FYROM: Rhetoric and Reality
FYROM: Rhetoric and Reality
Alexander Billinis
December 5, 2011

Viewed from the media, social media, the Diaspora, and cyberspace, rhetoric "crowds out" realities on the ground in FYROM. While I am not immune to the rhetoric, I have sought to understand and to appreciate the reality. I am a Greek-American, which is relevant to this discussion. In contrast to Australia, most of us Greek-Americans were unaware of the existence of a Macedonian problem before the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In Australia, of course, the Greek community was all too aware of the issue since the 1940s.

As a young university student in Washington, D.C., I participated in demonstrations and organizations opposed to the recognition of FYROM as "Macedonia." I feel and felt that we are in the right on the historical record. I understood the rhetoric, but I wanted to make as sure as possible that it matched the reality. There is no substitute, I found, for having your feet on the ground and meeting people, both inside and outside FYROM, to get a realistic, as opposed to a rhetorical view, on the area. In developing this view, I have certain advantages.
I lived for a time in Bulgaria, home to many people with origins in FYROM who claim that the state is Bulgarian. I have lived and worked in Greece, and I have travelled often to Macedonia; Salonika is my favourite city in Greece; I have relatives elsewhere in the province and I adore it. I have also travelled to FYROM and I have koumbaroi from there. In Serbia, where we now live, I have met many people originally from FYROM. Speaking Greek, Serbian, and a smattering of Bulgarian, I can make myself understood anywhere in the region. What I have assessed, in attempting an objective viewpoint on the Macedonian Issue, is that there are two parallel levels at work.

There is the level of official rhetoric, where firebrand politicians spew bile at Greece and build statues of Alexander the Great, soaking up millions of dollars in a poor country where the unemployment rate is over 30 per cent. There is the large campaign for investment and tourism in FYROM, which regularly shows up on the international financial media channels such as CNN, with optimistic projections of FYROM as an investment location. I have also been made to understand that much of the more virulent rhetoric often has a Melbourne or Toronto origin; more than once I heard complaints in Skopje that the FYROM Diaspora "overdoes it" or that "they don't understand the realities on the ground."

The next level is subtler, more street level. In spite of the attempts to lure investment, the facts on the ground are this: a per capita income one third that of Greece, over 30 per cent unemployment (that is, double the current catastrophic state of joblessness in Greece), high corruption (at levels similar to Greece) and severe ethnic tensions with a large Albanian minority, FYROM is hardly an investor's dream. The result has been that the largest investor in the past 20 years has been Greece, with nearly 50 per cent of the total investment having a Greek address. Simply put, far too many people depend on Greek investment for their jobs, and the Greek economy for trade, with Greece as the country's third largest trading partner. Notwithstanding the rhetoric, the Greeks have the local know-how to do business in such a difficult emerging market.

The result is an official bureaucratic stalemate, with an unofficial "business as usual" attitude. As elsewhere in the Balkans, Greek banks are ubiquitous, and Greek products are also well in evidence, though current economic conditions have eroded the Greek presence somewhat, with others, notably the Turks, emerging. Having said that, Greek consumer products are household names, as are many of the big Greek retailers, such as Veropoulos and Germanos. As a tourist in FYROM I have never had a bad experience, and often enough after hearing my mixture of Serbian and Bulgarian they will reply in decent English or passable Greek. Greece too is in no position to antagonize potential tourists, and beach lovers from Skopje, Monastir, and elsewhere in FYROM fill the strand in Halkidiki. Greek tourists are also not unknown in FYROM, whether visiting the Byzantine splendours of Ohrid, a lakeside town with its 365 churches reminiscent of Kastoria or Ioannina, or, more prosaically, the many casinos flanking the border.

This two-tiered relationship with Greece, one of official stalemate and latent hostility, combined with functional and familiar commercial relations, tends to obscure the real problems in the country. FYROM is in existential peril, not from Greece, but from two other directions. The first, more benign, peril is from Bulgaria. Bulgarians consider the Slav Orthodox population of FYROM to be ethnic Bulgarians, and a good proportion of today's Bulgarians are descendents of refugees from FYROM. Bulgaria offers passports to any Orthodox Slav in FYROM, and given Bulgaria's EU membership, there are many takers.

If FYROM were to implode, the Bulgarians are well poised to acquire parts of FYROM contiguous to Bulgaria. The Bulgarians recognize FYROM as a state, but they do not recognize a separate nationality. The far more dangerous threat comes from the very large Albanian minority in FYROM. The Albanians constitute at least a quarter of the population, and combined with the country's five percent Turkish minority they are a third of the population. In October FYROM was to complete a census, and as of the writing of this article the census has been cancelled due to conflicts between the Slav Orthodox and Albanians.

The actual number of Albanians is in dispute, and given their far higher birthrate and the outward migration of Slav Orthodox, no doubt the Albanians are nearing 40 per cent. Lest we forget, almost a decade ago the FYROM Albanians were in open rebellion, and all Orthodox countries, including Greece, lined up solidly behind the government in Skopje.

The cease-fire brought far-reaching autonomy and a virtual linguistic equality for the Albanians, who have been emboldened by Kosovo's secession to aspire to something similar at home. There is, actually, a third threat, hovering over the entire peninsula, that of a Turkey emerging as the regional superpower, with a population larger than the rest of the Balkan countries combined, Chinese-level economic growth rates, projecting its hard and soft power throughout the region. FYROM is of particular interest to the Turks, due to its large Muslim minority and its long-standing cleavage with its neighbours.

Turkey has encouraged the rhetoric between Greece and FYROM; it is to their benefit. As a century ago, the Macedonian Issue still pits one Orthodox Balkan country against another. FYROM and Greece do not see eye to eye on what it means to be Macedonian, but they have a common Orthodox faith and Byzantine culture. What's more, it is in neither state's true interests to face a Greater Albania or a hegemonic Turkey.

This emerging, dangerous reality ought to trump the rhetoric. Unfortunately, thus far it has not.

The Financial Times
January 13, 2015
The Guardian
June 21, 2014
The Wall Street Journal Europe
September 28, 2013
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