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


The period between the Congress of Berlin in 1878 and the Balkan Wars in 1913 gave birth to an image of Balkan politics and society which still persists—mustachioed bomb throwers, corrupt and devious governments, endemic indolence, devious great power interference, and, not least, shocking brutality. Certainly there was a steady rise in violence and terrorism by all sides. But it was also a time of heady political organization, combined with the beginnings of industrialization and the opening up of markets in the Ottoman hinterlands.

At the heart of Macedonia’s identity lay Thessaloniki, one of Europe’s largest and most active ports, which linked the near East with southeastern and central Europe. Over half its population were Ladino-speaking Jews who had fled Spain in 1490 and had mixed with its Turkish, Bulgarian, and Greek communities. In addition there were, among others, Vlachs, Albanians, and Gypsies—the proverbial salade macédoine.

Ninety miles away in the interior, the town of Monastir (now part of the new Macedonian republic and called Bitola), which had lively Albanian, Vlach, and Greek communities, became the center of the Great Powers’ budding intelligence services in the Balkans and a haven for shady business deals. In Monastir’s surrounding countryside roved groups of armed men who were bandits one day and political terrorists the next. Most of these groups drew their members from disgruntled Slav peasants, but the Albanians, Greeks, and Turks all had their own powerful paramilitary organizations.

The Greek and Bulgarian Orthodox churches (and to a much lesser degree the Serbian church) were in intense competition to win over the inhabitants of Macedonia for their congregations. The chief instrument in this game was the school system. Under the Ottoman millet system, which gave religious communities the right to a degree of self-governance, the non-Islamic religions were able to control primary education.

In 1894, a group of Bulgarian intellectuals from Macedonia, mainly teachers, formed VMRO, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, to liberate Macedonia from the Turks. The new group did not initially make it clear whether “the liberated territory” would then form a new state or whether it would attach itself to Bulgaria. Deeply conspiratorial, it attracted considerable, if fluctuating, support inside Macedonia and Bulgaria. And while remaining the most faction-ridden body imaginable, it carried out some of the most spectacular acts of terrorism in twentieth-century European history, including the murder of two Bulgarian prime ministers. At times in its early history, the murders of traitors within its own ranks far outstripped the deaths of its proclaimed enemies, the Turks.

While VMRO was confident in its aim of liberating Macedonia from Turkish rule, a split soon emerged in its leadership over whether control of the organization should be based in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, or inside Macedonia. This developed into a struggle between what became known as the IO (the Internal Organization), whose primary goal was the liberation from the Turks of all peoples in Macedonia, and the EO (the External Organization), the vehicle of Bulgarian expansionism run from Sofia.

There were other differences between the two groups, as Hugh Poulton shows in his fine book, but what should be clear is that a distinct Macedonian consciousness was emerging before the Balkan Wars; it was not, as the Greeks and Bulgarians would later claim, merely created by Tito for opportunistic reasons during World War II. A Macedonian identity became important to the Bulgarians of Macedonia, who rejected the dominance of the heavy-handed authoritarian regime in Sofia over their political movements and their daily lives. Although relatively new historically, Macedonian identity today is no less real for that.

The activities of VMRO members hastened the end of the Ottoman Empire in the southern Balkans; their acts of terrorism or liberation (depending on whose side you take) put pressure on Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece to go to war with Turkey in 1912. And the decision to attack Turkey had disastrous consequences for the entire region. The subsequent devastation of Macedonia during the Balkan Wars, and the horrific crimes committed by all sides, set the pattern for modern nationalist warfare in the Balkans. Anyone who wants to understand the origin of the current bestiality in Bosnia should consider what happened to the Greeks, Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Albanians of Macedonia in 1912 and 1913, when large-scale “ethnic cleansing” was practiced on every side.

The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 divided Macedonia among Greece, Bulgaria, and the new Yugoslav state, which the Serbs immediately dubbed “southern Serbia,” simply ignoring any linguistic or cultural differences between themselves and the rest of the local population. The Bulgarians and Macedonians in the Serbian region gravitated, respectively, toward Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, and away from Aegean Greece. Many of the Greeks from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria moved toward Thessaloniki and its environs.

After the royal dictatorship of Bulgaria’s King Boris was persuaded to join the Axis powers in 1940, Hitler permitted the Bulgarian army to take over most of Macedonia, while part of the western region came under Italian administration and, in recognition of its strategic importance, the Germans occupied Thessaloniki. This of course meant the end of Thessaloniki’s Jews; one of the most vital and accomplished European Jewish settlements was soon eliminated and largely forgotten.

