My heart-felt ‘adieu’ to a failing Macedonia

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…

  1. Anna Milovanovic said:

    Hello Mr. Schenker, I see you have just ended your Macedonian blog-and I may just be starting mine. I wrote my first blog on Balkan Insight yesterday. If you have the time, I would like to get in contact with you and hear of your experience in writing about Macedonia (impact, hurdles, audience, etc). And if you are interested in reading my blogpost, here it is
    Thank you, Ms. Milovanovic

    • Harald Schenker said:

      I read it and I liked it. Well done!

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