One of my favourite writers, Viktor Erofeyev, and one of the world’s most popular ones, Orhan Pamuk, whom I don’t particularly enjoy, received a literary award in Skopje yesterday.

Nothing special, one might think. Except that in today’s Macedonia, which has developed into a mono-cultural desert with less and less oases, an event like this is a real sensation. No wonder that the national theatre was filled to overload.

Wait, what? The national theatre, right? And this is where my story begins.

The location. In a country of this size and ruled the way it is, everything is political. Choosing the new national theatre, this abject depiction of cultural ignorance, as the scene of the award ceremony was a political act. I can’t possibly believe anyone would be naïve enough to think otherwise. It is in the nature of things that an event of this size and in this very location would be hijacked by the political “elite”. It was to be expected to have photos of senior politicians posing with books in their hands that would send shivers down their backs, should they ever read them. But we can safely assume that they never will. I wonder how Erofeyev and Pamuk felt in this papier mâché scenery. But of course nobody asked them, or even told them where they were.

Information on Macedonia may be scarce, but it is available nevertheless. Two writers of this weight could have influenced the setting, could have avoided closeness to a political class of questionable reputation. Why they didn’t, they only know. It probably comes with the full agenda of stardom. It is almost like they have become protagonists in Erofeyev’s latest novel, “The Akimuds”.

The actors. Like so often in Macedonia, the two writers, who should have been the main actors, were degraded to being supporting acts in a show of political provincialism. They became passive witnesses of the display of local power, personified in the massive presence of the aforementioned “elite” at the ceremony. I wonder how many of these people even knew or cared what the occasion was. See and be seen by those who count, re-affirm one’s position in the clientelist hacking order, that is what official cultural events have degenerated to.

Both writers are known as being critical towards political reflexes like the one à la mode in Macedonia. The presence of the political “elite” at this event could be interpreted as pure cynicism. But it is most likely the result of the kind of bliss emanated by those of little knowledge. Be it as it is, the absurdity of the scene remains.

The “scandal”. A province play without the village fool would be simply boring, wouldn’t it? Thank the muses this one didn’t have to do without. Without bothering about such details as facts, the media scene’s incumbent village fool asked Orhan Pamuk whether he was aware that he received the award from the likes of Lukashenko. This was news to me. I may not know much about Lukashenko, but I totally missed that he seems to run a publishing house. I might have to look into the matter… I was assured however that after busting the event, the actor did not set himself on fire. I am relieved.

The conclusion. You expect one? Really? Not from me, sorry.

 

 

 

Vision? Go write a book…

This article originally appeared on 28 August in BalkanInsight

 

It is a tradition that last interviews and columns are especially candid. So be it. This is my last, so let’s get on with it.

Where is Macedonia today, compared to the shaky, insecure and unstable structure I found when I first arrived in 1999? There are many ways to answer this and what could follow is a detailed analysis of progress factors and stepping-stones.

I leave that to others. I shall stay on the short and subjective side. I won’t mention any activities I was involved in, or actual political issues.

To me, and it gives me much pain to put this into plain words, Macedonia is in great danger of becoming a failing model. It is a structure that has not sought, and hence has not found, answers to crucial questions. I fail to understand how this can be, but I have to state it – that the intellectual carelessness of its self-styled elites is not only astonishing; it is an attitude that may cost them very dearly.

I am a great advocate of individual nonchalance when it comes to actually living an alternative attitude and life-style to the narrow minded, anti-urban and rather disgusting national stuck-up-ness of those dominating the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and increasingly also the DUI.

But that does not absolve thinkers from developing alternatives; it does not absolve them from actively seeking and offering an alternative. The process of Macedonian (and here as always I mean this beyond ethnic categories) nation making is far from over; in fact it has entered a third, destructive phase and nobody seems to mind.

So little, that nobody seems to think about how a next phase might look, the one that undoes the damage. Strategies? None.

After the model of a national state of the Nineties and the post-Ohrid changes of the 2000s, installing de facto a bipolar power-sharing model, the model of this decade, as designed by its political actors, seems to be one of disintegration – a return to the familiar stable odour of petty national egoisms.

Power sharing has degenerated into ethnic ignorance and disinterest. Governing is happening in ethnically segregated segments of the administration, to each their clientele, so that the money-making machinery can run unharmed.

The rest is threats, intimidation and pressure, a silenced media and a population living in fear of losing the little they have.

I imperatively call for the development of a serious alternative to this way of destroying a society and ruining a country. Where are all the thinkers that this society once prided itself on? Where is the intellectual resistance? If it does not emerge, I fear the worst.

By intellectual resistance I do not mean the impotent political posers of an opposition that has left itself destitute of legitimacy and hope – a clientele group left without a patron, which has not been able to formulate a single idea recently.

All the SDSM and its allies have come up with in recent years are cries of outrage at their opponents’ ruthless way of governing. Well, the people who remember the Nineties are still around. That will work well especially with those who were exposed to the ruthless seizure of social assets back then. Sure.

