Public Intellectuals in Macedonia and the Names

The following article will appear in the upcoming edition of the Macedonian Human Rights Review, issue no. 29, due to be released in the coming weeks...


Located among the heights of conceit, one finds commentators of all kinds, though especially noticeable are certain academics and journalists, who present their interpretations, their prejudices, as facts; moreover, within some of them, actually, probably many of them, the desire to appear to be relevant to their milieu, which, understandably is the dream of many an intellectual, leads to an advocacy for policies that contradict not only their ideological persona, but even rudimentary standards of decency. Their expressions of knowledge are also, of course, warped by power, though they manage to perform as if the opposite is true; or to behave as if their knowledge of power is so intimate, that it permits them to insist that their perspective is an actuality which necessitates ignoring a fundamental injustice. In these cases, one is pardonably apprehensive about offering a rejoinder, as such attention is precisely what is craved. The likelihood is that direct engagement will merely lead to the further inflation of an ego that proffered personal preferences, as truth.

Some of the Arguments

Therefore we are not going to name names, rather, we are going to focus on some of the arguments utilised by those unnamed personalities; i.e. their arguments in favour of surrendering the right to self-determination. We have resolved to address this matter once more, because, of late, the number of those who shall remain nameless, appears to have risen, markedly. In essence, they are insisting that the Republic of Macedonia must change its name in order to satisfy a racist Greek version of history and thereby obtain membership of NATO and the EU. They, of course, would not put it that way.

This article is not about whether membership of the EU and NATO is desirable, though we will underline: if the notion of responsible citizenship was not something that is almost alien to the bulk of Macedonia's political elite, then it is very likely that membership would have been gained, without an altered appellation, years ago. The state would have been able to mobilise the necessary resources, to explain, in the relevant centres of power and in international judicial structures, that it is not possible to surrender what those centres, themselves, advertise as an inalienable right. Alas, Macedonia's leaders, have instead, consistently used the name issue as a weapon in the waging of party political power struggles.

Among the debris of the collateral damage engendered by those unscrupulous feuds, one can find the thinking of those thinkers who are asserting, that, it is imperative to alienate the inalienable: "my country is too weak to do anything about it". Too corrupt, actually. A serious, principled discussion about the names would also inevitably and usefully lead to a conversation about Macedonia's gravest problem - the widespread anomy in Macedonian society.

Remarkably, a number of our cerebral warriors, had been on record and on principle, unamenable to designing new designations during the Gruevski years; now that SDS has firmly put the issue back on the negotiating table, not that DPMNE ever really took it off, they have chosen to refute their former selves with zest, in order, one may suppose, to satisfy a misapprehension of how they might make themselves useful and avoid relevance depravation.

The right to self-determination is important but, "well, actually, we are Slavs, Macedonians are a Slavic nation"; or "identity is a very deeply personal thing, nobody can take it away from you, even if names are changed"; or "we really don't have anything to do with Antiquity, so a name change reflecting that is in order"; "we need to compromise, only the crazy nationalists on our side are refusing"; or "we really are a new nation" etc, all kinds of nonsense, everything but the truth. Their truth is very simple, though it appears very few of them have the courage to utter it: "We are very aware that this is wrong, but the Republic of Macedonia cannot survive or prosper without NATO and EU membership, so we have to do it". A very questionable "truth", but at least then the real debates could begin and most of the drivel could be left behind. Who knows, candid discussions like that might even expedite a consensus that leads to a coherent policy in pursuit of winning the very winnable right to self determination.

But that path is too prosaic, too jejune, for our great sages, many of them prefer to resort to history as fables that have been agreed upon, crackpot sociology, genericising, essentialising and the promotion of blatant double standards, the very things they criticise "crazy Macedonian nationalists" for. No doubt, this is partially caused by an inability to provide serious argumentation in favour of ignoring the fundamentals of international law and dispensing with the right to self determination. With others, there is an embarrassing ignorance that equates a defence of self-determination with hateful far right nationalism. They do not appear to be aware, like one particular dullard at Balkan Insight, that "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination" is a text that was not written by a right wing nationalist, a fascist, but by a Marxist, a Bolshevik no less... Of course nationalism has long been and remains a perplexing phenomenon for Marxists, but that is another discussion.


What is vital to understand here, is that nationalism is not monolithic, there are types and the disparities are consequential. In this discourse there is not nationalism, there are nationalisms. At a very basic level, saying "I am Australian", is an expression of nationalism. Though it might perhaps be deemed relatively benign, depending on the context. Then again, there is a substantial difference between aggressive and defensive nationalism and it is painfully obvious who the aggressor is, in this context. Or is it? Well, not for some of our savants. No, some of them have taken to using sarcasm to distort the truth, to the extent that they have begun to equate the racist nationalism prevailing in Greek society, which has led the bulk of that society to believe it has the right to revoke Macedonian society's right to self determination, with the activism of Macedonians, who at bottom, are doing nothing more than attempting to protect that right. Granted, there are Macedonians who are employing ludicrous nationalist arguments to do that, but a substantial difference remains, none-the-less.

