“So, what do you think about Macedonia?” my host in Skopje asks me. Mitre is a retired man who, as we talk over mint tea by the pool in the back garden, shows me the collection of books he’s written over the years: books about hotel management, based on Western capitalist marketing models. In the time of Tito’s Yugoslavia, writing this type of work was a jailable offense. My answer to his question is naive, as I have not yet been completely confused by the frail -and sometimes contradictory- sense of cultural belonging with which Macedonians seem to struggle so much. I tell him that Macedonia feels like a laid back country where people look like they have no worries, living in this recently independent nation beneath the notice of many other well-established countries. My already fragmented point of view may have been slightly biased by all the parties and open air festivals taking place in Ohrid during the summer I was there; yet, underneath all that colorful excitement, a true and complete existential crisis was shaking the very foundation of Macedonian identity.
The conflict between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name is one of the oldest cultural disputes in the modern world. However, it is nothing new to the rest of their neighbors in the Balkan Peninsula, who roll their eyes in exasperation every time the argument comes up. Same old song and dance. In fact, Macedonia is only the colloquial and technically incorrect alias by which we refer to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), the name that the European Community agreed to provisionally adopt in order to pour oil on Greece’s troubled waters. And with the millions of euros that the current Macedonian government has spent over the last few years fabricating an awkward “Greek Muse” costume for Skopje, it is only natural to ask whether the Macedonian people are beginning to buy this fairy tale that is being constructed around their roots.
The first thing that came to my mind while surveying the center of Skopje was that the architects of this “Extreme Makeover: Cultural Appropriation Edition” went a little overboard with the whole statue theme. There are far too many statues for one city, especially one so small. Every last bit of the town center is garishly decorated in the same manner: in the space of one block, there are three different bridges over the Vardar river. The main bridge, as well as the narrow street that leads to the entrance of the Archeological Museum of Macedonia, has been decorated with the statues of every conceivable artist and saint “born in Macedonia”. Or in what Macedonians think Macedonia is, which is not the same as what Greeks think Macedonia is. But we’ll get to that later. Regarding this shrine of Macedonian personalities, the riverside guides its visitors through the Walk of Heroes that the whole of Skopje’s downtown seems to be, to Macedonia Square. Here, towering majestically over the city, is the colossal statue, the crown of the city, the King of kitsch: the figure of Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus upon a 24-metre high pedestal, surrounded by soldiers in a defensive position and by golden lions spitting water, encircled by dancing waters timed with rhythmic lights. There is no room whatsoever for ambiguity here: this is everything Macedonia could hope for in the self-image she wants to convey to the world. But the red, paint-bombed lion testicles and the graffitied walls of the public buildings tell another story: apparently, not everyone in Skopje is thrilled with the city’s new look.
In April of 2016, fed-up Macedonians stood up against the government: the monumental plastic surgery that the capital had undergone in 2014 -consisting of more than 40 monuments, façades and new buildings- had cost the people over €560 million that could have been better spent investing in public services, which are in desperate need of improvement. The uprising, called the Colorful Revolution, left a good portion of Skopje’s fake-old architecture and the Disneyland-like statues brightly paint bombed and vibrant. Among the “Macedonian personalities” all about the city center, new heroes are now immortalized -not in stone, but in plastic and metal- the figures of the Bulgarian saints Kyrill and Methodii, the Tsar Samuil (also Bulgarian), the ethnically Albanian Mother Theresa, the Serbian Tsar Dusan, the Albanian military commander Skanderbeg, and various Bulgarian writers.
But what about Greece, and why is this called the Macedonian-Greek conflict? The only Macedonia that Greece recognizes as legitimate is the territory comprised by East, Central and West Macedonia, three historical provinces located in the Greek north. Thousands of years before becoming who they are today, the Macedonians comprised one of the many Indo-European tribes that migrated from Asia Minor to the Balkan Peninsula, where they eventually consolidated as an empire. Their origin was not Hellenistic, but they spoke Greek, worshipped Greek gods and acquired the same general culture as the Greeks. Under Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great, they conquered Greece and kept it under Macedonian rule, until the Romans annexed it as a part of their territory by the name of “The Roman Republic of Macedonia.” Between this time and the independence of modern Greece, which occurred less than 200 years ago, various waves of invasions took place: not only from the Turk Ottoman Empire, but also from the medieval Slavic tribes that were seeking to expand their area of influence beyond the Kievan Rus. At this point, Macedonians ceased to be “that historical Greek-related tribe of ancient Mediterranean warriors,” to become a nation assimilated into and culturally absorbed by the Eastern Slavic world. The Slavic ancestry of Macedonia is unmistakable, and today the customs, language and folklore of this country are strongly tied to the Eastern European sphere. This is why the modern Macedonian demand to be recognized as the descendants of the historical Macedonia makes no more sense than modern Uzbeks claiming to be the children of Alexander the Great.
The Republic of Macedonia is a fine parallel to the dos and don’ts of a fancy cocktail party: do not overdo it on makeup. Do not arrive wearing the same clothes as the host through a fear of going unnoticed. Do not embark in a philosophical quarrel with the oldest, wisest person at the party (who could turn out to be the host as well). But most importantly, Do resist the urge to decorate at home with flashy symbols like the Vergina Sun, or the tantalizing name snitched from a warrior on his horse partying on the roof. I repeat: do not attempt to take these items home. Surely there is a good reason why History did not place them there in the first place.