When the Balkans was still under the rule of the Turks, children
would be taken from all across the multi-ethnic, multi-religious
expanse of the empire. They would be gathered in Istanbul and molded
into the perfect soldiers. Whatever their background or language,
however different they appeared, the Ottomans would train them to be
one-and-the-same loyal defenders of the established order, more Turkish
than the Turks. And then they would return to the communities they came
from, alien to those who should have been their friends and family.
They were nothing more than extensions of a distant, hostile force.
They extracted taxes, they hunted down rebels, they enforced laws.
Native sons became foreign oppressors.
The memory of the Janissaries still has resonance in the Balkans.
The past has presence, in a way that can seem strange to an American.
The United States is one of the most ahistorical countries on Earth.
It was a nation founded on the very idea of repudiating history. The
founding figures of Revolutionary America rejected the tradition of
aristocracies and monarchies in their design of government. The
everyday people of the new country left behind the ties of the past
that had bound them in Europe to settle the virgin wilderness of the
American frontier. That a pseudo-aristocratic upper class developed
anyway and that one could only call the American continent ‘virgin’ by
erasing the presence of its original inhabitants testifies to the fact
that the ahistorical American worldview is not without its distortions.
But no worldview is.
Richard Hofstadter, a historian of American thought, observed that
when an American says “that’s history,” she means “that’s over, that’s
done with, that’s irrelevant.” But here in Europe, “that’s history”
means nothing of the kind.
History, and who gets to claim it, is behind the ongoing political fight between
the countries of Macedonia and Greece over the name “Macedonia.” Macedonia claims that
it is its right to give itself a name that reflects its geographical
connection with Ancient Macedonia. Greece claims that the name
“Macedonia,” unadorned, implies a false association between the
current, mostly Slavic population of the Republic of Macedonia and the
Ancient Macedonians, who the Greeks feel they have a stronger connection to.
The main antagonists in this battle are the prime minister of
Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, and the prime minister of Greece, Kostas
Karomanlis. Greece recently vetoed Macedonia’s acceptance into NATO on
the grounds that its objections to the name of its northern neighbor
had not yet been addressed. In turn, Macedonia has opened up the
conflict over the name to include the issue of Macedonian-speaking
refugees from the Greek Civil War who were denied right of return. To
this day, their property remains confiscated and they are refused
entrance into Greece. Gruevski also demands respect for the rights of
Macedonian-speaking minorities who have remained in Greece. Karomanlis
maintains that Greece “has no minorities.” The distance between their
positions is vast.
Which is curious, because their family origins are so close. Both
Gruevski and Karomanlis’ grandfathers were traced to the same region of
Aegean Macedonia (northern Greece) by the newspaper Dnevnik.
Both their grandfathers fought for Greece against invaders in the first
half of the twentieth century. Both of their grandfathers spoke a
Slavic dialect (whether it should be called “Macedonian” or not is an
enormously contentious issue). Their paths diverged when Gruevski’s
father settled in what is today the Republic of Macedonia, while
Karomanlis’ father remained in northern Greece.
Not only do they share a history, but also a fate. Both have come to
be viewed as Janissaries by the countries they did not align with. The
Greek view sees those who are born in Greece as Greeks, whatever
language they may speak at home. It is the duty of Greeks to show
loyalty to the nation as a whole. By this view, Gruevski is a Greek who
has turned against his own people and betrayed them for foreigners.
Likewise, there are Macedonians who feel that any Slavic-speaking
Christian from the geographical area of Macedonia is a Macedonian
(whether within the current borders of the Republic of Macedonia or
not). By this view, Karomanlis is a Macedonian who has turned against
his own people and betrayed them for foreigners. The most committed and
effective combatants in the fight for the name ‘Macedonia’ have an
astonishing amount in common.
As Dnevnik observed, “Unfortunately, the Balkans is probably the one
place in Europe where similarities divide instead of unite. Probably,
under normal circumstances, if the prime ministers of neighboring
countries shared so many fateful commonalities, that would be a good
basis for them to serve as the main initiators in developing close and
friendly relations between each other’s countries. But this, however,
is the Balkans.”
And so in the worldviews of this place, like in those of every other, there are truths as well as distortions.
Originally posted to the blog Polysemic