The role of an opposition in a system in which the government seems unable to resist the temptations of totalitarianism is to be radically different. Instead of merely parroting government decisions by condemning them, I would like to see real concepts and ideas put forward to the public. I would have liked to see a real shadow government with real initiatives, instead of political theatre.

But in the political space where there should be an opposition, there is nothing but a void, since everything else would imply real, hard work. And it does not come as a surprise, since, in the end, all these structures are the result of the same essentially flawed concept of perceiving politics as just another manifestation of the patronage system.

No political or ethnic party, with the possible exception of VMRO-DPMNE, has a clear concept of what it wants this small society to evolve into. And the only existing one is so outlandish that it normally would be material for a series of jokes.

Only, in Macedonia reality outdoes any joke. “Skopje 2014” is the architectural materialisation of a permanent social and intellectual apocalypse, in which society is exposed to the intellectual equivalent of gang rape in the name of stubbornness, in the name of a collective inferiority complex of pathological dimensions, in the name of revenge by a group that knows deep down that it will never be the elite, no matter how hard they try. The authors of this anti-urban monstrosity will never be able to even understand the narrow-mindedness of their deeds. But the damage they are doing is probably irreparable.

Prostitution of artistic and intellectual mediocrities in the name of a career in the long shade of the powerful fills entire libraries, so I won’t waste virtual space on them. Suffice to say that their desperate apologetic attempts are nothing short of disgusting.

About the successful silencing of the media in Macedonia enough has been said. What I fail to understand here is the lack of vision of the major donors. The imperative now is to pool resources and create a strong threefold media outlet: a TV station, a newspaper and a website, which would be shielded from government interference.

What is happening in reality? Radio Free Europe may close its service, after BBC has already done so. And Voice of America. Oh well. I wonder what it would take to wake up donors and remind them that their responsibility is not primarily with their respective programs and managers, but the beneficiaries. Surely a lot more than this appeal.

Let’s now get to my favourite, the so-called civil society, some of them my friends and colleagues, others people I worked with, and others, finally, people I tried to work with. To all of them I have harsh words: civil engagement is not a job.

Civil engagement cannot be equated to euros. As long as Macedonia’s civil society sector continues merely to be a job-generating machine, you cannot expect social change, except for those working in the sector, of course.

The new, donor-driven bourgeoisie has installed itself comfortably and conformably in the centre of society, from where it aspires to more and learns to despise the have-nots, while not so secretly living in fear of being next to join those have-nots – if they are found too critical either of the power structures or the donors themselves. This is the material that kills social change.

To makes things worse, it produces a buffer layer, which is resistant to pressure from those who it should work for but highly responsive to pressure from above. Someone – I can’t remember who, maybe it was even myself – called this phenomenon the belt of opportunism keeping society together.

Activism, or the pose of activism, has become fashionable, to be worn with a dose of leftist allure. It does not occur to these mostly young people that this is not the place for pop icons like Che Guevara, that there is not a revolution going on, that this is not a class struggle (in which most of them would be the class enemy anyway), it is simply an attempt to construct a society, unsexy as this may seem.

This is not the time and place for anti-globalism and criticism of capitalism, because Macedonia is neither really connected globally nor do the strongly state controlled economy and the equally controlled market qualify as capitalism. Imported ideas and slogans may look cool, but mostly miss the point. The point is the people.

Bringing down a government is not something you can achieve with a few hundred, even with a few thousand, people in the streets. It requires work and dedication. It requires an idea. But this is where much of it ends. Aligning with (opposition) political parties is as far as this activism goes. No wonder it has been at every step threatened by hostile take-overs. Little thought is given to concepts of a different society here, too. Substituting the ruling patronage groups with their nemesis will not do.

Building a society implies creating a conceptual space in which visions and ideas can be disputed. Since state institutions and academia largely failed here, there is a need for another type of space.

The government’s manic obsession with occupying the public space and dominating any debate can only be countered by ignoring it, evading it and creating an alternative, growing reality. Tying energies into reacting to every official statement is a waste of capacity.

Real activism and opposition consists in closing the space for the government machinery and in ridiculing its stuck-up-ness, offering better ways, visible to anyone. Real activism means taking risks, acting strongly, showing force. But there is a long way to go until there.

In the meantime people are leaving, both the best qualified and the low paid. With Macedonia at the bottom of the direct foreign investment table, with only half the volume going to Kosovo, there are serious grounds for fearing that an economic and financial model based on a stable denar is reaching its limits. But there is no public discussion about the implications. Passivity everywhere, and blind trust in fate.

But fate itself is blind, dear friends; unless you take it by its hand and show it where to act, there will be no change. As I said in the beginning, Macedonia could fail. It may do so, not because of external problems, as the government tries to make everyone believe, but because of the passivity of its own citizens.