Most of the Slavs who came under Sofia’s control at first welcomed the Bulgarians; but this sympathy was quickly dissipated when the occupiers brought with them an insensitive, centralizing bureaucracy, which was soon opposed by the nascent Macedonian partisan movement. As Tito’s forces began to turn the tide in other parts of Yugoslavia, he began to encourage the separate consciousness of the Macedonians, promising that they would be able to develop their own identity within a postwar Yugoslav state. After the war, he went even further, putting pressure on the Slav Macedonians to support the insurgents in the Greek civil war. In retrospect, it seems fairly clear that Tito wanted to incorporate most Macedonian territories (including the great prize, Thessaloniki) in his vision of a grand Balkan federation.


Tito’s expansionist plans explain the passions and fears that have resurfaced in Greece during the four years since the establishment of an independent Macedonia. Had the Greeks pointed out that only fifty years ago there was an attempt to seize a large part of northern Greece in the name of Macedonia, they might have gained more understanding for their case. Instead, their campaign against the new Macedonian state—objecting to its name, its flag, and its constitution—has centered on their claims to the Hellenic culture of Alexander the Great. Apart from being irrelevant to the issues of modern nation building, this campaign left the outside world mystified and bored. It was bad politics, for which Greece has had to pay a considerable price.

Greece’s hostility to the new Macedonian state led Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou to impose a complete commercial blockade in February 1994. This combined with the devastating effect of UN sanctions against Serbia (which accounted for 70 percent of Macedonia’s markets before the collapse of Yugoslavia) continues to pose tremendous economic problems for the country, which exports mainly such crops as tobacco, grains, and cotton. Under Tito, Macedonia also developed into an important industrial center, particularly as a producer of steel and chemicals. (This tiny, fertile country, with its breathtaking scenery and fascinating history, also has considerable potential for tourism. Moreover, Macedonia is different from other Balkan countries, since owing to its inherent weakness it cannot possibly pose a military threat to its neighbors. Despite its tense location, it has a weirdly relaxing atmosphere.)

The combined efforts since 1992 of Cyrus Vance, David Owen, and the Clinton administration, notably those of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, have recently achieved a remarkable breakthrough. On September 13, Greece and Macedonia signed a treaty calling for mutual recognition, the opening of commercial routes into the country, and the exchange of liaison offices. The Macedonian government has agreed to drop from its flag the star of Vergina,6 to which the Greeks vehemently objected, and to amend its constitution to allay Greek fears that it might harbor territorial claims. The problem of the country’s name has, for the moment, in the words of one diplomat close to the talks, “been kicked into never-never land.” This agreement shows a new capacity for mature judgment on both sides; it might clear the way for a historical shift in relations between the diverse nationalities of the southern Balkans.

It has not, however, solved the primary threat to Macedonia’s existence—the tensions between the Macedonians and the approximately half a million Albanians who live within the new republic. In Who Are the Macedonians? Hugh Poulton, for many years the East European Researcher for Amnesty International, provides a fair and perceptive account of the difficult relations between the two groups. During the Communist period, he recalls, the Albanians of western Macedonia frequently received worse treatment at the hands of the Skopje authorities than the Albanians in Kosovo. It will take a long time for the western Macedonian Albanians to accept their jailers of yesterday as their colleagues and equals today. Nonetheless, the Albanians in Macedonia enjoy the same voting rights and other civil liberties as other Macedonians. Largely Muslim, they can practice their religion without interference either from the state authorities or from the Macedonian Orthodox Church. They now have far more freedom than the Albanians in Kosovo and even in certain respects than those in Albania itself. The Macedonian government leaders fear, however, that granting special ethnic rights to the Albanians will merely encourage secessionism and the breakup of the Macedonian state. Partly as a consequence, the Macedonians have dragged their feet on two key issues—the rights of Albanians to education in their own language, and Albanian representation in state organs, notably the police force.

Moderates in both the Macedonian and Albanian communities are constantly goaded by radicals into taking more extreme positions. Although the Bosnian conflict has had a sobering effect on both, their relationship is characterized by a permanent, underlying tension. In February this year, the Albanians attempted to found an Albanian-language university in Tetovo, the main Albanian town in western Macedonia, which is only a half hour’s drive from Skopje. Clashes broke out with the Macedonian police and one Albanian was shot dead.

