized mass. They were Slavs under the name of a kingdom: I do not think there was the feeling of nationhood as it exists today,” says Kolozova, a philosopher by training.

"Nations are social constructs that are developed for political and economic reasons. I do not support the ethno-nationalist concept of the nation... The socio-political development of the Middle Ages has to be understood within its context, but the present context is different. In the 19th century, those who sought to create a nation-state looked for links prior to the invasion of the Ottoman Empire,” insists Petar Todorov, Macedonia’s representative at the joint commission on historical and educational facts. "Fighting for Cyril and Methodius is stupid: they were from Byzantium, but they were important for the whole Slavic world because they developed the alphabet. We do not say that they are Macedonians, but seslovenski prosvetiteli (leaders of the Slavs),” he adds.

These and other medieval leaders and events are important to Skopje, which has been meeting with Sofia since 2017 to agree on how to show their common history to the world. It will be difficult, especially when it comes to describing the figures who led the revolts against the Ottomans that began in the late 19th century, when Macedonia was still under Ottoman control, but Bulgaria was already de facto independent. Were they Bulgarians or Macedonians or both? No doubt there was a Bulgarian component, but it was here, from a particular region, that the genesis of the Macedonian nation lays. Or at least, that is the perception Skopje seeks to impose.

“Most of the political elite had a Bulgarian identity, but at the same time they supported the regional idea of Macedonia. They described themselves as Bulgarians, praised their studies in Bulgaria, and often fled there from Ottoman repression. But they fought for autonomy, and later for independence (with the ten-day Krusevo Republic in the Ilinden revolts of 1903). Thus, they were both Bulgarians and Macedonians,” explains Gjorgiev.

The Ilinden monument, ia Krusevo, commemorates the 1903 revolt. Dessigned by Jordan and Iskra Grabul, it is an example of Yugoslav brutalist architecture. / Photo: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez

At the end of the 19th century, Macedonia became the hotbed of the Balkans. Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian interests over the region continued to grow with every step back of the Ottomans, who were weakened and on the verge of disappearing as an empire. This whole process, moreover, was dominated behind the scenes by Western powers and Russia. Within this equation filled with influences, the Serbian Church and the resumption of activities by the Bulgarian Church in 1870 played a decisive role in counteracting the Greek influence and in spreading nationalist propaganda through jobs and education. Macedonians, without a church or educational institutions of their own, mostly identified themselves as Bulgarians: heroes like Gotse Delchev endorsed that stance dozens of times. “Delchev or Misirkov grew up as Bulgarians, in their homes and schools. But I will tell you one thing from 2,000 years ago: Jesus Christ was a Jew, but who says today that he was not a Christian?,” compares Dimitrovski.

In 1893 Bulgaria established the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (IMRO-VMRO), aimed at liberating the region from the Ottoman yoke. Sofia’s goal was to make Macedonia an autonomous country of Bulgaria. The aim of the group’s leaders, among whom Delchev stood out, is not that clear: it is doubtful whether they intended autonomy within a Greater Bulgaria, or independence.

Over the years, conflicts between IMRO and other Macedonian groups became obvious. Splits and discordant voices, especially after the failed revolts of 1903, emerged. In Saint Petersburg, where a movement around the Macedonian Literary Society was born —an organization that extolled the differences between Macedonians and Bulgarians—, figures like Dmitrija Chupovski were already talking about independence. So did Krste Petkov Misirkov. Both were essential to the development of Macedonian identity.

Misirkov himself, in his 1903 book On the Macedonian Matters, pointed out that the Macedonians should have sought an agreement for autonomy with the Ottoman Empire that would allow their cultural take-off. He was suspicious of international interests that would later, in 1913, divide Macedonia in three parts. However, he acknowledged that the Macedonian national movement and its incipient identity status was helped by competition from Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia. “I agree with him,” says Dimitrovski a century later, who in addition to being the former director of Fokus is a representative of the small political party Democratic Union.

The Stone Bridge, in Skopje, a legacy of the Ottoman period. / Photo: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez

In 1913, after the Bulgarian defeat in the Balkan wars, the partition of Macedonia was accepted: Greece occupied 34,600 km2 of the south, which allowed it to settle there Greeks from Anatolia; Serbia obtained 26,776 km2 of the northern part; and Bulgaria, as a defeated country, controlled a minimal part of the east, the region of Pirin with 6,789 km2. Those are almost the current borders, except that the then Serbian part is now the Republic of North Macedonia.