Then again, elections might be around the corner, again. This will be another major opportunity for citizens to publicly show their allegiance and convince at least fifteen others to do so. Or else. Or will they?

I wanted to close with a few words about the president, but I realise a mechanical reluctance in my typing fingers, and decide to give in. So this blog ends with no words about the president. Maybe I should… Nah!

 

 

Vision? You’re fading…

Since it is available only in print and in Macedonian language, here is an English translation of the interview given to Republika, which was published on 9 August.

Is there any future for the Greek-Macedonian relations since Samaras refused to meet with Gruevski? What can get Greece back to the negotiation table?

 One look at the border crossings with Greece shows that there are relations and that there is need to normalize these relations. I don’t know if Gruevski and Samaras are the ones who will solve this issue, but I doubt it. Courage is certainly not going to be the reason for both of them to go down in the history of their countries.

Greece doesn’t have great interest in negotiating about this problem and I am convinced that this interest can be stimulated only by pressure from the EU and the USA. However, the bigger question here is whether the Macedonian government is ready for a serious step forward. It is illusory to think that time works in favour of Macedonia, having in mind the regional context and especially Macedonia’s internal economic and financial situation. The latest statements of Gruevski and especially Ivanov are very worrying in this respect.

According to you, where does the problem lie? Why have the negotiations in the UN not brought about results even after 18 years?

 The problem was created artificially and is based upon a hysterical reaction of one government of Greece. That government was faced with a possible implosion of parts of the national mythology, upon which the modern Greek state was created.

The problem is that now a rational solution has to be found for an utterly irrational problem. While the solution was not imperative during the nineties, the situation requires it now. The EU will not allow entry to a country that has an unsolved problem with another member state. Whether this approach is fair or not, that can still be discussed for decades. That is the reality and that is that.

A simultaneous problem is that a national mythology based on exclusivity is ruling in both countries. The academic and politico-social mainstream in both countries accept only one reality, while at the same time vehemently contesting the others’.

All that could be solved if in both countries there were elites, which were really interested in furthering their country. Had there been political elites in both countries, for which the public interest is larger than the personal one, this artificial problem would have been solved a long time ago. But obviously responsibility and courage are outdated categories, as are moral and ethical behaviour.

Is there any space for bulldozer-diplomacy as we have seen it in the nineties?

Diplomatic efforts in the nineties were aiming at the stabilisation of a very fragile structure, of a new state. Today, Macedonia is fully capable to make its own decisions. This includes the right to make mistakes.

Macedonia is not in an acute crisis, for the solution of which international efforts would be needed. The permanent crisis is a home-made problem, which can be solved in a democratic way. So, the answer is no.

As an independent analyst, which are your suggestions for overcoming the dispute? What are you proposing concretely?

Far from me to have concrete suggestions. I think this is your government’s job. And its responsibility, too. It is clear that such a dispute has to end with a compromise, or it won’t end. It is clear that postponing this solution is holding Macedonia back and that the damage is enormous.

Now, whether the Macedonian society is ready to endure another twenty years of inactivity and manipulation by its representatives, who were elected to lead, that is an entirely different question.

Can the USA and EU play a bigger role in the negotiations with Greece?

Yes. But the question is if they are going to do so. To be honest, for that to happen there is need for clear signals from the Macedonian side that there is readiness for a compromise solution. The confrontational anti-Western and anti-European course of the Macedonian government bodies and the nationalist rhetoric do not help. Also the decline of democratic values, which is happening in the country at the moment doesn’t help. About the infantile logic behind the project “Skopje 2014” I don’t even want to talk.

For someone to help, you must show that the help is really welcome. Here Macedonia has lost a lot of support among European countries and individuals in the last few years. A lot of effort will be needed to return that support.

Is there truth in Samaras’ thesis that it is not Greece, but the EU that slows down Macedonia?

I think that his statement referred to the fact that the reforms have slowed down. And yes, there is truth in that. European integration can only happen by the way of reforms and the democratisation of society. The general assessment on Macedonia can be found in the EU reports. If you remove the governmental filter laid over the Macedonian media and read the reports in their entirety, you will see that this is the reality.

Now, if Samaras is really a reference point for successful governance, that is a different issue. It is difficult to expect a productive approach from a person who built his political career exploiting this invented conflict.

What is your general assessment of the inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia?

Inter-ethnic relations are an empty phrase behind which clear political and business interests are hidden. Whenever some political, economic or criminal group ( and here the borders between them is pretty fluid) sees profit in this – as it regularly happens before elections , they push the button “worsened inter-ethnic relations” in sync with the button “conflict situations” and the machinery is left to do its work.

Phony political rhetoric and bribing people as well as pressure for group loyalty and obedience – those are the ingredients of this cocktail.

As long as the political parties in Macedonia continue to function only according to the principles of clientelism and patronage, the “inter-ethnic relations” will continue to be an instrument in the hands of irresponsible politicians.

