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Back in Skopje or: the continuing astonishment about my free choice to live in “the East”

Oops, I did it again – I am back. For five short weeks I live – again – in Skopje, capital of Macedonia (the Republic of North Macedonia as of most recent). This time the country is not neck deep in state capture and national crises (read more on my blog about the deadlock in 2017), but things don’t look too rosy today.

Skopje, I cannot deny, is not exactly a wonderful winter destination (if you want to know why (and when) Macedonia makes a great travel destination read this or this post). The city carries many obscure titles: The capital of Kitsch, bizarre and corrupted, covered in cribbed landmarks and the most polluted city of Europe on top of that. During the days the sky is yellow from the dirty smog which shoves out of old cars, from the black coal smoke which is dragged from chimneys into low soiled clouds and from burnt wood and trash. In the evenings, a terrible smell engulfs the city whose old – and new – buildings seem to be coming apart at any time.

Looking at politics, the situation is not any better. Even if Macedonia made many positive headlines over the last months (clear EU-route of the new government, Bulgarian Macedonian Friendship Treaty, a solution in the Greek-Macedonian name conflict), national democratisation and domestic politics have suffered from the foreign policy focus of 2018. The big hopes in the new government after the – temporarily even violent – change of government have not been fulfilled by the coalition of SDSM and the Albanian party DUI. SDSM calls itself a social-democratic party, but this attribute seems to be chosen rather randomly. DUI had already been part of the former, authoritarian government.

The new government, as mentioned clearly pro-European, is under pressure now: Until the next EU council meeting they have to prove that the country is serious about their reform programmes. Otherwise, the EU will hesitate to begin accession negotiations with Macedonia before Brussels will step into the last round of campaigning. Afterall, 2019 is the year of EU elections. And before the small state of Macedonia will be back on the agenda – after the elections, the creation of a new commission and the ongoing Brexit-chaos –  time will pass. And it is well-known that predictions on the political situation in the Western Balkans are a risky game – within the blink of an eye the unimagined can happen.

But back to me – why am I doing this? Why do I travel in January to this smoggy, dull city? It is part of my slowly concluding studies. As part of my MA in Central and Eastern European Studies I work for 5 weeks as an intern in the Macedonian Think Tank “Institute for Democracy ‘Societas Civilis’ Skopje” on different issues concerning the European Integration of the country. During this internship wonderful opportunities and perspectives open up to me and I get the chance to dive deeper into the topic of EU Enlargement. At the same time I have the opportunity to exchange many different ideas, experiences and opinions on a personal level.

Even though Macedonia is not far away from the European Union (It takes 2 hours to be precise to reach the Greek border from Skopje) and I would say that my home in Germany is – flight-wise – better connected with Skopje than Krakow, there is an evident lack of exchange on eyelevel between the West and the Balkans. Very often there seem to be no doubts that Europeanization (the adoption of European, liberal values including gender equality, sustainability and deep democratic structures) will be the big saviour for the region. Balkanization (a political catchphrase to describe the fragmentation of bigger political and economic unions) swings like the sword of Damocles above the crisis-torn European Union and summarizes the nightmares of passionate Europeans.

And in all of this perception – sometimes worrying-patronizing, sometimes defiant – and categorization of Us vs. Them, it strikes many as strange that I decide voluntarily to cross the Eastern borders of Germany to deal with democracies and societies under pressure.

„All my friends are leaving to Germany and you come here.“ A Macedonian friend pointed that out to me. “The question is: Are you weird or are they?” It was a rhetoric question and easy to guess that he considers me to be a little off.

This never happened to me when I lived in France. This disbelief (by French, German and other people equally) that I really am voluntarily in this country, that I freely chose to learn the language. And all that even though I don’t even have family ties to country or region. Never did anybody shake their head, or said back home how brave I was. Everyone was excited and had many great stories to tell about their love for France.

If we from the assigned West move eastwards of the German borders we often encounter many questions, strange perceptions, different challenges and those often lack sufficient answers at home. Even more, there are many questions that have not yet been raised. And the further away we move from these borders, the stranger Europe appears to be to us. This strangeness, fortified by the political chaos, corruption and clientelism in South East Europe, leads often enough to the conclusion that there is only one solution: We must bring these countries closer to  us and to our way of living-together and leading-states. I don’t want to discuss here what I  – a pro-European liberal thinker, feminist and environmentalist – think, because that would go too far, but it certainly strikes strangely that this meeting seems to be conditioned by one side only.

During my BA studies I realized that I cannot understand Central and Eastern Europe in the same categories and with the same theories than I had done before with Western states and societies. It was hence a purely logical decision to go study in Poland. I wanted to learn in the country, from Poles.

Just like that it is a purely logical decision to be in Macedonia now. In my academic research I deal with EU foreign policy, especially concerning EU enlargement from both the EU and the non-EU country perspective. Macedonia is in a crucial, yet difficult phase at the moment. The country is often praised as positive example in the region after it overcame the domestic turmoil in 2017. But the government must deliver now and before that isn’t happening, EU accession is not as certain as it seems at times. The country must change more than just its name to become a member of the European Union.

On all of that I can read the news and analyses, I can talk to friends. But to really get an insight into the atmosphere and situation in the country it is inevitable that I visit the country, at least for a few weeks. Central and Eastern Europe, as well as South Eastern Europe are – geographically speaking – a lot closer to us than we often believe. Whatever happens in these regions has an immediate effect on all of us, we are closely interwoven through the cooperation in the EU. But so far, relations are often one-sided, patronizing and complicated by a close net of stereotypes and prejudices.

Nothing proves that more than the regular astonishment that I as a German exchange my “wonderful” motherland for a life in – and let it just be temporary – Poland or even, God forbid, Macedonia.

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