• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Birth of a Nation

Who Are the Macedonians?

by Hugh Poulton
Indiana University Press, 218 pp., $29.95


On July 26, 1963, an earthquake leveled most of the pretty Ottoman city of Skopje, then the capital of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. Tens of thousands of people were killed. One of the few survivors of the catastrophe was the façade of Skopje’s old railway station, whose large clock has stood still at 5:17 for over thirty-two years.

On October 3 this year, the black Mercedes of Kiro Gligorov, the president of the four-year-old Republic of Macedonia,1 was just passing the old railway station when a powerful car bomb was detonated by remote control. His driver was killed instantly and three pieces of metal landed in the President’s head, one penetrating the skull and entering his brain.

A spectacular assassination attempt, it seemed, was all that had been missing from the current tragedy in the Balkans. Gligorov is still alive, unlike his chauffeur and a passer-by, but the injuries he has sustained are very serious. By mid-October it was still unclear whether he would be able to assume office again. If he does not the outlook for Macedonia and its people is bleak. The attack came just at the moment when there was cause for optimism. On September 13, Macedonia and Greece finally signed an agreement establishing diplomatic relations and removing the complete commercial blockade on Macedonia which Greece had imposed in February 1994.

For the last four years, since Macedonia declared its independence in 1991, the Greeks have refused recognition, claiming that Macedonia was illegitimate in a variety of ways, including its very name, which the Greeks maintain belongs only to them. The day before the car bombing, Gligorov had gone to Belgrade, where President Slobodan Milosevic said that he welcomed the agreement between Skopje and Athens, and wanted Yugoslavia and Macedonia to recognize each other as soon as possible. Gligorov was slowly but impressively digging his country out of a diplomatic mire.

The first independent Macedonian state was approved by its inhabitants in a referendum held in September 1991. Like his Bosnian counterpart Alija Izetbegovic, President Gligorov, a longstanding Communist official, worked hard to prevent the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia. When the European Community began to encourage independence for the Yugoslav republics in 1991, Gligorov reluctantly pursued that course. But he was particularly concerned about the decision of Macedonia’s largest minority, the Albanians, who make up about a quarter of the population of about two million, to boycott the referendum, for he well understood the dangers of creating a weak state with a large, vocal, and distrustful minority.

Still, in a masterly stroke, Gligorov succeeded, after the referendum, in negotiating the withdrawal of the Yugoslav People’s Army from Macedonia without a shot being fired. True, the JNA took all its weapons with it, leaving the new state wholly defenseless. But at least the new country did not suffer from the effects of a scorched-earth policy or from an attempt by Serbia to use the small Serb minority in northern Macedonia as an excuse to reabsorb part or all of Macedonia into what was left of Yugoslavia.

However, it soon became very clear that life was going to be very rough for this tiny, landlocked state which occupies a key strategic position in the southern Balkans. The Balkan mountains can only be traversed through Macedonia—either north to south, from Orthodox Belgrade to Orthodox Thessaloniki, or from west to east, from Muslim Durrës in Albania to Muslim Istanbul; all main trading routes in the southern Balkans pass through Macedonia.

As soon as it became independent, the Macedonian nation was seen as a disturbing presence by each of its much more powerful neighbors. Albania recognized both the Macedonian state and nation but made it clear that its good will would depend on the status of the Albanian minority in Macedonia. Serbia recognized the state de facto by setting up a new Yugoslavia without Macedonia, but it still withholds formal recognition. Bulgaria recognized the state but has absolutely refused to acknowledge that there is a legitimate Macedonian nation for fear of encouraging secessionist tendencies among the inhabitants of Bulgarian Macedonia, many of whom have rejected a Bulgarian identity in favor of a Macedonian one.

Moreover, until early in October of 1995 Greece flatly refused to accept that Macedonia was a state or that its citizens could legitimately be called Macedonians. Greece considers the name Macedonia to be Hellenic property. Nationalist Greeks claim, without any substantial evidence, that the new state has ambitions to absorb the Greek province of Makedonia, whose capital is the port of Thessaloniki. (In April 1993, the United Nations admitted the country under the compromise name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which nobody likes.)

It is impossible to engage in serious discussion about Macedonia without upsetting some or, more likely, all of the interested peoples or states in the southern Balkans. The preceding paragraphs will probably have offended most of the Greeks, Macedonians, Albanians, and Bulgarians who read them, not to mention Serbs. I am sure Hugh Poulton understands only too well that the very title of his timely book, which explains the history of Macedonia, is simultaneously an act of provocation and of courage.


The kingdom of ancient Makedon produced Alexander the Great, who has never been equaled as a military strategist. Before his death in 323 BC at the age of thirty-three, he subdued the Greek city-states of Attica and the Peloponnese, drove his imperial army into Palestine, smashed the might of the Persian empire, and reached across central Asia into India.