That aside, in Macedonia rapprochement and growth of ethnic distance are happening simultaneously, depending on local situations and personal interests. But what is missing, or rather what the political elites are evading consciously and irresponsibly, that is a huge package of measures and policies for the integration of society in all areas. But that would mean not only declarative, but real overcoming of concepts based on relations between an ethnic nation and national minorities and focussing on the real socio-economic and cultural needs of this country’s citizens.

The problem is that an integrated society, in which the individual is first a conscious citizen and only then a member of other groups, regardless of whether they are of ethnic, religious, professional or sexual nature, would put an end to the exploitation of the “ethnic” as a main source of power and means for the clientelist groups that dominate society.

Is real, integrated education the remedy?

No. Integrated education can be one, albeit important, measure, one part of a larger package, as I already mentioned before.

However, in the current political constellation there is not enough vision, knowledge of understanding, not to talk about courage, to implement even that measure. On the contrary, there is an open push for segregation of the education system, knowing that this is the only way to ensure a docile clientele.

The price will be very high, and no one will be able to say they hadn’t been warned. I don’t know how you expect a society to show any kind of cohesion, when you prevent the production of the glue that is needed to keep it all together. But hey, also that is a question of civic consciousness. As long as people allow themselves to be manipulated and tolerate such political decisions, as long will that centrifugal spiralling continue.

How do you comment the fact that Albanian first graders don’t have a problem learning English but reject learning Macedonian?

Students don’t reject anything; that comes from their parents, teachers and politicians.

There are several issues here. First, on a personal level. I grew up almost trilingual, and from the age of eight I started learning two additional languages. Not only do I not feel very damaged, but I actually feel privileged and will always be thankful to my parents for that support and their vision.

The problem about this rejection lies exactly in the fact that the real conflict in the background is about territorial domination, or rather ownership, or rather about the pre-modern understanding of a country as land ownership.

And I’d like to mention another problem, too: there is very good political capital one can draw from the role of saviour of the nation, of the identity. As long as the people accept this type of politician to dominate, integrated society will remain an illusion.

Still very few Macedonians are ready to learn Albanian.

Still very few Macedonians know that there is the theoretical opportunity to ask for facultative courses in Albanian language in any school in Macedonia. Why don’t they know that? Because the school headmasters forbid the teachers to inform parents and students.

The number of Macedonians who learn Albanian upon their own initiative is growing. But in the absence of information about opportunities it is not surprising that the number is still small. I would not like to inspire yet another unnecessary government campaign, but public media and the government bodies have the duty to inform the public on any activities financed with public funds. Teaching is such an activity.

Is there a mechanism to implement the Badinter principle (of qualified majority) on local level without it creating tensions?

Tensions are not created by mechanisms, but by people. Any mechanism, as perfect as it may be, can be sabotaged. In the current circumstances, in which the government policies promote divisions and polarisation and in which local actors are required to be nothing more than docile party soldiers who implement decisions made by their patrons, no mechanism could function.

The democratic system, especially on local level ´, requires permanent negotiation, permanent adaptation. But for it to function, there is need for political actors who have in mind the good of their citizens, first as individuals and only after that as part of various communities.

A small digression as a conclusion that I drew from my work with party youth: I think that the road of political parties in Macedonia to an acceptable level of internal democracy is a very long one and that in the last few years there is even regression in this field.

Are new tensions in the region possible or has the Belgrade-Pristina agreement done away with possibilities for conflict?

The Belgrade-Pristina agreement is still far from being functional, but it is a big leap forward for both countries. As for tensions – as long as the implementation of the geopolitical and security architecture of the Balkans is not finalised, meaning as long as not all countries in the region are full part of the Euro-Atlantic structures, as long there remains a risk.

Uninspired moves like the ones made by Macedonian government bodies for example with the unnecessary support for Erdogan and the flirt with Putin only increase the risk. It is an illusion to think that a country with the political and economic power of Macedonia is in a situation of choosing its friends. The Euro-Atlantic hand remains extended despite Greece’s hysterical behaviour. But not at any price. This has to be clear.

How do you assess the Macedonian government’s joint meetings with their colleagues in Belgrade and Kjustendil? Can this proactive approach ameliorate the tensions in the region?

Those meetings have cosmetic value, nothing else. Only the bilateral agreement with Bulgaria and the solution of the conflict around the [recognition of the] Macedonian Orthodox Church can lower the tensions.

What else can Macedonia do to improve the relations with Sofia and Athens?

In what sense “else”? I don’t see any serious attempts that were undertaken recently, if you leave cosmetics aside.

I have been trying to propose a courageous step for some time now: the creation of a joint commission or commissions with the neighbouring countries, which will try and find scientific answers to the historic dilemmas, as a first step towards appeasement. A second step would be an agreement on curricula contents in history and related subjects, aiming at creating a joint view on the joint history.

