Alastair Stewart: North Macedonia? Don’t you ‘North Briton’ me!

Protestors who boycotted Macedonia's referendum on changing its name celebrate the low turnout (Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Protestors who boycotted Macedonia's referendum on changing its name celebrate the low turnout (Picture: Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
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Scotland kept its national identity through maintaining a distinct heritage within the UK; but Macedonia is giving its away, writes Alastair Stewart

“Where are you from?” asked our waiter in a bustling Kalithea bar. “I’m from America, my friend is from the Netherlands, and my partner is from Scotland,” said my Macedonian fiancée. My better half kicked me into compliance under the table. The Greek waiter shook our hands, took our order and left with a smile.

My disbelief turned to anger. “Why the hell are we saying that?” It was my fiancée’s brother who murmured with silencing gesture: “We’re kind of on their turf, so, what can we do?” He subtly pointed to a nearby table and quietly translated. A group of burly Greeks with a sea of empty glasses were loudly denouncing “that place” full of “fraudsters” down the road.

Clocking my temper about to blow (without the fighting body to match), I got another kick. “There’s a time to piss on the fire and a time to let sleeping dogs lie,” my wife-to-be said. Kalithea, after all, was a mere hour away from the country in question.

That incident was the Macedonian name debate in one. That two well-educated and well-travelled Macedonians could be reduced to hiding their heritage was hard to watch. They weren’t ashamed of it, quite the opposite, but there was a palpable feeling that saying we were from Macedonia would have incited problems, if not violence.

Last month came the Prespa Agreement between Greece and Macedonia that the latter would become “the Republic of North Macedonia” after its people were asked a fatuous referendum question: “Are you in favour of European Union and Nato membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

However, accepting the Prespa agreement never guaranteed any such thing. For Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s administration to present the question in such a way was an appalling distortion. Joining Nato and the EU is subject to long and conditional ratification processes and any proposals would also have to be approved by Macedonia’s parliament.

The Zaev government’s decision to agree to Greek demands is a catastrophic pyrrhic victory. The Prespa agreement dangerously and unprecedentedly places Macedonian education in the hands of an academic conspiracy. Article 8 states that: “A Joint Inter-Disciplinary Committee of Experts on historic, archaeological and educational matters, [is] to consider the objective, scientific interpretation of historical events based on authentic, evidence-based and scientifically sound historical sources and archaeological findings.”

READ MORE: Travel: A taste of Macedonia

But there are few universally agreed historical ‘facts’. Since Creation itself, every academic and every politician has had a different opinion. And it is positively Orwellian to hand over control of history and school textbooks to a small group of academics who are to be “supervised by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs” of the two countries.

Where will it end? Will this censorship extend to books, the work of historians and filmmakers? If there is a deviance from the determined historical dogma of the committee, will books be banned?

The sociologist Ernest Gellner said education and language are the two most intrinsic parts of nation-building because they define a country in the minds of young people.

Article 7 confirms the Greek heritage of the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” and goes as far as stating that the language of “North Macedonia” comes from the group of “south Slavic languages”. It also stipulates the official language and other attributes of “North Macedonia” are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilisation or history of the northern region of Greece.

To place the power to decree what is ‘true’ in the hands of politically controlled academics is positively dystopian. To then have this directly impact curricula should send shivers down the spine of anyone who has studied a dictatorship or read Fahrenheit 451.

“[The Committee] shall consider and, if it deems appropriate, revise any school textbooks and school auxiliary material such as maps, historical atlases, teaching guides, in use in each of the Parties, in accordance with the principles and aims of Unesco and the Council of Europe,” the agreement adds.

READ MORE: Alastair Stewart: Scotland is the Casablanca of the Great Brexit War

As a Scot, this is through the mirror, darkly. For more than 300 years, Scotland has participated in a political union with England that should have, in theory, engulfed her national identity years ago. Scotland retained her national sense of self primarily because its education system always had a Scottish dimension. Nevertheless, Scottish educational autonomy has, on occasion, required political pushback against Westminster control.

In his 1945 maiden speech to the House of Commons, the Scottish MP Robert McIntyre famously asked: “Do we want education in Scotland to help to raise Scottish citizens, or do we want education to breed a race of docile North Britons?” This is a warning to Macedonia. Scotland retained enough of the critical components of identity formation from 1707 to avoid being subsumed into a centralised British system. Successive Scottish departments within the UK Government controlled Scotland so the 1999 establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament largely involved handing over existing education, health and legal portfolios. National identity didn’t have to be built from the ground up.

Macedonia isn’t trying to break away, it is a sovereign state trying to survive and it can only do so by protecting its history. However, its current government is freely handing over the means to do this for the promise of maybe getting access to Nato and the EU.

Successive Greek governments and general public discourse describe the former Yugoslav republic as a benign tumour. It’s political ire and cultural condescension which has morphed into radical Greek nationalism. Greece doesn’t want to claim Macedonian territory, but appears set on humiliating it out of existence.

Some Greeks accuse Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of betraying their history by acknowledging the existence of the Macedonian language and for allowing the name Macedonia to be used at all by “that” country. The social taboo of saying you’re Macedonian in Greece is just the latest form of cultural harassment, if not outright suppression. Greece refuses to stamp Macedonian passports at border checkpoints because they don’t recognise the country. Macedonia’s right to cultural self-determination is condemned and internationally blocked, trade embargos have operated, and the Macedonian language was banned in Greece for decades. It’s a sad thread of prejudice that has existed throughout the 19th to 21st centuries.

For two years, I’ve revelled in the uniqueness of my adopted heritage. My in-laws have expended every energy in welcoming me, completing my historical blind spots and proudly teaching me about Macedonian culture. One marries the person after all, but it’s foolhardy to think you’re not marrying the heritage too. To so recklessly abandon Macedonian culture to bureaucrats and sycophants is an unpardonable folly.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance journalist (and not the ITV News presenter of the same name)