By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
Forget the row with Greece over Alexander. What now has Macedonians at odds are new monuments resembling, or commemorating, historic figures linked to Bulgaria.
Seventy-four-year-old pensioner Andon Denkov from Skopje pulls a grouchy face every time he goes out to the grocery store.
The reason is a newly erected equestrian statue near his home that bears a striking resemblance to Todor Aleksandrov, a controversial figure in Macedonian history.
“He was the biggest enemy of the Macedonian people and now in my old age I have to look at him every day,” he complains.
“God help Macedonia with politicians who glorify such people. They should be put on trial for treason!” he adds.
The statue, financed by the Ministry of Culture and erected by Skopje’s municipality of Kisela Voda in June, caused headlines for days, sharply dividing opinion.
Whether Aleksandrov was a Macedonian or a Bulgarian hero, and who approved such a statue, is a hot topic – temporarily pushing aside the long-running row with Greece over which country “owns” the memory of such Classical heroes as Alexander the Great.
Although officially entitled “Macedonian equestrian revolutionary”, most people are in no doubt that the statue in Skopje is intended to resemble Aleksandrov, a key member of the Ottoman and post-Ottoman era Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, VMRO.
This clandestine organisation fought for Macedonia’s independence from Ottoman rule, but was divided between those who sought an independent Macedonian state and others who saw freedom from Ottoman Turkey as a stepping-stone towards union with Bulgaria.
During the five decades of Socialist Yugoslavia, and after Macedonian independence in the early 1990s, most historians reviled Aleksandrov’s memory because of his close ties to Bulgaria.
But since the centre-right VMRO-DPMNE party of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski took power in 2006, the atmosphere has changed, and Aleksandrov has recently had a street and a bridge in the capital named after him.
As the ruling party pushes on with its bid to rename hundreds of streets in the capital Skopje, and continues erecting statues to people who were previously on the black list, historians – as well as the public – are taking opposing sides.
Supporters of the new monuments say it is time to correct a distorted view of Macedonia’s history that has prevailed since 1945, when the Yugoslav Communists took power and filtered history through their own perspective.
Critics, on the other hand, accusing the ruling party of playing around with the national identity and of unscrupulously re-writing the history books.
The main opposition Social Democrats have repeatedly accused the government of pursuing double standards.
“While maniacally spending millions of euros on new monuments, some of which are dedicated to controversial historical figures… the government feels no need to renew the vandalized busts of World War II [partisan] heroes,” Sofija Kunovska, a Social Democrat on the Skopje city council, complained recently.
She was referring to bronze busts of several Partisan fighters that were stolen more than ten years ago from a park and not replaced.
She resents the fact that the Culture Ministry, while pouring in money to the government revamp of the capital called Skopje 2014, has little money left over for other monuments.
Some historians, as well as opposition supporters, are far from happy with the new monuments.
“Views may, and should, change, but they need to be accompanied by scientific debate and arguments. In this case, politics, and not science is running the show, causing greater controversies and divisions,” Todor Cepreganov, head of the National History Institute, said.
He said he was “surprised” to see a statue of Aleksandrov erected. Along with many other historians, he thinks the move hasty.
“There is much written historical evidence that Aleksandrov actively worked against the formation of an independent Macedonia and a Macedonian ethnicity different from Bulgaria’s,” he told Balkan Insight.
But other academics welcome the change in official tone, seeing the old anti-Bulgarian line as itself forced, artificial and unhistorical.
“These processes should have started earlier, together with Macedonian independence [in the early 1990s],” historian Zoran Todorovski said.
The head of the National Archive, a member of the ruling VMRO DPMNE party, shook academic circles with his thesis in 1995, which said Aleksandrov deserved hero status in Macedonia.
His theory earned him a Bugarophile reputation, which he resents.
“What is happening is a natural process of re-visiting certain historical chapters that were previously seen as taboo by Communist Party historians,” he maintains.
“It is not an attempt to re-write bur rather to upgrade our historical knowledge,” Todorovski adds.
He denies having been one of the masterminds behind some of the more recent controversial moves like the erection of the statue.
But he says continuing divisions in Macedonia over its recent history are absurd.
“Just as there were brothers from Macedonia fighting for opposing Serbian and Bulgarian armies in the Balkan Wars [of 1912-13], today we are in the same absurd situation, accusing ourselves of taking ‘Serbian’ or ‘Bulgarian’ views,” he says.
Nationalists vs. Communists:
The modern disputes over statues and bridges all have their origins in contrasting views and memories of the period of national revolutionary struggle in the late 19th and early 20th century.
This was when the modern Macedonian national identity was forged amidst the turbulent collapse of Ottoman rule in the Balkans and the subsequent wars between rival Balkan states.
At the time, Macedonia was a geographical expression, inhabited by a medley of Slavs, Greeks, Albanians, Jews and others, all with different aspirations, some seeking freedom for Macedonia, others seeking union with Bulgaria, Serbia or Greece and others again wanting the status quo.
The devastating blow to the champions of an independent Macedonia came in 1913, in the aftermath of the Second Balkan War, when Ottoman Macedonia was partitioned between Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, with the lion’s share going to Greece and Serbia.