I am not surprised that this government would regard that approach as treason, for among many other things it would unmask the project “Skopje 2014” and show what it really is: very expensive madness. So, this is why the relations stagnate and even worsen in the case of Greece.

Can the opposition ask and receive help from abroad in its fight to bring Gruevski down, because it is obvious that it is having a hard time even after seven years of governing of VMRO-DPMNE?

Who could keep it from doing so? Every political party has sister parties and organisations around the world and has the right to act as it wishes. And it is absolutely normal for the opposition to want to bring down the government. Although I am very tempted to ask: which opposition?

Does Macedonia have a long term alternative to the EU and NATO? Everybody swears there isn’t, but still, if the EU stays closed on the long term, a way has to be found for the economy to survive.

It would be naïve and dangerous to think in that direction. EU and NATO are the only structures that can safeguard and have an interest in guaranteeing the survival of Macedonia as a state. Any alternative would be suicidal. But in the end this is the choice of the Macedonian society.

As for the economy – the moment there is enough political stability and maturity as well as an acceptable legal framework and trust in the everyday work of the judiciary, the economy will do better. But not before that.

 

 

 

Vision? Negotiate…

This article originally appeared on 2 July in BalkanInsight

It comes with the ideology, or better with its exclusivism. You are one of us, or you are against us.

No shades of grey, no alternative scenarios, reality is reduced to a dualist, tribal absurdity, which has to be underlined and enforced during every step in the process.

Demonising the other, denying his or her humanity is a primitive reflex, stemming from a period in our development as human beings, in which conflicts were about survival of the individual and the tribe.

The reflex was needed to justify the physical killing of members of the same species, a specific behaviour that very few other mammals practice. One would think that a few good centuries of development may have left behind a few cultural layers, diversifying this approach.

But when it comes to messianic ideologies and more so to their followers, these layers of cultural sediment seem to have been blown away by the winds of righteousness, leaving the barebones of human primitivism and brutality out in the sun, where they can marinate in hatred, the primordial elixir of stupidity.

Once hatred becomes the primary engine that drives a political machinery, this very machinery is doomed. It is a natural thing – the world is not as simple, as mono-minded ideologists keep on painting it. And hate is just not enough to run a system. You need a few more answers.

Besides, hatred often comes alone. It usually is the loud companion of envy-born bitterness, the other primordial instinct that made us killers and traders.

Hatred and envy, wrath and bitterness – the main ingredients, together with ignorance and lack of restraint, that make up the cocktail of the culture of the palanka, the anti-urban “hood” that has bred so many recent leaders in this region, as well as their cronies.

Macedonia is currently experiencing a wave of anti-urban rage from the top, unseen in its intensity so far to the living, because most people are too young to recall the excesses of Bulgarian fascism and early Titoist Stalinism. Hence it hits hard and surprising to most.

And it does what a shockwave does: it destroys indiscriminately, leaving festering wounds behind, wounds that society will need decades to heal from.

This weekend, a journalist and vehement critic of this government Roberto Belicanec died of a heart attack. I was not surprised, but nevertheless deeply disgusted to read the statements of a member of the leading party, in which he expresses almost unconcealed happiness at the news, as well as dozens of comments by his “friends” on social media. Human beings can get lower than that, for sure. But not much.

One of the instruments of this unleashed hatred against anything urban is the lustration commission, hidden behind the hypocritical, almost Orwellian name of “commission for the verification of facts”.

A commission acting in a legal vacuum, as there is no final ruling by the constitutional court on the legality of the law it bases its activities upon, it has specialised on lustrating dead people.

No, it is neither an act from a theatre play by Eugène Ionesco, nor is it a sketch by the Monty Pythons. Lustrating the dead is political practice in today’s Macedonia.

Sanctioned by a power group, whose main aim seems to be to shatter and destroy anything intellectual in past, present and future that is not conform to their ideology. The word for that? Go figure…

Aside the witch-hunt against people, who held functions after 1991, that is in democratic, post-totalitarian, independent Macedonia, and the legality and legitimacy of which is more than questionable. Aside the cheap party quarrels that would normally have no place in such an institution. Aside the questionable methodology and quality of its decisions.

All those affect the living , who in a state claiming to be based upon the rule of law can and do defend themselves. But the obsessive need to destroy the status of dead people is driven by deep hatred, nothing else.

The latest victim of this morbid process is a writer, Slavko Janevski, who also held a number of functions in Yugoslav Macedonia, and was one of the founders of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Regardless of the weight of the accusations against him, this is not a case for a lustration committee. It is a case for researchers or for the people he may have harmed. Don’t get me wrong, if the man was an informer, I do think that it is important for the public to hear that.

But what this needs to be is a detailed report, stating both context and circumstances of the deeds he is accused of and the facts about his failures. It is a story for a book, not for public ostracism. The latter is a despicable expression of hatred, nothing more.

