The Ugly Face of National Pride

It was bound to happen. And it did. I can’t really say finally, but here I am, perplexed and unsurprised.

This article originally appeared on 11 March in BalkanInsight

This weekend, I was driving through the very busy streets of Thessaloniki, in a car with Skopje license plates. After more than fifteen years of regularly visiting the city, fifteen years of dreading this moment, knowing it would happen, I was verbally and physically assaulted for what the assailant thought I was: a Macedonian.

I won’t give the bigot the credit of recounting the entire story. And in the end real life rarely makes for a good story anyway. No, I will use the incident as an introduction to my text. And this is as far as this kind of people will make it into my world: an intro, and at the utmost a coda. The festering appendix that needs to be cut out.

The thing is that his action was aimed at someone who in reality is not at all or very little different from him, a Greek. Here we have two nations competing for age and exclusive rights to physically and mentally possess a territory and its history, unloading uncounted amounts of poison at each other, while happily doing business together, especially the good, old, pre-national cross-border stuff that fills pockets and leaves state budgets empty. And the result? Lots of poisoned minds, full pockets. Well, some pockets.

Greek, top-down nation-making always set its priorities on forming a compact and uniform nation by negating ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity. Of course it went beyond negation, and enforced a policy of at times violent assimilation, even of its “own” population, for instance the refugees from Asia Minor.

While they were forced to speak Greek and only Greek, the actual refugee camps continued to exist for decades. I have reasons to believe that to those people it mattered very little whether they were of ancient descent or not. Many of them faced discrimination until the end of their lives for not speaking Greek properly.

Macedonia is trying to impose a state view on descendence, according to which now all of a sudden Macedonians are to ignore their Slavic identity and feel the ancient vibrations rippling through time from Alexander and his men. Oh, and women, sure, yes, sure.

Given the energy and resources allocated, and given a level of education not different to the Greek one, it might turn out to work. National engineering with a century and a bit of a retard effect. Sure, it might just work. Why not? Is there anyone holding reason against it? Not really strongly, no. And what about the quarter or so of the population that doesn’t see itself in this picture? Well, they claim to have the rights on Alexander’s mother, so there we go. Equitable representation, as guaranteed by the book.

In both cases the results are relatively irrelevant to the wellbeing of the people. Nation-making in the ethnic sense in a globalised world is as relevant as the proverbial sack of rice falling off a truck in China. It is much more challenging and important to find an answer to the burning economic and social problems of the population. And here neither Greece nor Macedonia seem to have found an answer.

Greece though has profited from the naïve and romantic sympathy of a Western European bourgeois and classically educated class, which until very recently and in the tradition of Byron and others equated the modern Greek Balkan type of state with the grandeur of Hellenic civilisation. That and of course the country’s geo-strategic position in the cold war earned it a membership in the European Community at the time.

Only in the current crisis has this sympathy received a serious blow when it became more than obvious even to the most benevolent that at the core of the modern Greek state there is little space for Hellenist ideas. This space is taken by a political, religious and economic oligarchy, managing the system in the good, old traditional cynical ways of clientelist systems.

The revolting and saddening result is to be witnessed every day in the streets of Greek cities. Personalised politics, dynasties leading the country to ruin and a church that had managed to establish itself above the law. That is the reality, and there it matters not whether the impoverished former member of a frail middle class in the street is a descendant of an antique civilisation or merely an offspring of people who happened to be in a certain place at a certain period.

What matters is that this middle class was created by people living off the almighty state administration, a machinery that at a certain stage got out of hand and only reproduced itself, producing a crisis. A simple story, and it happened in front of everybody’s eyes, with EU subventions feeding the monster.

To anyone in the know about Macedonia’s reality, the description above does not sound unfamiliar at all. A hypertrophic state sector, being fed both by political power groups and the requirements of equitable representation of minority communities, is failing on a daily basis to produce a social and economic reality that would ensure a decent living to a vast majority of the population. And so does an identity imposed top-down, especially when it implies wasting valuable resources on projects like “Skopje 2014”.

Economic failure and national hubris are the ingredients that spawn movements like the Greek “Golden Dawn”, which feed on hatred and envy, the classic values of the anti-urban low-life. The recent clashes in Skopje should be a warning that inciting hatred and violence can very easily become the spirits one can’t recall.

As for the piece of human filth that inspired this text, well, I stick to my promise. I would have liked to see the look on his face had he found out that I am German. Coda & end.

Vision? Hmmm…

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