As Greeks developed a modern consciousness in the second half of the eighteenth century, they adopted Alexander as the symbol of Hellenic greatness. Greek historians emphasize that he was tutored by Aristotle, and point out that he spoke Greek as his first language, and they are especially sensitive when outsiders suggest that ancient Makedon was anything but an integral part of Greek society in the fifth and fourth centuries BC. But some distinguished foreign historians,2 while readily conceding Alexander’s Hellenic cultural heritage, suggest that most Makedons may have spoken another language, one, since extinct, that was not related to Greek. They also cite Alexander’s pithy contempt for the Greek city-states; as a supreme opportunist, the argument goes, he exploited his Greek culture and connections solely when it suited his purposes to do so. One point everyone (except for the most fantasist nationalists in today’s Macedonia) agrees on, however, is that there were no Slavs anywhere near this territory until the middle of the sixth century AD, when the first Slav marauders began launching raids as far south as the Peloponnese.

The second point of agreement concerns the boundaries of ancient Makedon. Aside from an insignificant strip in modern Albania, the ancient territory included, on today’s map, (1) a substantial chunk of northern Greece, whose inhabitants speak Greek, (2) most of the new Republic of Macedonia, where the majority of citizens speaks Macedonian (a Bulgarian dialect that is now a separate language) and the largest minority speaks Albanian, and (3) a significant wedge of southwestern Bulgaria, whose people speak Bulgarian. The authorities in each place now claim to represent the real Macedonia, and they are each deeply suspicious of the others.

The modern origins of the “Macedonian Question,” as the notorious southern Balkan dispute of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came to be known, may be traced back to the year 1878. On March 3 of that year, the war between Russia and Ottoman Turkey ended with the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano. Russia, keen to assert its dominance in the Balkans through the new Bulgarian state, was the moving force behind the agreement, which called for the creation of the principality of Bulgaria; this became, after Greece and Serbia, the third major nation-state to be hewn out of the Ottoman Empire’s crumbling periphery. The new Bulgarian state was almost four times the size of Serbia and three times the size of Greece. Among other assets handed over by the Russians to Sofia were all the territories of ancient Makedon, notwithstanding its extremely mixed population of Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks, Jews, Albanians, Vlachs,3 and Gypsies. Control of Macedonia immediately made Bulgaria by far the most powerful state in the Balkans.

There were now two large Christian Slav peoples in the central-southern Balkans, the Serbs and the Bulgarians, both speaking languages classified as southern Slav, although Bulgarian has features unique among all Slav tongues.4 Serbia gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the nineteenth century with the First and Second Serbian Uprisings. The major step toward Bulgarian independence was the creation of the independent hierarchy of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1870. Although both the Serb and Bulgarian churches were, and are, under the ultimate authority of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Constantinople, their autonomy was complete and in both the vernacular was used in all church business.

Russia believed that by helping to found a large Bulgarian state it could further its ambitious strategic aims in the Balkans. It made Bulgaria its vassal state, insisting that it garrison the Bulgarian principality with Russian troops for two years and have a hand in forming the Bulgarian government.

Great Britain regarded this blatant expansionist move by Russia as an intolerable challenge to its interests in the Near East, and Austria-Hungary saw it as an impediment to its own ambitions in the Balkans. The British immediately dispatched its fleet to the Aegean while Vienna made warlike protests. Horrified by the sudden arrival of a Bulgarian monster state, Serbia, Romania, and Greece all demanded a substantial revision of the San Stefano treaty. Just as a huge conflagration appeared likely, Bismarck offered his services as “an honest broker.” The Congress of Berlin was duly convened later in 1878, and returned most of Macedonia to the stewardship of the ailing Ottoman Empire. Intimidated by German demands, Russia offered large concessions at the Congress, and the Bulgarian principality was squashed to almost a quarter of its size under the San Stefano agreement; the result was a powerful revanchist ideology that was central in Bulgarian politics until 1945.

Henceforth, Macedonia, where all the major transport routes through the southern Balkans coincide, became the apple of discord between the newly forming nation-states that were destined to replace the Ottoman Empire. This rivalry finally exploded in the most hideous fashion in the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. In the first of these, a grand alliance of the Christian Balkan countries—Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria—shoved the remnants of Turkey out of Macedonia and Thrace. No sooner had the three countries succeeded in beating back the Turks than Bulgaria made a disastrous preemptive attack on Serbia. Greece and Serbia then joined forces to wreck the Bulgarian army and carved up Macedonia between them. The extreme barbarism of these wars has been obscured historically by their proximity to the outbreak of World War I; but the Balkan wars prefigured what is happening in the region today.5

  1. 1

    The country defines itself as the Republic of Macedonia and its majority population, who are Slavs, are called Macedonians. The United States and Western European states have recognized the country under the name used by the United Nations, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Some states, including Russia, Bulgaria, and Turkey, have recognized it as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece has now agreed to recognize the country but insists that further negotiations will be necessary to solve the question of the name. For the sake of brevity I refer to the country in this review as Macedonia; but this should be interpreted neither as an endorsement nor as a rejection of the term.

  2. 2

    By far the most readable and informative such biography is Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C. (University of California Press, 1991).

  3. 3

    These nomadic merchants and shepherds of Romanian origin have occasionally been important to the modern development of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and Macedonia despite their small numbers.

  4. 4

    Primarily, Bulgarian has a definite article and no case declension (unlike all other Slav languages until the Macedonians codified their Bulgarian dialect into a new language).

  5. 5

    The 1913 Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, published by the Carnegie Endowment in 1914 (Washington), is a stunning and deeply illuminating work of scholarship. It was recently republished with an introduction by George F. Kennan under the title, The Other Balkan Wars (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1993).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print