Macedonia in Tito’s Yugoslavia

The interwar period was a time of isms: anarchisms and communisms were facing fascisms. The Macedonian national movement, like all of Europe, became further divided. After the Second World War, its national cause was helped by the triumph of communism in the Balkans, which —following Stalin’s concept of the nation— had previously recognized the identity of the Macedonian people. Bulgaria, which had supported the Nazis, did not oppose that new reality: in the 1946 and 1956 censuses, most people in the Pirin region declared themselves to be Macedonian.

Katychev stands up for the Bulgarian government: “This would be as if the French Communist Party had decided for its own interests that the North Basques, or Basque-French, were a different ethnic group,” and adds: “After 1944, the communist parties achieved power in both countries, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, and began to forcibly implement a policy of Macedonianization.”

Further into the second half of the 20th century, however, the Macedonians were repressed and/or assimilated in Greece and Bulgaria. The latter changed its policy with the arrival to power of Todor Zhivkov: Macedonians would no longer be recognized as such. In Yugoslavia, among other reasons because of its historical enmity with Sofia, the cultural take-off of Macedonia was promoted, which in 1946 became a republic and in 1991, without a war, gained full independence.

In almost half a century, Belgrade promoted the Macedonian identity. In 1967 it established the Macedonian Autocephalous Church. Earlier, in 1944-45, it had codified the Macedonian language using the dialect of the Bitola-Ohrid and Veles-Prilep regions, as proposed by Misirkov. According to Sofia, Tito’s aim was to de-Bulgarize the Macedonians: as if being barricaded, Sofia still claims that Macedonian is a dialect of Bulgarian.

“It is an absolute humiliation that our language, rich in written tradition, is considered inferior or a dialect: the problem is bigger with Bulgaria, but those tendencies also exist to a lesser extent in Serbia,” admits Kristina Velevska, a philologist in South Slavic and Macedonian languages and editor at Antolog Publishing House. With regard to the language, Velevska rejects the notion that her people is an artificial creation of Tito: “The influence of the Serbian language is not surprising. First, the two languages have the same origin, so similarities are inevitable. Second, languages that are in close contact inevitably develop and borrow part of their lexicon.”

The philologist, referring to Misirkov’s work, recalls that these languages share the same genesis: they are South Slavic. “Serbian is synthetic, whereas Macedonian and Bulgarian are analytical,” she adds. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that words of supposed Serbian origin or common usage could well be shared by other Slavic peoples: the appropriation of history and language is related to power. However, Dimitrovski believes that a process of de-Bulgarization did exist: “Words that were ours were rejected just because they were common in Bulgaria.” That process, however, has not prevented historical influence from being represented in the different dialects: the eastern dialect is closer to Bulgarian; the northern dialect uses more Serbian words; and the southwestern dialect, the region of Bitola and Ohrid, uses Turkish words such as çakmak (lighter). This is Macedonia, a country entangled in its historical dynamism.


“In some cases, because of a purist need to escape Serbian influence, many words are treated as Serbian, and thus are not accepted in the Macedonian language. I give you an example: the word ланец (lanec, meaning ‘chain’) is common in Macedonian, but is not accepted; on the other hand, the word синџир (sindjir), which is of Turkish origin, is accepted.” Velevska’s examples show one of the changes of course brought about by independence in 1991: growing distrust of Serbia, along with flirtation with Bulgaria.

Interestingly, Bulgaria was the first country to recognize Macedonia, although it still considers Macedonian to be a dialect of Bulgarian. Over the past quarter century, Sofia has been Skopje’s main ally: in the 1990s, when Greece imposed an embargo because of the name dispute that was solved in 2018-19, Bulgaria was Macedonia’s only commercial outlet. Influenced by the political game, this embargo did nothing but enervate Macedonians, who began to listen more strongly to the story of the relationship with Alexander the Great. Thus, Kiro Gligorov’s motto “we are Slavs” began to be diluted in a sea of confusion, of antagonistic political discourses that, depending on the moment, would get closer to or move away from Serbia and Bulgaria: Ljubčo Georgievski, former leader of the nationalist VMRO and Macedonian prime minister from 1998 to 2002, recognized that Macedonians were closer to Bulgarians, and criticized excessive Serbian influence.