Some apologists in Macedonia have compared the case to those of Günther Grass in Germany, whose Waffen-SS membership has been revealed and of Milan Kundera in the Czech Republic, who is accused of having been a police informer. This is less than nonsense.

For one, both accused are alive and can defend themselves. Secondly, neither have been subjected to lustration, but much rather research revealed the facts. This is a major difference, in as such as the Czech Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has primarily a research function.

Research, this is something that the Macedonian fact finders don’t have in their job descriptions, probably for good reasons, since a critical research of their work would reveal the real hatred-based mission they have: spill fear and loathing onto a society already contaminated by lots of other poisons. By the way, neither did Grass have to return his Nobel prize, nor was the asteroid named after Kundera renamed.

The good thing in all this is that after decades of righteous sleep, both the PEN centre Macedonia and the Academy of Sciences and Arts woke up and expressed their deep concern about the lustration, asking the commission to reconsider its verdict. Since the commission refused, both organisations instantly fell asleep again.

Here’s an idea to those driving this process. I am sure that the name John Wycliffe means nothing to them. But in the days of Wikipedia it should be easy even for a Macedonian fact verifier to look him up. Our man Wycliffe was a philosopher, theologian and so much more.

A rebel, in a word. No, not at St. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, but at Oxford. England, that is. Yes, it was before 1991, even before 1903. Well yes, a bit after Alexander of Macedon, I give you that, but still, 14th century is good enough for historic credibility, isn’t it? It is also pre-baroque, in case you didn’t realise. Anyway, John Wycliffe was exhumed and burned, and his ashes scattered, 43 years after his death. Isn’t that something to ponder upon?

While you ponder, I leave you in the hands of Slavko Janevski:

“You can ask yourself and still you won’t know: Does time die with man?”

 

Vision? Your file is safe with me…

This article originally appeared on 10 June in BalkanInsight

It is difficult these days to resist the temptation of misusing what is happening in Turkey for comparisons, which don’t work.

It is also difficult not to be inspired by what is happening in Turkey. Still unclear in its turnout, the Taksim protest has invigorated the part of Turkish society that I feel in sync with, where I feel among friends. Friends I often disagree with, but friends nonetheless.

It is the strong bond with liberty that connects us, freedom not as an abstract concept, to which immediately “nation” is added, but freedom as a way of life, or rather as savoir vivre.

And it is exactly this refusal to let anyone take away that way of life that makes the people on Taksim square winners. Not heroes, just winners. And this is why Erdogan and his middle age dogmatic construct already lost, regardless of how long his reign will last. He lost to a bunch of capulcular. Well deserved. He might try and physically eradicate them in an act of revenge, but the capulcu is a resistant species, it will prevail.

Inspiring, isn’t it?

Until I raise my head from the screen and look around, onto the everyday of a battered and beaten society. People suffering from deprivation of liberty, a liberty that they never fought to earn and thus never learned to cherish. I look at people, who let themselves be played and played with, be misused for the profit of their self-styled leaders, I see apathy and resignation.

Macedonia seems to be giving up on itself. The mob is the instrument, which the group in power uses more and more often, an amorphous mass of uneducated and aggressive people, who are given the legitimacy to trample down the feeble pillars of Macedonia’s democracy in the name of religion, of values, of tradition, etc. And with them receiving the blessing of the church and the government, who would dare saying they are wrong?

Not their opinions are wrong, those can be debated. It is their sheer existence, the occurrence of this phenomenon, which is strangling liberty in its core. How can anyone feel free to express their opinion and live according to their own concepts, when a combined machinery of repressive legislation, police force and street mob is standing ready to interfere at any time?

The combination of power and mob reminds every German of a past, without which the world would be a better place. The combination of power and mob reminds me of today’s Hungary, where you have to fear for your life if you have the wrong pigmentation. It reminds me of course  of Putin’s Russia, where the GULAG system comes back as a zombie to swallow all that is not conform with the leader’s ambitions, and sometimes even all that is conform.

If you add football hooligans and special police to the equation, you get a cocktail, which already does and will continue to cause Macedonia’s democracy chronic and painful hangovers, to be cured neither by Bloody Marys nor by Hail Marys.

It has been a while since I have been truly inspired by anything happening in Macedonia.There is this all-leveling pressure of mediocrity, with Skopje 2014 being its prime manifestation, the peer pressure downwards, the participatory opportunism, the cloning of hollow political robots, who are appointed high-responsibility positions as soon as they left the cloning facility.

But that is only one side of the medal. The uninspiring part is that there is little else. An opposition caught in finding itself will not present a real alternative for some time to come. And the rest is a strange mixture of nostalgic longing for a past that never will be and compliance in daily life.

There are creative niches, even niches of liberty, but they become more and more cornered. The mainstream discourse seems to be overwhelming in its simplicity and compelling in its offer to join the herd. The big problem with freedom is that it is a complex concept, one that demands debate, dialogue or at least exchange of ideas every moment; it is a process of constant negotiation, sometimes tiring and very often frustrating.

