New Book, Old Disputes

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia withdrew its recently published two-volume encyclopedia after the book’s contents infuriated all of the country’s neighbors. The country, an official EU candidate state since 2005 has a long-running dispute with bordering Greece over its name. The country of Greece objects to the name “Macedonia” because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province. Despite international mediation, the two countries cannot come to an agreement, which does not bode well for the Macedonia to finally become a full member of the European community.

The Region of Macedonia

This month with the release of a new encyclopedia, Macedonia further aggravated the tension with neighboring Greece as well as with other bordering countries. Following angry reactions, including the burning of the Macedonian flag in Kosovo, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Art (MANU) recently decided to remove its ‘Macedonian Encyclopedia’ from library shelves. Greece feels that Macedonia is misrepresenting large periods of ancient history. Bulgaria is angered over the volume’s depiction of Macedonia’s struggle against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The most angered are the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia and the Kosovars, as the encyclopedia uses derogatory names for Albanians and claims they “settled” on the land in the 16th century. However, it is widely accepted that Albanians are descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC. Also, the encyclopedia states that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes when he has never been indicted. The United States and the United Kingdom urged Macedonia to remove the book from publication.

MANU is now hastily re-writing some parts of the encyclopedia, but the episode does not help the country’s foreign relations or international reputation. The relatively new country is struggling to form some kind of national identity in a region of the world where borders are constantly shifting. Dispute over land is an all too familiar problem in the Balkans. How far back into history can a nation make its claims when the region is constantly evolving?

When a country defines its national heritage, it picks and chooses the information it wants to present as an identity to the outside world. History is subjective. As a similar example, Serbia and Albania’s dispute over Kosovo unsurprisingly affects the teaching of history to young students in the area. The high school history textbooks in Serbian enclaves in Kosovo are drastically different from the textbooks in neighboring Albanian classrooms. Organizations such as Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) and EUROCLIO work with historians in the region to write alternative textbooks for the Balkans, depicting a variety of perspectives. Hopefully this method becomes popular, because otherwise centuries of prejudices and disputes are passed down to the countries’ youngest generations, perpetuating conflict.

The complicated history of the Balkans makes the region fascinating from an outsider’s perspective. Centuries of overlapping histories of these geographically small nations make forging a national identity difficult. Writing the encyclopedia, Macedonia attempted to define its national heritage by distinguishing itself from neighboring countries. Unfortunately Macedonia’s encyclopedia was insulting to many of its closest neighbors. The encyclopedia is damaging for the country’s reputation and goals to join the European Union. Perhaps Macedonia should have skipped writing the national encyclopedia and instead focus on trying to put an end to their name dispute with Greece.

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    • Oscar
    • October 21st, 2009

    Amongst all Balkanic disputes, maybe one of the most senseless of all is the one of the name of the country known as Macedonia. Greece forced the rest of the world to call it FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), but I have a better name: OUATTWARIABCCY (Once Upon A Time There Was A Republic In A Beautiful Country Called Yugoslavia).

    • Christine
    • October 22nd, 2009

    Yes, I agree. The dispute seems arbitrary from an outsider’s perspective. However, this is a dispute that Macedonia and Greece really must resolve. Macedonia declared independence in 1991, so this tension is almost 2 decades old. The international community recognizes the country as Macedonia. Already an EU member state, I think Greece needs to back down as the only future for Macedonia is to join the European Community. Although the whole thing sounds really stupid, it must be resolved as soon as possible. This is just one more example of how much a strong national identity matters in the Balkans. I think Macedonia and Greece need to look towards the future…but I do like your name OUATTWARIABCCY. Thanks!

    • Oscar
    • October 22nd, 2009

    Well, that’s only one dispute more. In the whole region, after 5 wars and one name disagreement, the only problem really solved is the one of Slovenia, and only lasted 10 days…

  1. Dispute? There isn’t any dispute whatsoever. But if you are a member of the almighty European Onion you can make as many as you please.

    “Whose in for making up a new name for our helpless (… scratch that! write) irredentist north neighbor” – asked Greece.

    Everybody in the Council yelled: “I”!

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