2,300 years later, 'Alexander-mania' grips Macedonia
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Sat Mar 21 14:39:01 UTC 2009
2,300 years later, 'Alexander-mania' grips Macedonia
Much to the anger of Greece, the ancient conqueror is making a big
comeback in Macedonia – he's arriving just in time for Sunday's
By Robert Marquand | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
from the March 20, 2009 edition
SKOPJE, Macedonia - As part of a stunning new homegrown ideology of
history and identity based on Alexander the Great, this capital city's
main square may soon boast a huge new statue of the ancient conqueror.
Two years ago, the national airport was renamed after Alexander,
infuriating Greece. In January, despite a recent Greek nixing of
Macedonia's NATO bid over the airport name, the ruling nationalists
here changed the name of its main roadway to Alexander of Macedon
Highway. In Macedonia, it is becoming all Alexander the Great, all the
time. Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, the ruling party's
Alexander ideology is seen as fantastic, even by Balkan standards.
In an intense media campaign, locals are told that ethnic Macedonians
are the proud direct descendants of Alexander, and thus a people
responsible for spawning the white race of planet Earth, from the
Caucasus "to the seas off Japan," according to a public service spot
on national TV. The "Alexander-mania," as critics call it, is partly a
vote-getting strategy by the ruling party, known by its initials VMRO.
Doubts exist as to whether party leaders actually believe the claims,
but they are being sold as truth. The failure last spring to get a
clear NATO invitation prompted fury in Skopje, and the Alexander
campaign is seen as an effort to up the ante.
By pushing its thumb further into the already sore eye of Greece, both
NATO and EU membership for the small, landlocked state remains in
limbo. Macedonia is also distracted from reducing tensions with its
sizable Albanian minority community following a brief ethnic war in
2001, diplomats say.
The dispute with Greece, largely unchanged since 1991, centers on a
fight over the use of "Macedonia" as the country's name. Greece wants
a name that doesn't include or at least deemphasizes "Macedonia,"
which Greeks say is their own. The former Yugoslav Republic of
Macedonia says its name is its own sovereign business. Negotiations
have been endless.
For years, Greek demands were seen as cock-eyed and petty in
diplomatic circles. Yet Macedonia has been losing sympathy as it roars
out heritage claims on Alexander. "If the name is the condition of our
survival, which it seems to be, we are very far from reaching our
strategic aims: NATO and the EU," says former Macedonian Foreign
Minister Denko Maleski. "The new way of thinking about history is
keeping tensions alive. We are a new nation, liberal and
international, suddenly veering into the 19th century." A poll last
month showed that 97 percent of ethnic Macedonians favored staying out
of the EU if it meant compromising on the name.
"The name dispute is more than a bilateral issue between Skopje and
Athens. It risks derailing the main strategy of both NATO and the EU
for stabilizing Macedonia," says a recent report from the
International Crisis Group. Some diplomats frame Sunday's elections as
a vote for a president who may push Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski for
a name resolution versus a nationalist who would not. Right now, it
appears that VMRO's George Ivanov, an architect of the Alexander
discourse, is set to win big. The opposition is in disarray, and
Macedonia could end up with a one-party state.
"The entire nationalism hysteria, which only few question as most
media get huge sums of money through government advertising, serves
not only as a distraction from serious problems ... but has created an
atmosphere that makes compromise difficult. It reminds me a bit of the
madness of Serbia in the '90s, though not on the same scale, when
Serbs spoke of themselves as 'the heavenly people,' " says Ana
Petruseva, managing editor of Balkan Insight, in Skopje. Indee,
Macedonia's bold claim to be the taproot of Western civilization is
daily media fare.
Last summer, the government flew in members of Pakistan's Hunza tribe,
considered lost descendants of Alexander, to tour the country.
Startled and pleased Hunza were greeted at Alexander airport with
flowers and treated like long lost cousins as they disported across
the nation, cameras in tow.
Even "God" has gotten involved. A nine-minute TV ad starts with a
petition from Macedonia to the heavens: "Our neighbors distributed
thousands of books across the world, containing false history and
portraying a wrong picture about Macedonia. ... Only you know our
pain." The Almighty then responds: "From you, Macedonians, descendants
of Macedon, I conceived the white race. All that stretches to the seas
off Japan is conceived from your genes."
Sinisa-Jakov Marusic, a columnist for Balkan Insight, cheekily
observed, "So there you have it! What better proof than God himself?"
Beyond theatrics, the new program deeply troubles many scholars and
intellectuals here – who are being sidelined – for its promulgation of
myth as truth. The new taxpayer-funded Alexander ideology has no
serious texts. Unlike Serbia's Kosovo story, based on centuries of
poetry and legend, the Macedonian ideology is being both invented and
presented at the same time. There is no outside scholarly consensus,
no textual tradition; the result is a kind of history-free history.
The top-down, debate-free imposition of the new history is itself seen
as illiberal and authoritarian.
The new program deeply troubles many scholars here. "What is the
content of 'Alexanderization?'" asks Irena Stefoska, a Byzantine
scholar at the Institute of National History here. "Who knows? It is a
new reading of history completely different from the previous, not
done from an academic point of view, but from a purely political
view." Alexander is considered one of the greatest military leaders of
all time. Born in the Greek city of Pella in 356 BC, his conquests
extended to most of his known world by the time of his death at age
32. He opened up Greek civilization from the Mediterranean to India,
and is regarded as the first to link Europe, Asia, and Africa.
"Alexander was the captain general of all the Hellenes. He spoke
Greek. He went to war on behalf of the Hellenes. No one in the
ancient, medieval, or modern world has disputed this," says Michael
Wood, a historian and British filmmaker who has produced a work on
Alexander and has another in the making. "The Macedonian state claim
has no basis in history; it is a state-sponsored myth. I tell my
Macedonian and Greek friends to ignore it," Mr. Wood adds. State
archaeologists in Skopje and Athens, however, are busy unearthing
ancient Hellenic artifacts, which are then presented as evidence of
Alexander heritage. Advocates of this new history leap from the
present day to ancient times, ignoring Ottoman, Slavonian, and
Byzantine periods when the Balkan peoples migrated and mingled.
"The problem is that no one today can be the direct descendants of
ancient civilizations," says Ms. Stefoska. "Macedonians are Slavs. Our
Slavonic heritage is accepted by historians." Several years ago, VMRO
officials claimed that Macedonia's majority population had an ethnic
Bulgarian or Slavic origin. A chief fear here is a scenario of
partition – of north Kosovo Serbs in the Mitrovica area joining Serbia
proper, which could push Macedonian and Kosovar Albanians into a
union, breaking up Macedonia.
So far, ethnic Albanians here have been patient over the
Macedonia-Greece dispute. Albanian parties are in the ruling
coalition. Yet the patience may not be unlimited, senior diplomats
say. Artan Grubi, head of an Albanian civil society organization,
says, "Most Albanians will tell you they have nothing against building
a Macedonian identity. But they don't want to suffer because of it. At
the moment, the policies of this government are moving us further from
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Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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