It is too simplistic to enlist the argument that nationalism is exclusively harmful and must be eradicated, full stop. We live in a world of nations and they are not about to depart from the actual to the historical. Moreover, humans create groups, if there were not national groups, there would be some other form, it seems to be part of human ontology. While the national form continues, constructive social activism should be about promoting respect between nations, not the mortification of one, a smaller, weaker one, for the benefit of a racist bully. If the bright sparks who are the focus of our discussion do not have any respect for the feelings and dignity of their fellow citizens, who consider the protection of their rights and their identity to be a serious matter, then at least they should have the sense to see they are not weakening nationalism by aiding a much more powerful and racist form of it. One needs to take heed of the fact that the most recent poll in Greece revealed over 70% of Greeks do not even accept, that the Republic of Macedonia has the right to have the word 'Macedonia' in its proposed new name. It is time to put away childish things and stop pretending there are "many" Greeks who reject nationalism, that is a fantasy designed to assuage guilty consciences.

Politics and Culture

There is another aspect to this refusal to deal with nationalism in a realistic manner. It relates to the political divide in Macedonia and it needs some explaining. In short, bluntly and without going into nuances, SDSM affiliates view themselves as intelligent, sophisticated, cosmopolitan, left of centre, progressive, modern Europeans and in general, they maintain a literal hate for VMRO-DPMNE supporters, who are deemed to be the opposite: excessively conservative, blinkered, dull, far right, out of date traditionalists and nationalists. The severe dislike is of course mutual as is the caricaturing, the DPMNE affiliates might, for example, refer to their rivals as childish, unrealistic, vegetarian dreamers and Yugomaniacs, communists no less.

In this context it is not surprising that the bulk of those public intellectuals who are now advocating for a name change, are more or less connected to SDSM. Among them there is a propensity to label anybody who advocates against name changes, as a "dumb VMROite nationalist". I have observed this numerous times on social media and to an extent it has been a successful tactic - it has led to embarrassed red faces that abruptly retreated from the temerity of having questioned the wisdom of surrendering basic human rights: "don't you see who is supporting you, who is standing behind you" ("не гледаш кој те поддржува, кој стои зад тебе") etc. Oh the horror of receiving likes on Facebook from known DPMNE affiliates.... That is how the defence of human rights is converted into something to be ashamed of, into a hateful form of nationalism. Lamentably, that false conversion is aided by the fact that there is indeed a lunatic nationalist fringe among the DPMNE supporters. Fortunately, there are left wing intellectuals in Macedonia who are not so easily shamed out of their principles, unfortunately, they appear to be dwindling in number.


The Macedonian nation is indeed new in the sense that all nations, as the word nation is presently understood in social theory, were created in modernity, i.e. during the course of the last 500 years. Yes, all nations are new, including yours, Greek nationalists. Attempting to revoke the right of a nation to self-determination, is obviously wrong, to attempt to justify it via a double standard, is doubly wrong.

That said, the Macedonian nation is not as new as the heroes of our story seem to think; it was not created ex nihilo by Tito, post 1945. The sociological basis of the Macedonian nation developed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, substantially, though not solely, as a response to the emotional and physical abuses of Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian nationalism. We are referring to the brutal, often murderous efforts of those nationalisms to impose their respective national identities, their names, on the bulk of the inhabitants of Macedonia, in order to justify annexing Macedonia. Over the course of decades, prior to and after the annexation and partition of Macedonia in 1913, an ever increasing number of Macedonians began to reject those divisive and hateful national impositions. In the process of that rejection, they augmented a form of social solidarity encapsulated by the name: Macedonian. "I am not Greek or Bulgarian or Serbian, I am Macedonian". Thus it is, by spurning a defence of Macedonia's right to name itself or the right of its inhabitants to name themselves and their language, one is practically supporting the maintenance of a violent nationalist tradition that is well over a hundred years old.

Given that context, one is able to grasp why it is too simplistic to say that Macedonians were created as a "Slavic nation". That sort of description involves a genericisation that undermines the meaning of an identity or worse still, an untenable essentialism, that the average Greek nationalist simply adores: "yes, you are uncultured, inferior, 6th century intruders". Linguists do use the term "Slavic languages" or "Slavic speaking nations" but as a convenient generic shorthand, not as a means to undercut the specificity of a culture, by permanently affixing the Slav label as a suffix or prefix to an identity marker. And in any case, the basis for suggesting such a name change is on principle, unacceptable, again, it is most definitely about surrendering one's right to name oneself in order to please racists, whose racism involves aspects of both cultural and biological racism. And the same of course applies to all other suggestions, northern, upper and etc.

And no, identity is not locked away deep inside the individual, away from and cut off from everyone else; identity is constructed socially, in relation to others, in interaction with others, without others, there is no identity and therefore it matters very much, how others treat you, how they refer to you. This is sociology 101.

We shall end by admitting it is fanciful to believe we will succeed in moving many or even any of our nameless colleagues, who apparently do not care much about names, to reflect on the way they are treating their fellow citizens; or succeed in convincing them to find the courage to agree on what should be generally agreeable, even with rank and file affiliates of the opposing political party. Nor are we likely to succeed in convincing them to at least be more forthcoming, more earnest, about their motivations. You might say that a more diplomatic approach is needed. That might be the case, though we decided the hour is too late for mincing words and while we may fail abysmally in relation to those who are the main focus of our attention, we might succeed in causing some of their devotees, to doubt them.

George Vlahov

Melbourne 10/2/2018

P.S. Interestingly, the latest news from Macedonia indicates that the leaderships of SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE are more and more in agreement on changing names, it just might be, that the rival party executives, have more, much more, in common with each other, than what is popularly thought.