In 1983, Benedict Anderson developed a theory of nationalism known as the imagined community. Put simply, Anderson sought to establish how people who would likely never meet each other, and separated by vast distances, could consider themselves part of the same ‘nation’.
For Anderson literacy was key. Prior to the advent of print capitalism, the official language of most European kingdoms and empires was Latin – a language reserved for the educated ruling and ecclesiastical elite. Latin was the language of law, religion, education, and publication. However, ordinary civilians were rarely educated in this sacred language. Most spoke vernacular variants of Latin (and other root languages) that over time evolved into regionally distinct languages. With the development of the printing press in the 15th century, the printing industry surged – requiring expansion into new markets to support this increased capacity. Latin, as a finite market, was entirely superseded by cheap vernacular editions of texts for consumption by the masses.
This ascendance of the vernacular around the 16th century also roughly coincided with political upheaval in Europe that saw the weakening of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence. As rulers sought to distance themselves from the hegemony of the Church, they began to use vernacular, rather than Latin, as languages of administration – what Anderson described as “linguistic nationalism”.
As such, nationalism developed naturally alongside the evolution of language as a means of distinguishing and delineating national communities. Through this print revolution, people across vast distances became aware of their belonging to a common national community, with common histories, cultural practices and origin myths.
According to Anderson, this process was unself-conscious in that nationalisation was not imposed upon the population. A modern example of this would be the nation-building of Israel. More than half a century before the establishment of the modern state of Israel, Zionists had established the restoration of the Hebrew language as an essential pre-requisite for national restoration. Hebrew, and its intimate connection with the Jewish faith, served as a symbolic means of establishing a distinct Israeli linguistic identity while standardising the common history, mythology, and experience to promote common linkages between Jewish people internationally.
Conversely, nationalisation fails when it does not evolve naturally – imposed from above by ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ who seek to use language and culture as means of asserting power. This has been the case of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). From its inception, FYROM has been involved in four complimentary disputes surrounding the credibility of its national identity; with Serbia over religion, Bulgaria over language, Albania over territory, and Greece over culture. It is no coincidence that the young Balkan state has issues with all of its neighbours – cultural entrepreneurs drew directly from surrounding influences to construct and legitimise the modern syncretic ‘Macedonian identity’.
Present-day FYROM was under the control of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th century, however it wasn’t until the tail end of the 19th century that the inhabitants of the region began to construct a separate identity. Rather than evolving out of a clear linguistic or cultural distinction from neighbouring powers, FYROM’s “Macedonian” nationalism was the product of regional power-balancing between Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria during a time in which each were engaged in protracted national liberation campaigns against the Ottoman Turks.
Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria sought to undermine each other’s efforts to claim the territory now known as FYROM by deliberately promoting versions of “Macedonian nationalism” that incorporated aspects of their own national identities. The Bulgarians sought to utilise century-old ties with the territory to encourage annexation and the integration of the “Macedonian (FYROM) Church” into the Bulgarian Orthodox Exarchate (which was at the time vying for its own ecclesiastical independence). The Serbians, on the other hand, provided support to FYROM nationalists as a means of establishing a buffer against Bulgaria, recognising Slavic Macedonians as ethnically and linguistically distinct from Bulgaria. Other powers, including Greece and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also recognised the existence of a distinct “Slavic-Macedonian” (SlavoFyromian) identity as a means of preventing other Balkan powers from assuming control over the region.
A consequence of this political chess game was the promulgation of a “Slavic-Macedonian” nationalism that became entrenched over the next half century. Throughout the first and second World Wars, the region of FYROM fell under the control of both Bulgaria and Serbia before later joining Yugoslavia. With the ever-present threat of defection to Bulgaria remaining, Yugoslavian elites were amongst the most ardent supporters of Macedonian nationalism.
The Macedonian (FYROM) Orthodox Church was formed as a distinct entity under the authority of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and it was at this time that the myth of ethnic continuity from the times of Alexander the Great to the present day became enshrined in the national imagination of the Slavic Macedonian people. This consolidation of nationalism heralded some unintended consequences for the Serbian elite, including the Macedonian Church’s unilateral declaration of autocephaly (or, ecclesiastical independence) from the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1967.