All three victorious states vigorously supressed any movements to uphold a specific Macedonian identity in their respective portions.
Today’s Macedonia consists only of the Serbian part of Macedonia, which obtained a measure of cultural freedom after becoming one of six federal units in Communist Yugoslavia in 1944-5.
After 1945, in ex-Serbian Macedonia, the authorities rehabilitated the idea of a separate Macedonian langage, identity and consciousness, sponsoring the creation of a separate Macedonian Church.
At the same time, official history rehabilitated only certain VMRO-era revolutionaries, like Goce Delcev, Nikola Karev and Dame Gruev, who they deemed deserving because they were not associated with the idea of union with Bulgaria.
Meanwhile, most emphasis was placed on celebrating the joint Yugoslav history of the World War II struggle.
Other VMRO figures, like Todor Aleksandrov or Ivan Mihajlov remained blacklisted owing to their pro-Bulgarian stands.
Historians today agree that the truth was not so black-and-white.
“Almost all Macedonian revolutionaries from that era at some point of their life took pro-Bulgarian stands or pronounced themselves as Bulgarians – this is not disputed,” Cepreganov explains.
“You have to have in perspective the non-existence of a Macedonian state [at the time] and the strong influences of neighbouring countries. Many people were then educated in Bulgarian schools,” he adds.
Feud rooted in history:
The current historical feud between today’s VMRO-DPMNE and the Social Democrats has its roots in the two parties’ very different backgrounds.
While VMRO-DPMNE emerged in early 1990s as a nationalist party, uniting opponents of the old Communist regime, the Social Democrats descended from the former League of Communists of Macedonia, which ruled unchallenged for five decades in post-war Yugoslavia.
VMRO-DPMNE accuses the Social Democrats of taking a pro- Yugoslav, and indeed, a pro-Serbian line, and of dwelling too much in the Communist past.
In return, VMRO DPMNE is accused of conceding too much to pro-Bulgarian views of history.
The party put up pictures of Todor Aleksandrov in its headquarters in the early 1990s, when party officials said he was undeservingly blacklisted. But even today they are reluctant to openly talk about the sensitive issue in detail.
To be called pro-Bulgarian still has negative connotations in Macedonia.
In 2006, the former Prime Minister and VMRO DPMNE head, Ljubco Georgievski, was damaged politically by claims that he had a Bulgarian passport – a serious blow to his patriotic image.
However, the party survived unharmed as Georgievski was by then no longer a member, and had been succeeded by the current Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski.
Historians explain that the suspicions that many Macedonians still feel towards Bulgaria is not groundless.
While Bulgaria was the first state to recognise Macedonia’s independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, it has not recognised the existence of a Macedonian language, separate from Bulgarian. Many Bulgarian historians still insist that Macedonians are part of the Bulgarian nation.
In addition, the Macedonian minority in Bulgaria has often complained of unfair treatment by Sofia, a complaint echoed by the Bulgarian minority in Macedonia.
For now, many people are confused.
“It seems that everyone is entitled to erect monuments and rewrite the past according to their own liking,” Spase Najdenovski, an electrical engineer from Skopje, says.
“I have no idea what is going on with the new statues and street names. I just hope they know what they are doing,” Perica Naneski, a carpenter from Prilep, adds.
Ivana Todorova, a mother of three, is tired of listening to the big parties quarreling all the time about history.
“Is that all they have to offer? Instead of telling me how my husband should find a job they are playing big patriots!” she says.
“They should all go to hell!”.
Meanwhile, some opposition supporters are taking to the streets to defend their view of history.
Last month, they blocked a street in central Skopje named after the World War 2 resistance fighter Stiv Naumov, after the authorities renamed it after the Ancient warrior, Philip of Macedonia.
The ruling party plans to rename several hundred city streets in the first “mass renaming” of streets in the two decades that have passed since Macedonia declared independence.
“They should not have done that. Removing the name of Stiv Naumov is a clear example of their brutal attempt to impose their own views,” Cepreganov says.
The move angered war veterans, who accused the government of writing off important figures linked with Yugoslavia’s wartime struggle and replacing them with controversial names that fit the party’s nationalist ideology.
“We are not revising history but only changing about 8 per cent of the street names that had nothing to do with Macedonian history,” Aleksandar Bicikliski, spokesperson of VMRO DPMNE, responds.
But some dispute this, saying that with the rushed renaming process, Skopje is losing another dimension of its history, the image of city of international solidarity.
Vlatko Stefanovski, leader of the famous rock band, Leb I Sol, together with his brother Goran, a playwright, filed a petition to the city against the renaming of “Meksicka”, [“Mexican”] street, where they grew up.
This is “sign of utter short sightedness and rudeness”, the two brothers wrote, arguing that the old street name, along with many others, enshrines memories of the city’s devastating 1963 earthquake, and of the solidarity that the world showed in rebuilding the city.
This street, as well as many other newly built streets, bridges and blocks, was named after one of the countries that helped rebuild Skopje.
“The great actress Nada Geshovska and the painter Spase Kunovski lived on this street. Here the politician Stojan Andov still lives and here the band Leb I Sol was born,” they wrote.
The city authorities replied that they will see what they can do, noting that the decision to rename the street had already been made.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.