Old rows, new book
Oct 8th 2009
Albania and Macedonia quibble over an encyclopaedia
IT IS normally hard to get excited about encyclopaedias. Indeed, in the internet age, it is quite hard to sell them at all. But in Macedonia, a new national encyclopaedia has sparked a row worthy of the 19th century, with furious denunciations, forced resignations, hurried political intervention and appeals to outsiders to join in the condemnation of insulting entries.
The row underlines Macedonia’s still-fragile national identity. Here is a non-exclusive list of possible views. One is that Macedonia does not exist at all. It is simply a bit of Bulgaria, amputated by the rise of post-war Yugoslavia and then hijacked by self-interested local politicians (some Romanian nationalists see Moldova the same way). Those who think they are Macedonians are “ethno-politically disorientated” Bulgarians.
From another point of view, the country’s existence is not in doubt, but the name is an insult to Greece. Hardline Hellenes think that the “Skopjans” are cheeky Slavs trying to hijack the name of Macedonia, which was, is and will always be an inalienable part of Greece.
Another view comes from Albania, Macedonia’s western neighbour. From an Albanian nationalist point of view, Macedonia is not a state, but a compromise, and perhaps only a temporary one. A much-abused ethnic Albanian minority has finally managed, partly by force of arms and partly thanks to international pressure, to gain some constitutional rights, which must be defended vigilantly.
But what about the majority ethnic grouping in this country of 2m people? That is where the encyclopaedia comes in. Published by the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, it trod hard on some sensitive toes. For a start, it asserted that the Albanians were relative newcomers to the territory, settling it only in the 16th century. From an Albanian point of view, that is exactly the wrong way round: it was the Slavs who are the newcomers, and who should behave themselves in the company of their hosts. Worse, the encyclopaedia also referred to the Albanians as “highlanders”. That, apparently, is an insult.
Another entry describes Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001, as a war-crimes suspect. Many may query the methods he and his fighters used, but he has never been indicted, and he now heads the junior party in the country’s coalition government. Amid student demonstrations and other protests, Albania’s prime minister, Sali Berisha, called the book “absurd and unacceptable” and complained about “identity based on the forgery of history.”
The encyclopaedia is now being hastily rewritten. But it would be nice to think that some of the energy on display could be directed toward bigger issues. One is sorting out the name dispute with Greece. The new centre-left government in Athens may soften the Greek insistence that its northern neighbour drop “Macedonia” before joining international organisations. Macedonia could clear up a couple of troubling human-rights cases, such as that of Spaska Mitrova, a young mother who has lost custody of her two-year-old daughter, in a dispute with strong political overtones (she identifies herself as Bulgarian, and says Macedonians have ill-treated her in retaliation). From the Albanian side, Mr Berisha could be more careful in describing all of his compatriots as members of “one nation”.
Silly rows about encyclopaedia entries are not just distracting. They also damage outside perceptions of the region and thus its chances of integration into the rest of Europe. The sensible response to a bad book is to yawn, or to produce a competitor. And by complaining so loudly, critics have given the encyclopaedia publicity that most booksellers could only dream of.
Thursday, October 08, 2009