FYROM’s ultimate declaration of independence from Yugoslavia saw an extreme proliferation in the attempt to crystallise its national identity and assert its independence in a time of regional political limbo. It did so primarily through antiquisation – an attempt to legitimise the politically-charged Yugoslavian narrative of continuity from the Ancient Hellenic Macedonians to the modern Slavic inhabitants of the region. Examples of this included the erection of statues celebrating Alexander the Great and Phillip II of Macedon, the use of the Vergina Sun on the nation’s flag, and the naming of airports, highways, town squares and other major pieces of infrastructure after Ancient Greek figures. The need to establish these cultural boundaries was made clear when Bulgaria, the first country to formally recognise FYROM’s independence, refused to recognise the FYROM people and language as distinct from Bulgarian, instead categorising it as a linguistic subgroup of the Bulgarian nation.
The complaints by Bulgaria, which persist to this day, were mirrored by the Serbs over the still-unrecognised FYROM Orthodox Church, and the Greeks over cultural forgery and implicit irredentist claims over the Macedonian region of Greece. This political dispute with Greece has led to the further crystallisation of the “Macedonian” identity, as years of Greece’s vetoing the nation’s integration into Europe’s economic and security architecture have provided nationalists with a scapegoat for the nation’s poor political and economic performance.
The other ongoing issue is the treatment of the nation’s Albanian minority, which represents more than 25 per cent of the country’s population. Albanians have long desired autonomy in the region and have viewed the nation-building exercises by Yugoslavian and later FYROM elite as an attempted erasure of the region’s Albanian history. In 2001, Albanian nationalists were engaged in a violent insurgency that left tens of thousands displaced, with low-scale insurgency continuing in Albanian-majority regions since. In what were classed ‘illegal referendums’ by Skopje, a clear majority of FYROM Albanians voted for autonomy. Ongoing issues regarding human rights and equality persist.
This phenomenon of authoritarian identities – nationalism imposed from above – has manifested itself elsewhere in the world, perhaps most effectively in Azerbaijan.
Like FYROM, Azerbaijan did not exist as a distinct ethnic group until the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Similarly, the formation of a distinct Azeri identity was promoted by Turkey – an ethnic kin state – that sought to sow the seeds of division in Persia, where the Azeri people resided. In actuality, Azeris were a Turkic people who had come under the control of the Persian Empire, adopting aspect of cultural practice while maintaining their Turkic language and majority Shi’a religion.
Implicit in the construction of the Azeri identity was territorial expansionism in the form of pan-Turkism, the desire to create an uninterrupted Turkic belt from Anatolia to Central Asia. The only inhibiting factor was the Armenian nation – an ethnic group that had resided in the region for in excess of 3,000 years. Over the course of the 20th century the Azeri state began to target Armenia, not only through physical persecution and economic isolation, but through cultural appropriation. This began, like the “Slavic Macedonians”, with claims of regional ethnogenesis. This was followed by attempts to claim Armenian national cultural icons as ethnically Azeri, and eventually blatant territorial claims over historically Armenian land.
Today, according to the Council of Europe, an entire generation of Azeris have been brought up on an officialised anti-Armenian rhetoric, with Armenians barred entry from Azerbaijan on the basis of ethnicity, and Armenian sympathisers routinely detained on politically motivated charges.
As such, there is an inherent danger with the emergence of these authoritarian identities. As they tend to be relatively new and ungrounded in history, they require the suppression of competing ethnicities as a means of maintaining cultural hegemony.
In the case of FYROM, this has resulted in the abuse of the rights of minorities that had historically resided in the region – including Serbs, Bulgarians, Roma, and Greeks, amongst others.
Examples include the European Court of Human Rights condemnation of FYROM’s dissolution of a Bulgarian political association for violating Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights on the basis of “national and religious intolerance”. Similar claims were laden against FYROM for the repeated detention and harassment of Jovan Vraniskovski, a Serbian Orthodox bishop seeking the reunification of the FYROM Church with the Serbian Church. Amnesty International found bishop Jovan to be a prisoner of conscience, and the US Mission to the OSCE expressed concern over the FYROM government’s violation of religious freedoms.
The naming dispute may appear to be trivial on the surface, but behind nationalist showboating by both sides there exists the genuine risk that appeasement would only embolden a nation that has repeatedly proven its willingness to resort to authoritarian practices in the defence of its constructed national identity.
Alexander Galitsky is a recent graduate of Political, Economic and Social Sciences (Hons) at the University of Sydney. He currently works in public affairs and political advocacy.