The name game
From The Economist print edition
THE winner of the second round of Macedonia’s presidential election on April 5th will almost certainly be Georgi Ivanov, the candidate of the ruling nationalist party led by the prime minister, Nikola Gruevski. But that does not mean he will get the job. He is unpopular with ethnic Albanians, who make up a quarter of Macedonia’s 2.1m people. If most of them do not vote, turnout could fall below 40%—in which case the entire election has to be rerun.
That would be a problem Macedonia does not need. Its economy is stuttering. Exports of metals, textiles and farm produce have slumped. Unemployment is high, public spending must be cut and tensions are rising. Violence broke out in Skopje on March 28th during a protest over plans for a new church in the centre.
Macedonia remains fragile eight years after it almost lapsed into war. Testy relations with its neighbours do not help. For 18 years it has been locked in conflict with Greece over its name, which the Greeks say implies territorial pretensions to Greek Macedonia. Macedonia has won sympathy from other European countries in this dispute. But under the nationalist Mr Gruevski, it is losing it.
When Macedonia renamed Skopje airport for Alexander the Great in 2007, this seemed a one-off to annoy Greece. More recently, however, the government has broadened a policy the opposition calls “antiquisation”. The main road to Greece has been renamed for Alexander and the national sports stadium named after his father, and plans are afoot to erect a huge statue of Alexander in central Skopje. These gestures play well to a public that was incensed by Greece’s veto of an invitation to Macedonia to join NATO, but the country is losing friends. “It is nuts,” sighs one diplomat. “They don’t see the cause and effect.”
Alexander died in 323BC. The Slavs arrived only a thousand years later. But, says Pasko Kuzman, an archaeologist at the culture ministry, Macedonians are a mix of all the people who have ever lived in the region, so they have every right to treat Alexander as a symbol. Besides, he adds, Greece denies the very existence of a Macedonian minority in Greece.
Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians have mostly stayed out of this debate. Some officials say antiquisation was a sop to offset the shock of not being let into NATO. They dearly want the European Union to grant visa-free travel to Macedonians this year (and then open membership talks). If people in Macedonia and elsewhere in the western Balkans lose hope of ever joining the EU, says Macedonia’s deputy prime minister, Ivica Bocevski, everybody should start worrying about regional stability.