Macedonia: pay attention to the Balkans' early-warning system

Straddling the fault-line between Islam and Christianity, this country's changing fortunes are important.

In the past three years the capital of the republic of Macedonia has undergone a major building programme that has enlivened the drab concrete of its 1960s, post-earthquake centre. The Skopje 2014 project includes a series of reconstructed neoclassical civic buildings, new bridges and, at either end of the medieval Stone Bridge, statues of sandalled Greek warriors commonly thought to be Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
 
The simplified, doll-like features and gigantism of these figures imply an unfamiliarity with the very western culture that, paradoxically, they celebrate. Said to cost up to €500m ($670m), Skopje 2014 is closely identified with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his VMRO-DPMNE party, who were re-elected in 2011. The party is pro-Europe and pro-Nato and describes itself as Christian democratic. As that implies, it is usually seen as sidelining the country’s Muslim citizens, even though the Democratic Party of Turks is a member of its coalition government. The new Skopje looks backwards, in a manner known locally as antiquisation, to a resolutely western classical antiquity that the government of today claims as the country’s own. This claim is exacerbating already difficult relations with Greece, Bulgaria and, to a certain extent, Macedonia’s Albanian community.
 
As so often in the Balkans, the difficulties are with narrative. The country is termed Fyrom – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – within the UN at the insistence of Greece, which, under the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, gained a region of about 13,000 square miles that is also known as Macedonia. The treaty also granted territory to the modern republic’s other neighbours, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Greece claims that for today’s state to call itself Macedonia implies territorial ambition. Bulgaria, though unfazed by the name, claims that the present government is spreading anti- Bulgarian propaganda.
 
Balkan narratives are notoriously dangerous. Roughly two-thirds of the republic’s population of just over two million is Orthodox Christian and the remaining third Muslim. Approximately two-thirds is ethnic Macedonian and a quarter is ethnic Albanian; it also has substantial Turkish and Serbian communities, and at least 54,000 Roma inhabitants. In other words, Macedonia, which managed to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without drastic ethnic cleansing, straddles the region’s fault line between Islam and Christianity, making it a significant early-warning system.
 
In 2012, the EU enlargement commissioner recommended for the fourth time that the republic, an official candidate since December 2005, should start accession negotiations. For the fourth time, the EU turned down this recommendation, rather giving the Macedonian government some months’ grace to resolve its issues with Greece and Bulgaria.
 
As its neighbours join the EU and Macedonia is left behind, its economic position and stability can only deteriorate. In 2012 the IMF ranked the republic 133rd out of 185 countries by GDP, at $9.7bn.
 
In the light of all this, Skopje 2014 seems not so much folie de grandeur as common insanity. This summer there have been mass demonstrations against a government viewed by all sections of the population as out of touch and out of control. The possibility of real change in what is still a young democracy has receded for now. But this peculiarly vulnerable – and very beautiful – country remains the Balkan canary. We should pay attention when it sings.
A statue of Alexander is lowered into the central square in Skopje, 2011. Photograph: Ognen Teofilovsky/Reuters.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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