The recent negotiations in Bosnia-Hercegovina, combined with the Greek-Macedonian treaty, should help to relieve Macedonia’s internal strains. But the political outcome of the Bosnian war also contains problems for the future of the southern Balkans. Despite US claims to the contrary, the Holbrooke plan might well result in the creation of a greater Serbia and a greater Croatia. If this occurs, then two nation-states, each dominated by a single ethnic group, will have triumphed over the multiethnic conception of Yugoslavia upon which Bosnia’s integrity once depended.

The US has not been indifferent to Macedonia’s fate. Not only has it been closely involved in diplomatic attempts to reduce tension in the region, but five hundred American soldiers are deployed in Skopje on active peacekeeping duty as members of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP). While nobody imagines that this force would halt a conflict should one break out, its presence has boosted morale throughout the country.

However, if the northern Balkans come to be dominated by two large states, we may also have to recognize that Albanians are the coming nation in the southern Balkans. At present, some nine million Albanians are split among four states, of which Serbia, Macedonia, and Albania are the more important ones. If current demographic trends continue, then approximately eighteen million Albanians will be living in the same territory by the second or third decade of the next century. This means that the Serbs and the Macedonians must find ways of accommodating Albanian political aspirations in their states if they are not to be split up once again. For the Albanians’ part, they must actively seek partnership with their Slav neighbors if their future as a great Balkan nation is not to be a destructive one.

Their most important immediate test will come in Macedonia. So far, at least, there has been no suggestion that Albanians were involved in the attempt to assassinate Gligorov. A western diplomat in Skopje told me, “Thank God for that—if any rogue Albanian had been mixed up in this, there would have been an explosion.”

Instead, the local police are investigating two possibilities. One is that an extremist VMRO group was trying to retaliate for Gligorov’s agreement with the Greeks. This group would not be a part of the main VMRO-DPMNE organization, which has firmly renounced violence. But there are a few VMRO splinter groups that have talked of possible terrorist action.

A second theory suggests that Macedonian racketeers who have been trying to expand their corrupt business empire wanted to kill the principal politician who stood in their way. Because of the economic squeeze placed on Macedonia by the Greek blockade and UN sanctions on Serbia, smugglers and other criminals have become central to Macedonia’s economy. There is corruption throughout the government, and in July of this year, six deputy ministers were sacked for engaging in dubious business practices. Some of those investigating the attack on President Gligorov believe that a “mafia” group may have felt that he was threatening their interests.

The great fear in Macedonia is that without Gligorov’s influence to calm the unpredictable relations between Macedonians and Albanians, as well as to limit rampant corruption within the state, the country may begin to disintegrate. The conflict within the southern Balkans may come to resemble that in Bosnia. The Macedonians themselves seem to me a sober people who are aware of the horrors of ethnic war.

But if President Gligorov does not survive, the struggle among Macedonia’s leading politicians to find a successor will nevertheless be full of potential dangers. At the moment, the only obvious candidate is the speaker of the Parliament, Stoyan Andov. He is not universally liked and his opponents claim that he is deeply corrupt. The only alternative is Vasil Tupurkovski, a flamboyant former Communist who served in the 1980s as the Macedonian member of the Yugoslav presidency. His concern then to limit violence and to protect his own people gained him support inside Macedonia, but he has a good many enemies who see him as a former commissar. Macedonians still hope Gligorov can return to power or influence. Otherwise the responsibility for the future of the country will fall on colleagues who are on the whole young and inexperienced.

For those who, like Hugh Poulton, grasp the complexity of the historical shifts now taking place in the Balkans, it is self-evident that conflict there never follows a predictable pattern. Instead, the region seems caught in a historical labyrinth, in which its inhabitants are doomed suddenly to turn against one another. The nations and nation-states of the region have all emerged from violent conflicts and movements; they all have suffered from periodic ethnic cleansing and will find it hard to escape this legacy.

We can hope that, at least, the recent suffering of the peoples of the northern Balkans is beginning to come to an end. But that does not mean that the nightmarish constellation produced by the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires will settle into a more peaceful condition. Hugh Poulton’s short book does not give us all the answers to the question its title poses, but it is one of the best guides I have read to what may be a dark and troubled future.

October 19, 1995

This Issue

November 16, 1995