Forgetting who you are: the long-term danger to Macedonia
As we take a pause in the so-called “name negotiations” (the next talks between the foreign ministers are scheduled for May 3 and 4 and both ministries aren’t talking to the public), I’m going to start with something which may seem, at first brush, a bit outlandish. Consider this: there are only four (4) ethnic Kereks on the planet.
Let that sink in, for just a moment of your valuable time. Four ethnic Kereks. On the planet. “Well,” you might say. “Who are the Kereks, anyway?” “It really doesn’t matter much,” I might enjoin. “They’re about to be completely extinct,” I’d retort rather brusquely, “so why bother learning about them now?”
If I have piqued your interest, the Kereks are (or perhaps as of this moment, were) an ethnic group in Russia. “During the twentieth century, Kereks were almost completely assimilated into the Chukchi people” according to Dr. Wikipedia (there are almost 16,000 people identifying as Chukchi). I told you this would be a bit outlandish but it is outlandish to make a point. At one point in the past there were more Kereks. And now there are none. Why? I don’t know entirely, but an educated guess is that they forgot who they were; they allowed themselves to be absorbed by others.
If the outcome of these talks creates a new “name” for Macedonia, then over time the identity of Macedonians as Macedonians will fade away, gradually at first, and then rapidly over time. That is a fact, backed up by history as history is literally littered with people groups that no longer exist. Now, as the identity of the Macedonians fades away the identity of others will continue to grow and expand as this is a natural outcome of any ethnic group which promotes its culture, history, language, etc. As this happens ethnic Albanians in Macedonia (and their kin and kith in Kosovo and Albania), next-door Bulgarians who insist that Macedonians are Bulgarians, Greeks whose goal it is to erase any talk of an ethnic Macedonian identity, and next-door Serbs who believe that Macedonia really is “South Serbia” will all continue to assert their identity at the expense of the rapidly shrinking Macedonian identity. (To put it bluntly and to use an American idiom “Use it or lose it.”)
On the face of it, nothing is wrong with the identity of these groups continuing to grow and expand on different levels — that’s what ethnic groups should do (contrary to what the EU believes). But what happens when one (or more) ethnic identities grow, but another shrinks, especially within the same location? What happens when there is a vacuum? “Power abhors a vacuum” is a true statement.
One could assert that when the identity of the Macedonians fades, other identities will work aggressively to fill that void. This, in turn, will weaken the structure and state of the Republic of Macedonia to the point that sometime in the future, either the citizens will say “let’s call the whole thing off” and split up the country, parceling it out to its neighbors, or its neighbors will say “there is no sense in calling this a functioning state of people calling themselves ‘Macedonians’ anymore, so let’s work with the neighbors of this country and the international community to parcel it out.” This is certainly a scenario that many in the aforementioned countries and ethnicities would like to see — and achieve. Real life examples include the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Belgium, and others, all in danger of breaking apart (I’m being a bit simplistic here with Canada, for instance, as it is mostly a creedal nation but does have a strong French identity in the Quebecois.)
It is a simple and yet profound truth that in order for anything to grow, it must be nurtured over time. The converse, however, is also true: for it to shrink, it must be starved over time to the point of death. This issue of knowing — and never forgetting — who we are is vital to our identities, and, as it turns out, vital to our security as nations, and as nation-states. Consider the wisdom of the past. George Orwell wrote “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history” while Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn asserted “To destroy a people, you must first sever their roots.” And Milan Kundera, in “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” told us “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history…. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was.” In Warsaw, Poland at the start of his second foreign trip last year, President Donald Trump told the Polish people and the world “Our adversaries, however, are doomed because we will never forget who we are. And if we don’t forget who are, we just can’t be beaten.”
Policy makers, academics, the think-tanks, CSOs and politicians in the US and EU rightly assert that it is vital for Macedonia to remain as an independent nation-state because this will strengthen regional security. At the same time they are working to achieve the eradication of the Macedonian identity which will, as outlined above, have the exact opposite effect. The strengthening of identity and the defense of democracy (and the nation-state) go hand-in-hand. Author Natan Sharansky, a Soviet-born Israeli, in his book “Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy,” introduces readers to his belief that our identity as both individuals and as groups of people is vital to defending and protecting democracy and freedom. He writes: “Not only are strong identities vitally important to individuals who hope to lead a life of purpose, they are essential for the ability of a democratic nation to defend its cherished freedoms. One universal quality of identity is that it gives life meaning beyond life itself. Identity, a life of commitment, is essential because it satisfies a human longing to become part of something bigger than oneself. Democracy asserts the value of freedom; identity gives a reason for freedom….Without identity, a democracy becomes incapable of defending even the values it holds most dear.”
This is the long-term danger which Macedonia faces. The government can promote all of the 3–6–9 plans it wants but in negotiating away the identity of the Macedonian people, all of these plans will come to naught.