Barely noticed outside the Balkans, one of the world’s most intractable diplomatic disputes was finally resolved this month. The parties are Greece and its northern neighbor Macedonia, once a constituent republic of the old Yugoslavia. Their dispute centered on the right of Macedonia, which has been independent since 1992, to call itself “Macedonia,” as that is the same name as Greece’s northern province.
This dispute rumbled on for a quarter of a century, overshadowed by ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia and then Kosovo following the breakup of the Yugoslav federation. In addition to the external pressure from Greece, Macedonia also faced internal fragmentation, particularly in the country’s west, where the population is dominated by Albanians, whose language, culture and largely Muslim faith is distinct from that of the mainly Orthodox Christian Slav Macedonians. In addition to those two national groups are Romanis, Vlachs, Turks and even a small Jewish community.
I visited Macedonia several times during the 1990s, as the tiny republic teetered on the edge of the terrible wars to its northwest. Yet all-out armed conflict never erupted there, despite the conviction of nearly all observers that Macedonia was a powder keg just waiting to blow.
Walking through Skopje, the Macedonian capital, I was reminded of Israeli cities. In the relatively affluent neighborhood where I stayed, the landscape was defined by modest houses, apartment blocks, and leafy, quiet streets, rather like the satellite towns around Tel Aviv. In the city’s old Ottoman Quarter, the Bit Pazar, the narrow thoroughfares were crowded with merchants selling vegetables, cheap clothes and CDs of turbo-charged Balkan folk music (which sounds not a million miles from its Israeli cousin), and the scent of grilled meat hung in the air, reminding me of the Machane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem.
I noticed more significant similarities, too. The Macedonians, like the Jews in Israel, were surrounded by neighbors who depicted their entire history as the fake narrative of a fake nation.
To the south, the Greek government insisted that the name “Macedonia” was exclusively Greek property, and that the nation staking a claim to it was an impostor — a stance that resulted in Macedonia having to refer to itself as “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” at the United Nations and other international institutions. To the north, the Serbs considered the Macedonian Orthodox Church to be illegitimate, often referring to its flock as “Southern Serbs.” To the east, the Bulgarians charged that recognizing Macedonia would encourage Macedonian claims on territory in Bulgaria. To the west, Albanian irredentists were keeping a hawk-like watch upon the restive Albanian minority in Macedonia.
And you thought the Israeli-Arab conflict was complicated.
Before we get too lost in the details, it’s worth noting the key similarity. Like the Jews, the Macedonians have been in the unusual position of having to justify their status as a nation. Arrayed against them have been not just Balkan governments, but large sections of society. At a rally in Athens opposing the agreement between Greece and Macedonia, the aging composer Mikos Theodorakis — famous for the song in the film “Zorba the Greek” and for blaming “American Jews” for his country’s crippling debt crisis 10 years ago — railed that any recognition of a non-Greek nation’s right to call themselves Macedonian was a grave national betrayal.
This carries echoes of the refusal across the Arab world to recognize Israel’s sovereign existence, along with its attendant historical mythology — that the Jews have no spiritual or material tie to the land, that a Jewish Temple never stood in Jerusalem, that the Palestinians are the descendants of Jesus, and so on and so forth.
As Israel has been compelled to realize for nearly a century, conflicts that revolve around questions of identity are never truly resolved. But the fact that the Greek and Macedonian governments have reached a sincere agreement to end their dispute shows that peaceable outcomes, along with the shrinking of prospects for future armed conflict, are possible.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Edward Joseph, a veteran American analyst of the Balkans, argued that for “antagonists around the world locked in identity disputes, the agreement between Macedonia and Greece is, if it survives political challenge, a model.” It proved, he continued, that “seemingly intractable, zero-sum disputes over highly emotive issues can, with good will and good reason, be parsed.”
For the foreseeable future, Macedonia will always face a current of opinion infuriated by its existence as an independent state. So, too, will the Jewish nation in Israel. But I share Joseph’s quiet hope that the agreement in the Balkans — a region, like the Middle East, that has been consumed by myriad ethnic and religious conflicts — will send a positive message across the Mediterranean Sea.