When the Balkans was still under the rule of the Turks, children would be taken from all across the multi-ethnic, multi-religious expanse of the empire. They would be gathered in Istanbul and molded into the perfect soldiers. Whatever their background or language, however different they appeared, the Ottomans would train them to be one-and-the-same loyal defenders of the established order, more Turkish than the Turks. And then they would return to the communities they came from, alien to those who should have been their friends and family. They were nothing more than extensions of a distant, hostile force. They extracted taxes, they hunted down rebels, they enforced laws. Native sons became foreign oppressors.

The memory of the Janissaries still has resonance in the Balkans. The past has presence, in a way that can seem strange to an American.

The United States is one of the most ahistorical countries on Earth. It was a nation founded on the very idea of repudiating history. The founding figures of Revolutionary America rejected the tradition of aristocracies and monarchies in their design of government. The everyday people of the new country left behind the ties of the past that had bound them in Europe to settle the virgin wilderness of the American frontier. That a pseudo-aristocratic upper class developed anyway and that one could only call the American continent ‘virgin’ by erasing the presence of its original inhabitants testifies to the fact that the ahistorical American worldview is not without its distortions. But no worldview is.

Richard Hofstadter, a historian of American thought, observed that when an American says “that’s history,” she means “that’s over, that’s done with, that’s irrelevant.” But here in Europe, “that’s history” means nothing of the kind.

History, and who gets to claim it, is behind the ongoing political fight between the countries of Macedonia and Greece over the name “Macedonia.” Macedonia claims that it is its right to give itself a name that reflects its geographical connection with Ancient Macedonia. Greece claims that the name “Macedonia,” unadorned, implies a false association between the current, mostly Slavic population of the Republic of Macedonia and the Ancient Macedonians, who the Greeks feel they have a stronger connection to.

The main antagonists in this battle are the prime minister of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, and the prime minister of Greece, Kostas Karomanlis. Greece recently vetoed Macedonia’s acceptance into NATO on the grounds that its objections to the name of its northern neighbor had not yet been addressed. In turn, Macedonia has opened up the conflict over the name to include the issue of Macedonian-speaking refugees from the Greek Civil War who were denied right of return. To this day, their property remains confiscated and they are refused entrance into Greece. Gruevski also demands respect for the rights of Macedonian-speaking minorities who have remained in Greece. Karomanlis maintains that Greece “has no minorities.” The distance between their positions is vast.

Which is curious, because their family origins are so close. Both Gruevski and Karomanlis’ grandfathers were traced to the same region of Aegean Macedonia (northern Greece) by the newspaper Dnevnik. Both their grandfathers fought for Greece against invaders in the first half of the twentieth century. Both of their grandfathers spoke a Slavic dialect (whether it should be called “Macedonian” or not is an enormously contentious issue). Their paths diverged when Gruevski’s father settled in what is today the Republic of Macedonia, while Karomanlis’ father remained in northern Greece.

Not only do they share a history, but also a fate. Both have come to be viewed as Janissaries by the countries they did not align with. The Greek view sees those who are born in Greece as Greeks, whatever language they may speak at home. It is the duty of Greeks to show loyalty to the nation as a whole. By this view, Gruevski is a Greek who has turned against his own people and betrayed them for foreigners.

Likewise, there are Macedonians who feel that any Slavic-speaking Christian from the geographical area of Macedonia is a Macedonian (whether within the current borders of the Republic of Macedonia or not). By this view, Karomanlis is a Macedonian who has turned against his own people and betrayed them for foreigners. The most committed and effective combatants in the fight for the name ‘Macedonia’ have an astonishing amount in common.

As Dnevnik observed, “Unfortunately, the Balkans is probably the one place in Europe where similarities divide instead of unite. Probably, under normal circumstances, if the prime ministers of neighboring countries shared so many fateful commonalities, that would be a good basis for them to serve as the main initiators in developing close and friendly relations between each other’s countries. But this, however, is the Balkans.”

And so in the worldviews of this place, like in those of every other, there are truths as well as distortions.

Originally posted to the blog Polysemic

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