Nationalism and polarisation in Macedonia's referendum

Authors: Daniel Hooton and Marta Lopes

With little over a third of eligible voters taking part a fortnight ago in Macedonia’s controversial referendum on changing its name, the country’s future hangs in the balance.

In an attempt to bury a three-decade-long dispute with Greece over the country’s name, the referendum has thrown open as many issues as it sought to overcome.

In the view of the many national government officials, local mayors and civic activists interviewed in Skopje a week prior to the vote, it exacerbated ongoing ethnic and nationalist aspirations.

For many, the insistence of Greece, first to impose the acronym FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and then to settle on the Republic of North Macedonia through last month’s plebiscite, was a bitter pill to swallow.

The vote followed a deal negotiated between the centre-left prime minister Zoran Zaev and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras earlier this summer, and was opposed by the country’s nationalist president, Gjorge Ivanov, who called on Macedonians to boycott it altogether.

Many see access to Western institutions, chiefly the EU and NATO, as a way out of a paralysis born of, and sustained by, corruption and an ineffective politics.

For the Greeks, as members of both institutions, to block Macedonian accession is a reflection of their own internal nationalist issues. It has been less than what is hoped of an EU member in relation to supporting peace-building in its Balkan neighbour in the aftermath of the war.

Yet for a nascent country which is working hard at establishing its own post-Yugoslav national identity, the very name of the country may be a willing trade-off if it opens a path to integration into the transatlantic community and its institutions.

But so too have these international calculations aggravated longstanding local issues and prevented them from being addressed; they have ratcheted up national insecurity and made an already polarised community vulnerable to exploitative narratives.

Architecture as politics

Take “Skopje 2014”, for instance, a vast construction project led by the then-governing party of nationalist president Gjorge Ivanov and launched in 2010.

Ostensibly aimed at the renovation of the capital to attract a greater tourist footfall, the €80m project would culminate in around 40 new monuments, sculptures, facades and public building.

Some €670m of public spending later and the project has riled many for its wastefulness and extravagance, most of all minority communities that do not identify with its mostly Christian Orthodox and Hellenistic imagery.

But just so that everybody had some cause for offence, a statue of Alexander the Great was erected in the main square with the caveat that it could not be officially titled Alexander the Great, thanks to concerns levelled by Greece.

Statue-building as a way to forge national identity doesn’t necessarily merit condemnation in and of itself, especially so for an emergent nation state.

After all, it is far from anathema to EU and NATO members. But it’s not just about pictures, it’s about money too.

Central government budgets were tapped but they were complemented by local municipal budgets, including over €14m from the municipality of Cair.

Cair hosts a majority of largely Muslim ethnic Albanians (57 percent) and only 24 percent of its inhabitants identify as ethnic Macedonians (compared to over 66 percent of ethnic Macedonians and 20 percent of ethnic Albanians in the whole of Skopje).

Statues, or sewage?

While Cair’s taxpayer denars were being redirected to Skopje 2014, some of its citizens were lacking the most basic infrastructure such as functioning sewage systems.

This brought a revitalised ethnic hue to issues of poverty, segregation and deprivation but combined with the narrative imagery of the statues to make nationalism the project of one group over another, rather than a consensus between many.

These grievances have contributed for a long time to Cair becoming a centre of heightened ethnic tensions. More recently, they are considered one among many factors in the small neighbourhood generating a high proportion of the country’s 150 ‘foreign terrorist fighters’ travelling to Syria and Iraq.

Cair was home to the infamous Jaja Pasha and Tutunsuz mosques, where radical preacher Rexhep Memishi became an influencer for a large number of fighters from Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.

As the country braces for their return and tries to reduce the risk of further radicalisation, it is these localised grievances that need to be prevented from adding weight to wider recruitment narratives.

Despite their prevalence in press stories and the engagement they draw from Western governments, these issues are not unique to Muslims or Albanians, or any other community.

Other municipalities are witnessing a growing, interconnected and pitifully under-researched resurgence of far-right and ethno-nationalist foreign fighters, travelling not to the Levant but to Ukraine.

Whilst those who pick up arms to drive their point home (or anywhere else) remain an extreme fringe, the point is they exploit and exacerbate a broader polarisation across the community.

The narratives that mobilise these trends are intimately tied to local issues and grievances that differ from one neighbourhood to the next and yet give succour to wider tensions.

They may not be new, but as the country considers just what price it will pay to settle one dispute and hopefully move closer towards Western integration, it is these issues that offer perhaps a yet greater challenge to the realisation of nationhood.

Article originally published in the EU Observer: Nationalism and polarisation in Macedonia’s referendum

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