I am beyond excited: Only one week left and I am off to a new adventure abroad. For two months I will be working as intern at the Macedonian office of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation in the capital Skopje. I have lived nearly 2 years entirely in Germany – it’s been about time to get out!
I plastered my flat in Cyrillic letters and Macedonian phrases, I packed my bags and I am busy with some last farewell dinners and parties – I am ready to go!
But, and that’s the question I am used to hearing, why Macedonia?
Why Macedonia in winter with temperatures below -10 degrees?! – Yes, I would understand that question, I am wondering myself. It does not surprise me at all though that I have decided to move to Macedonia. I’ve got a thing for underrated, little known countries (or countries who are very negatively perceived, take Poland).
For those of you who are wondering where my journey takes me: I’m speaking about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia which lies right above the Northern Greek province “Macedonia” (this confusing name game is also a reason for Greece to block Macedonian attempts to access the EU). The country, which is roughly the size of German Federal State Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, borders with Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and, as said, Greece.
Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has since been in a transformation phase towards a parliamentarian republic. Until today the democracy is challenged by corruption and illiberal practices, the Special Prosecution (SJO) is threatened and attacked among others by government officials for its investigations on high-level crime and corruption in the country (not surprisingly though). I had the honour to meet one of the three special prosecutors, Lence Ristoska, an inspiring woman and heroine for many young Macedonians (at least in the conference we all attended). In an article published last year the “Deutsche Welle” describes the SJO, whose special prosecutors are a trio of three women, as follows: “[…] it’s especially symbolic that the biggest case in modern Macedonian history is being prosecuted by a trio of women. In the past 10 years, Gruevski and his cronies built a corrupt system based on intimidation and clientelism, but also on limiting women’s rights and promoting machoism, chauvinism, homophobia and anti-feminism.“
The last two years have seen massive public protests in Macedonia, particularly tackling excessive public spending, illiberal and corrupt politics and a wiretapping affair by the government. Labelled the “colourful revolution” people took the streets since spring 2016 criticising the system and the government. Only after months of confrontation the country finally managed, with the support of EU institutions, to organize elections in December 2016. These did not lead to clear majorities between the established parties though. This means that either the conservative-nationalist party (VMRO-DPMNE) or the social democratic party will need to form a coalition with an Albanian party.
Albanians are a significant majority in Macedonia, statistics from 2002 speak about 25%. It is difficult though to define the exact number. Albanian counters speak of up to 40% Albanians and a planned national census in 2011 did not happen, because it simply was impossible to manage and organize. Now, Albanian are demanding more rights. These have been formulated in a joint declaration which includes e.g. an acknowledgement of Albanian as official language as precondition for joining any government. The relationship between ethnical Albanians and ethnical Macedonians is continuously tense, even if the situation nowadays is much more relaxed than it was in 2001. Back then media described the situation as being on the edge to a civil war.
Furthermore, the country struggles with a weak economy, lack of investments and a (especially compared to other European countries) low standard of living. Unemployment numbers are high and consequently Macedonia sees a high brain drain which – obviously – doesn’t help the country prosper.
The absurdity of Macedonians politics does lead to quite a few anecdotes though and they are not all about the fact that Skopje looks like a mosaic of copied and pasted monuments from all over the world. Macedonia is among the few countries in the world who recognize the Republic of China, hence Taiwan, as (still) the one and only “real” China. Talk about megalomania. Still, me as a Taiwan-lover can’t, but grin about it quietly.
So much about an introduction to my new temporary home. It does seem like perfect research material, doesn’t it? But who would I be if I’d only go somewhere for the matter of science. We in Germany, in Western Europe know so little about Macedonia and about the (Western) Balkans in general. South Eastern Europe, the small “subcontinent” which appears so far off for too many people in the rest of Europe. I love the region. The conflicts confuse me and often they also worry me. But I for my part have learnt so much about the way societies do or can function or do not and cannot. I think no journey has told me more about my home community than the exchange with people who are very close to ourselves and our mind sets, but still left out.
Apart from then I am extremely excited to travel through Macedonia, to mountains and to picturesque landscapes, to lakes and old villages and I am worried that I’ll hardly have enough time to discover everything I want.
But last but not least I am thrilled to go to Skopje, because from all the one places in the world a huge group, if not the biggest, of friends and lovely people gathers in this place. I find this quite remarkable and it does say a lot about Macedonians. And if that not reason enough to be excited about a move, I don’t know what would be.
For further reference:
Edition Le Monde: Südosteuropa. Der kleine Subkontinent. Erschienen 2014.