North Macedonia

All in or all out: Lessons for a German on the Balkans

I am a young German woman who has freely decided to live in Macedonia. “But why?!” I get this question every time when I meet a new person. The young people who I meet want to leave. The life in Macedonia is tiring, it exhausts all their energy and it takes away their joy in life.

A youth study of the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation has shown that more than 52% of all young people in the country are considering to go abroad. I rarely met a person who does not want to leave. Because nothing seems to change, because there is no room for creativity and because there is always the talk about crisis, corruption and clientelism.

I speak with young people and they do not understand why I voluntarily left Germany. Of all countries, Germany. The country where everything is fantastic and was always fantastic and will most probably always be fantastic. The first who – despite all justified criticism and their plans to still obtain part of their degree abroad – spoke positively about Macedonia and admitted to like it here, are two siblings who have lived as children in Germany. There they only experienced “cold” people and rejection until their family was deported back to Macedonia.

The last time when I published an article capturing the harsh criticism and negative perception of young people of their home country – which led to some frustration at my side as well – the reactions were mixed. Some found the depiction just right and interesting, some were slightly upset that they contributed to this negative image – and some revealed their secret inner patriot and got mad at me.

I do not want and will not criticize Macedonia and the people who live here and when it comes to human interaction and culture I will not judge about right and wrong. I am here, because I chose to be here. But why? Why am I here and why am I a little bit wistful that I only have one month left to stay?

A German in Macedonia 

First things first: I am a German in Macedonia. I did not grow up here. My family is and was not affected and/ or traumatized by the history of Yugoslavia and its decay. I do not grow up with the feeling or the knowledge that my future will be gambled away by egotistic men who only lure power and money; by men and some few women who seem undisturbed by the fact that they push the country they apparently love so much to the edge of the precipice.  I did not grow up in an atmosphere where the word “crisis” is constantly floating through the air and where it makes a significant difference what ethnicity I belong to. I know that I can find a job in my desired field later which will be fun. I know that my degree will help me with it. And every time I feel a bit worn out from the Balkans I can simply go to that lovely home town of mine where the world is in perfect order and where I can easily recharge my batteries.

I am a young curious woman and I am in Macedonia to learn. I am here so I will not fall for the prejudices and stereotypes about the region as communicated in Germany. I am here to observe and to listen and to ask questions. And I love to observe and to listen and to ask questions, hence, I like it here.

Germany, the nerdy overachiever 

Over the last decades Germany has shown an impressive development. When the warmongers of the 20. century started to slowly die out and when we had profited enough from international support to build our Wirtschaftswunder (economy wonder) on top of it, entangled in the first try-outs of the European Economic Community, we managed through an almost continuously critical and quite open handling of our history to become an economically strong, internationally respected and open-minded country. But with all that we also developed an unpleasant attitude: The attitude that we know it all. We are the nerdy overachiever who did it all right – banalities like the tremendous revenue of arms exports and such are easily overlooked – and who now takes it for granted that he can tell anyone what to do and how to do things right.

I do thoroughly think that Germany has good values and aspects of culture to export: The Willkommenskultur (welcoming culture) towards refugees and migrants for example – but considering the cheap tricks of the last years (Dublin Treaty, lack of support for Greece, cutbacks on development aid for refugees in the Middle East, …) this is about time. Our democracy is decent even if right wing supporters of the “Alternative für Deutschland” (Alternative for Germany) try to challenge it. Maybe even better are our environmental policies and our educational system has some great bits to it. Women are treated fairly equal, men can be full-time daddies and our passport is a gate to the world. Where ever you travel you will meet Germans, because we love to discover the world in that myth-enshrouded authentic way, let it be vacationing, backpacking, volunteering or studying, which is great, and we mostly also have the financial means for it. Our social system does not pave the way out of misery, but at least everyone gets something. Our unemployment numbers are low and the general living standard is high. We feel European, we mostly are European. Germany is by far not as perfect as often presented. But what bugs me is not Germany, but as mentioned before, its attitude.

What is my point though?

Many, if not all,  of my acquaintances value the contribution Germany makes to the change and herewith the development of Macedonia. “We need this support”, they say. I also value it, highly, especially when it is all about to support local, progressive initiatives or individuals let it be to reform the education system, to act against inequalities and discrimination or to fight corruption. I think we do a good job, both from the side of organisations and foundation like the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation who always cooperates with local experts and the German embassy with its outstanding ambassadors of the last years (who were all female by the way). But I also think that many Albanians and Macedonians who live here do not consider this process to be happening on eye level. Nationalists are hurt in their pride and many activists – very thankful for the help – get the impression that they are only successful when backed up through Western agents.

I am also here, because I want to turn things around a little. I am tired of the never-ending discussions on how to implement “European” values into Southeastern European societies, not noticing how illogical this debate is within itself and how degrading towards an entire region of Europe. Barely anyone tries to see what values the region has to offer – or had to offer before instability hit, now only waiting to be reanimated. “I know my people, nothing good will ever come from them”, cried a young woman after a few glasses of wine. “They are lazy and they will always be.”

Bad genetic material as cause for instability? I doubt it. 

I do not think that laziness is embedded in the genetic material of people. That is a mean rumour spread by nationalist, racist chauvinists to degrade entire societies. Probably people in sunny regions are more laid back, unlike people from Northern places who have to distract themselves in the long and dark winter months with work from their winter depression. But the precarious situation of the Balkan surely has more to do with the omnipresent inequalities and the greed of particular individuals than with the character of the people who I see as hearty and friendly.

Everybody warns me that I have to be careful whom to trust and that I always have to be critical towards new acquaintances. That is not a good basis for a society especially not one based so much on community as the one here. But it does not help anything if we Germans come to say “come on, trust each others.” Would be nice, but that’s not how this works.

“It’s all about the money”, explains a smart young woman. “All of our problems are connected with that.”

And again it’s all about the money…

Where is that any different though? Capitalism, embedded into the neoliberal system of modern states, does not go well with equality, trust and collective satisfaction, especially when ruled with authoritarian hand. The problem are not the people in Macedonia or in any other country, that’s how much judgement I will allow myself. Nationalism, mistrust and mean tricks are only the symptoms of a broken system. And the system is not only broken here, it crumbles all over Europe.

It is about time that something changes. We in Germany and Western Europe should take that opportunity to take the countries of the Western Balkan seriously. That does not mean to go soft on corrupted elites. If not with stubborn, conservative heads of government we should at least try to implement some dialogue on eye level between people, from human to human.  If we come here with the attitude to learn and not to teach then we might be able to find common solutions for this new system we want and need in a couple of years. I do not say that this is going to be easy or that this is going to be the magic trick for instant stability in the region. But this step is inevitable.

Because if there is something I really care about it is an equal Europe. And we need the Balkan for it. It is either all in or all out. And all out would be a terrible nightmare no one with a reasonable mind could ask for.

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