There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Flying into FYRoM: Part 7 of The Balkans

I'm writing this here letter from aboard a DC8
Flying into Angel Town
I hope I'm not too late
(Gunga Din, The Byrds, 1969)

Actually I'm writing this here blog post from aboard an A320, flying into Skopje and thinking that, unlike the easily rhymed DC8, this plane will never be a songwriter’s favourite. I am also mildly surprised that enough people want to fly from Luton to the Macedonian capital to fill a daily Airbus.

We have previously visited countries where I am unsure which name to use (see Arriving in Yangon (or is that Rangoon) the former capital of Burma (or should that be Myanmar)), but never before to a country whose name is 'provisional'.

When Macedonia emerged in 1991 (without any shooting) from the debacle that was Yugoslavia, few outsiders expected the name of the country to be an issue and it would not be but for the touchiness of the Greeks.

The Balkans featuring the dismembered Yugoslavia
Calling your country ‘Macedonia’, they say, implies a claim to the northern Greek province of the same name. Are the Greeks being petty? Belgium has a province called Luxembourg but I am not aware they have ever fretted that the adjacent country of Luxembourg was about to claim that part of their territory. Iran has two provinces called Azerbaijan - East and West - but is unconcerned about the existence of a nearby country called Azerbaijan. If it is good enough for regimes as different as those of Belgium and Iran, then surely it should be good enough for Greece.
The Vergina Sun on a red background, the Flag of the Republic of Macedonia 1992-5

From the off, the Macedonians upset the Greeks with their choice of flag. The Vergina Sun (or Star) is named from the Greek city of Vergina where the symbol was found on the coffin of Philip II (or possibly Philip III) and was chosen to symbolise continuity with the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia. The flag of the Greek province of Macedonia also bears the Vergina Sun and this provoked a dispute over intellectual property rights.
Vergina Sun on a blue background, The Flag of the Greek Region of Macedonia
In 1995 an agreement was reached requiring Macedonia to change its flag into the present rather cheerful banner,…
The Flag of the Republic of Macedonia 1995-present

 … alter some contentious points in its constitution, and to adopt the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM). 20 years on, a permanent name is no closer and FYRoM's applications to join NATO and the European Union are still being blocked by Greece.

[update 27/05/15. When I wrote the above I thought the Greeks were being petty, but I had not then been to the Macedonian National Museum in Skopje.  After World War One the ‘Treaty of Versailles’, to paraphrase a display in the museum, ‘gave 50% of Macedonia to Greece, 20% to Bulgaria and 30% to Yugoslavia.’ It is that 30% which is now FYRoM. In the church of Sveti Spas in Skopje we saw the grave of national hero Goce Delchev*. His sarcophagus sits on three stone slabs symbolising the three separated parts of Macedonia.

The Grave of Goce Delchev (1872-1903) sitting on three separated stone slabs
Sveti Spas, Skopje
On another wall is a map showing the ‘natural and ethnic borders of Macedonia.’ It includes FYRoM, a chunk of Bulgaria, a sliver of Albania and approximately the northern half of Greece.

A map of the 'natural and ethnic borders of Macedonia'. My memory suggests the version in the museum included even more of Greece (or Aegean Macedonia as it is called here)
Pirin Macedonia is currently part of Bulgaria 
I now understand the Greek position better. There is no possibility that the Macedonians will try to reclaim their ‘lost lands’ by force, but the attitude remains. The Macedonians have a current policy of ‘Antiquisation’ of which the most obvious manifestations are the frequent statues of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, and the naming of the main north-south motorway and Skopje Airport after Alexander the Great.] Tirana Airport, incidentally, is named after Mother Teresa who, though ethnically Albanian, was born in Skopje and so could be claimed as a Macedonian, though at the time both countries were part of the Ottoman Empire.

Alexander the Great, Macedonia Square Skopje, completed 2011
After Greek complaints it is now officially called 'Warrior on a Horse' (but everybody knows who the warrior is)
The majority of FYRoM’s citizens are Slavs, descendants of the Slavic tribes who migrated south into the Balkans in the 7th century AD. The inhabitants of ancient Macedonia, which was based in northern Greece but expanded to control much of what is now FYRoM, were Greeks. The modern Greek region of Macedonia is still populated by Greeks, so claims of continuity between ancient Macedonia and FYRoM are optimistic, if not downright spurious.

Most of Macedonia's non-Slav population are Albanian, some 20% of the total. There are tensions – the city of Kumanovo 30km north of Skopje saw a serious shoot-out only last week. Macedonians are Orthodox Christians, though the recently re-formed Macedonian Orthodox Church is not recognized by the other major Orthodox churches, while Albanians are mostly Muslims - though Mother Teresa was, of course a Catholic Christian. Complicated place, the Balkans.

Macedonian citizenship has a further twist. Bulgaria has offered its citizenship to any Macedonian of Slavic descent. There have been few takers, though some have been seduced by the prospect of a passport giving them the right to live and work anywhere in the EU. Macedonia might be expected to see this as an assault on their sovereignty, but they have reacted relatively calmly. The Bulgarians also claim that the Macedonian language is not a separate language but a dialect of Bulgarian. The Lonely Planet guide tends to treat Macedonian as a dialect of Serbo-Croat, though the fracturing of Yugoslavia had led to the fracturing of Serbo-Croat into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian (presumably the Bosnians previously spoke the hyphen). The differences are a tad subtle for the casual observer. I don't speak any of them, but I am happy to note that the words I need, the words for beer, wine and other menu items are fairly standard right across the Slavic world, including Russia.

We have started our descent into Alexander the Great Airport, Skopje, so I shall finish here. This is a travel blog; politics inevitably intrude, but I hope the remaining Macedonia posts will largely stick to the travelling.

*Delchev actually considered himself a ‘Bulgarian Macedonian.’ His views on that matter have been retrospectively altered by successive Yugoslav and Macedonian regimes.

The Balkans
Bosnia and Herzogivina (May 2012)

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