Until 1995, the Greek embargo was the main cause in Macedonia. “Everything was planned by foreign intelligence services: Milosevic did not want Macedonia to be separated from Yugoslavia. Speaking of the problem: the Macedonian flag with the (Hellenic) symbol of the Sun of Vergina was not known here. At that time, people did not pay much attention to history, but because Greece was blocking us, political parties agreed to adopt the flag with the Sun of Vergina. It was a stupid thing to do. I am not saying that Greece wouldn’t have blocked us without this cause, but it helped to get them to say that we bore territorial aspirations,” recalls Dimitrovski, whose words follow Georgievski’s line.

In 1993, in order to gain access to the UN and bypass Greek opposition, Macedonia added the description “Former Yugoslav Republic of” to its official name in the organization. In 1995, in order to lift the embargo, it changed its flag by removing the Sun of Vergina, and renounced any territorial claims on the Greek region of the same name. Despite this, Greece continued to block Macedonia’s accession to NATO and the EU until 2019, when it gave its green light for the North Atlantic Alliance. Thus, Macedonia’s most important conflict since independence seems to be coming to an end. There are still a few loose ends that will be solved by the international actors (the EU and the US) that have promoted this change. After that, it will be a matter of resolving the identity conflict with Bulgaria, a more delicate situation. Then, perhaps the so-called Macedonian issue can be considered to be over.

Albanian-Macedonian segregation

Showing the complexity of this country, in Macedonia there is no one-size-fits-all identity: Albanians, Macedonians and several minorities coexist. Such a division is reflected in extreme segregation. In Skopje, in a recurring example in the country, Macedonians and Albanians rarely venture into the opposite majority’s neighbourhoods. This division process starts in schools, with parents who do not want integration for their children, and continues in televisions, newspapers, charcuteries, restaurants, and political parties.

“People started talking about the Macedonian identity as a form of loyalty to the state, not as something ethnic, but it didn’t work. I am skeptical: Albanians are not going to feel that loyalty, they always stress that they are Albanians. We see this nationalism in sport: in our national team, they don’t sing the national anthem because they are not mentioned in it,” Dimitrovski recalls. “Georgievski tried to introduce this idea of a Macedonian identity to the Albanians, but it was seen as a nationalist idea which tended to [their] assimilation. It didn’t work: Albanians want the differences, their identity, to be recognised,” Kolozova admits.

Macedonia does not have a common identity. It has not become the bridge between the Slavic and Albanian worlds, and segregation is increasing every day. As a context, in the 1990s, in a nationalistic maelstrom, Slavs oppressed Albanians. Then, the Albanian guerrilla UÇK, supported by NATO, led a low-intensity conflict in Macedonia. It lasted one year. In 2001, the Ohrid agreements put an end to the fighting and gave the Albanians educational rights and quotas for representation in the administration —a decentralisation that was in line with their interests. Since then, out of spite, because of the influence of Slavic and Albanian politicians who nourish themselves from separation, Albanians have used that decentralisation to distance themselves from Macedonians, who also do nothing to attract Albanians.

Winners of the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, Albanians account for 25% of the population of Macedonia, although the last census was taken in 2002. It is estimated that in the future they could be as many people as ethnic Macedonians. In a country suffering from a population crisis, low birth rate and high emigration, Albanians are supported by a strong diaspora and two neighbouring states —Albania and Kosovo. Faced with this situation, many fear the Greater Albania project, which would bring together Kosovo and the Albanian part of Macedonia. But for the moment, that is not realistic: politicians have a perfect gear in the current system for their client structure. Society, without opportunities, has become used to this game. Even so, in half a century in the Balkans, and more so in Macedonia, everything can change. Faced with this situation, Dimitrovski sees only one solution: “Macedonia is a bi-ethnic state with other minorities. I am not saying that Albanians will never accept a Macedonian identity, but it depends on our being a functional state: if Macedonia gives a lot, they will want to stay.”

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