1.3 The Macedonian Question

Having a central place in the Balkans, Macedonia, with its three vilayets of Selanic, Monastir (Bitola) and Uskup (ie Skopje, which was named in 1877 as vilayet of Kosovo) was at the center of conflicting nationalisms. Macedonia was a region-boundary, a place where they met and lived together, in peace mostly, many distinct linguistic and religious communities. The Macedonian space had been diachronically a big melting pot of people and cultures. After the conquest by the Romans, Greeks or Hellenized local populations, Romans or Latinized Greeks, Illyrians, Thracian, Huns, Goths and Visigoths, Slavs, Albanians and Turks lived together for long or short time periods in peace or hostility, under various rulers20.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, the population of the region consisted of various ethnic groups converged and overlapped: Greeks, Slavs, Bulgarians, Turks, Jews, Vlachs and Albanians, but also several variations, such as Greek-speaking Muslims, Vlach-speaking Muslims, Albanian-Greek, Slav-speaking Greeks and many more combinations of the above. All these constituted the colorful mosaic of Macedonia. The Muslim constituted perhaps the half population (Turks, Albanians, Muslim Slavs and those Muslims who had come from Russia and from the “lost” parts of the Balkans). The difficulty of distinguishing ethnic residents, reaches on the verge of paranoia, when neologisms and verbal acrobatisms such as “Greek-feeling people”, “Bulgarian-feeling people” or “Slav-Macedonians”, “Romanian-feeling people”, simply try to cover with a scientific fig leaf the national perplexity.

Who were really so, the inhabitants of Macedonia? This question can not be answered directly and we do not want to answer it, because it is simply impossible to define the national consciousness of a population deferred, using tools and criteria of today. Language? Religion? Education? Consciousness? Local music? Local dances? Local customs of everyday life? The “jokes”? The “blood tests?” What determines the national identity of a person who lived before 150 years? Of a person who lived in a multicultural and multi-religious atmosphere, where in his everyday routine was using words and phrases from more than three languages21? How can we mold a population and hang to it a national label?

Nationalism, of course it can. For the planners of national policy in Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia the issue of national consciousness was simple. All the Orthodox patriarchal people were Greeks according to Greece. All the people who spoke a Slavic dialect were Bulgarians according to Bulgaria or Serbs according to Serbia. How many of those who were orthodox and used the Greek language as a second language (professional or commercial) or when they were using the Greek alphabet to write Bulgarian, Turkish or Albanian, considered themselves Greeks?

Language, religion, culture: none of these three elements could monopolize the national consciousness. On the contrary, these elements could be found in various combinations within the local population. The confusion of language, religion and culture had been giving a remarkable combination of ethnological characteristics. The adoption of a specific identity depended on time, place, education, family ties, personal relationships and the propaganda of neighboring states. The issue of identity was not a matter of criteria but a matter of choice. Of a choice which was not always a product of free will but mostly of coercion. Even if this choice was a product of free will, the national camp selection was made according to political and economic interest. Thus, there might have been a family with Macedonian father, Greek son, Bulgarian grandson and Romanian nephew!

In this multilingual and cosmopolitan atmosphere, which was common in the Balkans, where cities and towns was a jumble of various religious and ethnic groups, the doctrine of nationalism began to gain ground. The problems posed such regions should therefore been addressed. Evictions, displacements, violent homogenization procedures, killings and ethnic cleansing are the tools used by the belligerent nationalisms in their attempt to purify entire villages or areas from alien elements. The local nationalists did everything they could to give labels to people. The villages changed camp under the threat of rival armed gangs22. The nationalistic-imperialist policies of the three Balkan rivals came to complement this situation23. The “Bulgaria of San Stefano”, the “Greater Serbia”, the “Greece of the two continents and the five seas24” will be confronted into a ruthless massacre that will skillfully be called as “Macedonian struggle”.

Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia were claiming as many of the Ottoman conquests in the Balkans, even though occasionally they showed that they supported the idea of Macedonian unity. The war of words turned gradually to the struggle of the guerrilla gangs. The response to these external pressures was the Macedonian autonomist movement that began to support the effort of Macedonian emancipation. This initiative came from the young bourgeois intellectuals who were inspired by the Bulgarian and Serbian national struggle. Giving emphasis to social equity, eventually managed to attract farmers who resisted to the abuses of large landowners and the authorities, but also to the crossfire of the nationalists.

Mixed nationalistic, social and political motives led the masses to the not well organised revolt that burst out in August 1903 (Ilinden Uprising). Soon, this rebellion put most of the vilayet of Monastir under its control. The inhabitants of the cities did not join it, while the government in Sofia was not prepared to intervene, the European forces were unwilling to interfere and the movement was crushed in blood. Unhappy with the attitude of the Bulgarian government, many Macedonians activists were released from their duty towards Bulgaria, supporting a free Macedonia, which should not be engaged in state competitions and would constitute the beginning of a Balkan federation. That was the prospect of the left wing of IMRO25, which emancipated from the Bulgarian irredentist propaganda and put forward the claim for a Macedonian nation. According to them, the Macedonians were a distinct people who were neither Bulgarian nor Serbian, nor Greek. The evolution of the right-wing of IMRO in the period between the two world wars, into a purely nationalistic and pro-fascist organization, shows that regardless of the roots (in this case social) which initiate a national liberation organization, the result is the same.

The struggle of IMRO constitutes the kick-off of the Macedonian nationalism. In 1944 the Macedonian state was formed as part of the Yugoslav federation. The Macedonian nationalists didn’t totally fulfill their aspiration for statehood until 1991 with the proclamation of independence of the Republic of Macedonia. Since then (1944) and especially the last two decades (since 1991), the Macedonian nationalism, as each nationalism constructs its own national narration. This narration is full of anachronisms, suppressions, detachments from the historical events and myths that structure the national identity26. The debate over the usage of the name Macedonia is the clearest example of the manipulation with the historical facts for the justification of nationalist concepts.



20 According to journalist HN Brailsford, who visited Macedonia in the early 20th century, the centuries in Macedonia, did not succeed one another, but “lived together”. Back

21 The dockers of the Ottoman Selanik (Thessaloniki) spoke generally six to seven languages (Mazower, 2004). Thessaloniki, this cosmopolitan city, was according to misses Muir and Irby Mackenzie in 1863 the “strange example of a city historically Greek, politically Turkish, geographically Bulgarian and ethnically Jewish» (Pavlowitch, 2000). Back

22 The Ottoman authorities in 1907 estimated that 228 of such gangs were active: 110 Bulgarian, 80 Greek, 30 Serbian, plus 8 Vlach (Pavlovitch, 2000). Back

23 Even the Romanian government was interested to this struggle, when it discovered the existence of a population of the same nation, who lived in the mountain passes of the region, the Vlachs. Back

24 It is worth noting that the Greek bourgeois influenced the content of the “Great idea” with the idea of creating a powerful Greek state around the Aegean and not the rebirth of the Byzantine Empire. Back

25 In 1893, activists supported autonomism, founded in Thessaloniki the Macedonians Revolutionary Organization, which suggested an independent single “Macedonia for the Macedonians” but also had ties with Sofia. When two years later Macedonian emigrants in Bulgaria founded the Supreme Committee, disagreeing with the position was taken by the organization based in Thessaloniki; the group put forward the term “internal” in its name, and became the IMRO (Internal Revolutionary Organization Macedonians). Back

26 As precisely it happened in the case of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria. Back


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