A civil society caught in its self-imposed dependence on donor funding and donor logic seems not to be able to find answers. It has become a machinery anyway, one that tunes and adjusts itself to the speed and direction dictated by the power structures. Even in its moves to counter these structures, it has remained reactive and frustrating in its lack of creativity.

What I am missing in today’s Macedonia is the will to be different, to create alternatives, to live alternatives to a mainstream that is becoming more and more repressive. For that one does not need the job security offered by the state administration or by donor-driven projects. One does not need the state or any other instance to grant that freedom.

It is  something that you live or you don’t. If you do, it can have a price. And Taksim square shows us that. If you don’t, the price is a different one. And I’m afraid Macedonia has just begun to pay it.

 

Vision? Perspire…

This article originally appeared on 12 May in BalkanInsight

Is everybody in? The ceremony is about to begin…

The problem with aging is that we all stop learning at some stage. The problem with living legends is that they start taking themselves for granted and way too seriously. Well, they are wrong.

It is their gift, talent, ability, whatever it may be that makes them legends. It is very, very rarely their personalities. Despite a meaningful and successful post-Doors career, Ray Manzarek, the band’s keyboarder who just passed, will not be remembered for his personality of attitude, but for his trance-inducing use of the Vox Continental organ.

Esma Redzepova. A living legend. A queen that emerged from the ghetto. A unique voice, the role model of a successful Romani woman, restless creator and performer, founder of a humanitarian foundation, foster mother of many a children, etc. This is how she likes to be perceived, the image her and her management have been creating for a few decades now.

It is an image that sells. Esma’s record production is not only impressive, but has made her popular in the most remote corners of this planet. People might not know her by name, but at the first bars of Čaje Šukarije they recognize the song and begin to wail, everyone according to their own feeling of rhythm, painful to watch at times, but liberating for the soul.

The thing about legends is that they need a narration. The Esma narration has stayed more or less constant for two decades now, it is fading together with her great voice. Age is leaving its mark.

In terms of live performance, she has produced little more than an endless series of tremolos and vibratos for quite a while now, trying to mask and fight the fact that the volume, precision and range of her fabulous voice is withering. So far this is just the usual story of an aging diva, nothing to get excited about.

If it weren’t for Esma, the politically engaged artist. I confess I know little about her role (if any) during Yugoslav times. It might not be of relevance.

But in the late nineties of the last century came the engagement with the long defunct but eternally funky Democratic Alternative, a party that promised an economic miracle by recognizing Taiwan – a recognition that went down the drain of history together with the party promoting it.

Esma has been a councillor for the city of Skopje for more than a decade now, where she excelled at… Yes, she has been doing that on the list of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. As a consequence, one could see a new Esma, for which a new narration was created – the patriotic diva.

All of a sudden her career, of which she herself used to say that it happened abroad despite the ignorance at home, turned around and became a home-run. No major event can happen in Skopje without Esma anymore.

Recently she could be admired wrapped in national colours and featuring an antiquating dress, in line with the ideological mainstream, at a welcome concert for Macedonia’s only convicted war criminal, who returned after eight years in prison.

Then came the debacle around the Eurovision contest. The video for the first song written for her and a young Macedonian singer featured Esma and her partner against most of the make-shift iconic landmarks of the “Skopje 2014” project. The song had to be dropped due to an immensely bad reception by the Macedonian audience.

The song was replaced by another one, in which Esma sang but a few lines, albeit in Romani language. The song ended up 16th from 17 runners-up to one of the semi-finals of the contest. So far, so good. It is a grotesque contest, featuring aesthetic and musical irrelevance. Losing there might not be a thing to be proud of, but then winning isn’t either.

Obviously not used to lose, Esma lashed out against the festival itself in one of the junk newspapers, claiming that the festival is “a show for homosexuals”, who grabbed her partner’s behind.

She is quoted saying “This is unheard of. Gays everywhere! This show has been take over by those who organise gay parades all over the world. I have heard many things so far, but this is the first time I saw with my own eyes what happen to this beautiful contest. No wonder we didn’t make it, because it’s clear who passes here”.

If it were just another homophobic remark, that would be bad enough. But there is more to it.  The newspaper printing this statement is notorious for its smear campaigns and Esma jumped the train of the government’s mainstream homophobic attitude.

Pity for a remark out of place? No, disgust is all there is, maybe a bit of sadness about the inability to see the larger picture. She used to sing like a goddess, she showed that real talent transcends social marginalisation, but she is about to destroy her own legacy.

Ah, čaje šukarije…

 

Vision? Sing along…

This article originally appeared on 30 April in BalkanInsight

When a politician announces to unequivocally retire, an entire salt mine usually needs to be employed for that statement.

Nevertheless, in the case of Macedonia’s opposition leader Branko Crvenkovski this might even be a true announcement. Or rather, it better be.

Macedonia is finding itself at the end of an era. With Crvenkovski retiring, the last of the relevant transition politicians would leave the scene. There are a number of others still around, but they could not survive a second without their patrons.

Let us forget them for now, for the sakes of argumentation. Justice should not forget them. But that is another story.

The end of an era also means the possible beginning of another one. Alternatively, there is the opportunity of being stuck in Purgatory, a never-ending transition to itself.

The Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) will undoubtedly undergo some changes, hopefully drastic and deep. It might live up to the task of becoming again a real social-democratic party, which takes its programme seriously and which puts itself into the service of the citizens. If not, it will fail.

And this might be seen as good or bad by different analysts, but it will change the political set-up of the country, it will upset the balance. And the first steps are being undertaken to fill that gap and reset the balance with more of the same, new parties led by the same old characters. This is not what Macedonia needs.

Today, Macedonia is paying the price for the crimes committed at the country’s very birth. From the onset, the system was based on fraud and on plain theft. That not only created fake politicians, but also a cast of more or less untouchable businessmen (the very few women among them included).

Today’s unprecedented power-grab and almost pathological need to control every corner of society is a direct consequence of the initial setting. It is not the methods that surprise most, it is just the almost religious commitment and cold-bloodedness that characterises today’s players. It is after all a younger generation, one that was formed in the dirty nineties.

Two sides of the same medal. And if we add the ethnic dimension to it, there is the third side to the same medal, i.e. a group that has perfected and developed the methods used by its predecessors in the nineties, thus making them politically irrelevant.

The question is where all this leads to. European integration has become a carrot too weak to be mentioned, and the stick has long withered away. And anyway, the EU’s approach is about institutions.

How these are supposed to work in a dysfunctional society and a highly distorted political environment is an answer that those standing behind the EU enlargement philosophy still owe us.

The socio-political cul-de-sac is more than obvious. Macedonia is stagnating or even regressing when it comes to a lot of democratic values, while progress on the EU enlargement agenda has been slowing down or cosmetically treated.

The current political setup is neither capable nor willing to address real strategic questions of importance to the internal cohesion of the society and ultimately the country.

On the contrary, the recent local elections saw the farce of ethnic coalitions between political enemies and instrumentalisation or rather misuse of diaspora voters in the name of ethnic ownership of territories.

What Macedonia’s society needs is a real alternative to the dominating politicianism that has kept it hostage for more than two decades now. What it needs is a shift in bias and an over-haul of metaphors, ultimately leading to a different political practice.

The bias needs to move away from those aiming at controlling society, away from patrons with delusions of immortality, from those who impose a continuity of diversions to disguise the fact that they need the institutionalised crisis to strive.

What is needed is a shift in bias towards the citizens, those whose individual rights are stepped upon in everyday practice, while their ethnic group rights are invoked as an excuse.

The tribe has to survive, the individual doesn’t really count is a logic that needs to be broken. And in both larger parallel societies in Macedonia, there is a lot of work to do to that end.

A shift in metaphors is equally important. This will mean moving away from an ethnically oriented, national understanding of culture and education to a more sophisticated vision based not on dreams and illusions, but on reality and on how this reality needs to be shaped.

It will have to take into account that life is happening more and more in somewhat urban conglomerations, and that the rural ideal propagated by much of traditional culture has little to do with it. Answers will have to be found to this hybrid live-style, not rural, but not yet urban, unless the turbo-folkisation of the entire society is that answer.

This shift will have to come from the very guts of society. A citizen-centred movement, real and honest, born from within society and borne by its citizens is the only answer.

A different way of addressing social and economic issues, a new discourse is needed, a discourse that is not limiting itself to replying and reacting to the power structures’ divertive creativity, but one that creates its own reality. There can be no greater provocation for power structures that to ignore them.

A state is not a company, citizens are not employees of that company. But exactly these citizens need to understand that. And this is the real role of civil society at this moment in Macedonia’s reality: to make this alternative discourse visible and understandable to the citizens. To take this discourse to them and let them develop it.

Clusters of civil awareness exist. But unfortunately the vast majority of civil society is participating in the all-over societal corruption and it will take some effort to move away from that situation. The more people start to define areas in which the dominating discourse is liberty, the more this can contribute to the shift needed.

A window of opportunity has opened, an opportunity to shift paradigms. Those who are standing in line to give their signatures for Branko Crvenkovski’s stay at the party’s leadership do not see it.

Those who think that a new party led by more of that same type of politicians will induce that change are misled. And those who need SDSM alive but in agony are cynical and powerful. It is up to the citizens to seize the opportunity.

Tomorrow is the 1st May, the day when the left lies at everybody and at itself. Wouldn’t it be great to unclutter this day of its ideological rubbish and have it mark the day when liberty started its come back to Macedonia? It would, and I am not naïve enough to think it will actually happen. But the opportunity is there. A pity if it were wasted.

 Vision? Go march…
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