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Antiquity 2.0

May 18, 2010

A long-running dispute between Greece and Macedonia—over claims to cultural heritage as fundamental as the very name “Macedonia” and as monumental as Alexander the Great—is being analyzed in all of its old and new manifestations by Institute Associate Professor Keith Brown and visiting Macedonian Fulbright Scholar Irena Stefoska. The two have recently aired their findings at Columbia University, the University of Chicago, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, and on the Voice of America. In the essay below, they show how the argument is now being waged on the internet.

By Keith Brown and Irena Stefoska
Even as Greece faces financial catastrophe and popular unrest, many of its citizens remain proud of their ancient heritage. Speaking during riots in Athens in which several bank employees burned to death, a middle-aged union member drew an analogy between the current protests, World War II, and the Persian Wars of 480 B.C. “We Greeks” he said, “don't like authority. We have always resisted when we think something is unfair. We fought against the Persians at Marathon, the Germans during the second world war and we will fight the IMF… It is foreign forces who are in charge of us now.”

This sense of the justice of their own cause, and of their unique claims to national longevity, has been a central component of Greek national consciousness since the creation of the modern Greek state (with the assistance of foreign forces) in the nineteenth century.  Now it is being challenged not just by greedy foreign financiers, but by what many Greeks see as an upstart and illegitimate pretender to their status as heirs to a glorious past: the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.  Since coming to power in 2006 at the head of a coalition government,  Macedonia’s most powerful political party, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, has embarked on a campaign of “antiquization” focused around ancient Macedonia’s most famous son, Alexander the Great.

Besides the traditional methods of archaeological excavation to find physical evidence of the ancient past—involving over 2,000 personnel during the summer of 2009—the government is also exercising more creative license. In recent months, television stations in Macedonia have aired spots featuring Alexander in different guises.  In one, a youthful Alexander confronts both overwhelming odds and doubting generals, leading his men with the cry “to victory.” The spot ends by directly addressing Macedonian viewers, telling them “You are Macedonia” and urging then to live up to Alexander’s qualities of self-confidence and determination.

In another, which aired for a short time over Christmas in 2009, God responds to Macedonian prayers, and pledges that he will return to open Alexander’s grave.

Besides these evocations of the past, the government has also launched an ambitious campaign to reshape Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje. The plans call for a huge statue of Alexander on his horse Bucephalus to sit in the city’s main square. This statue—which will cost an estimated 4.5 million Euros—is part of a larger vision, which bears the name “Skopje 2014,” and which will also include statues of various nineteenth century revolutionaries, together with other national notables, all of them male. There will also be new neo-classical buildings, the largest of which is a new (orthodox) church.

While work continues—Skopje’s central square is a construction zone—this history-laden future is already available online. Visitors can take a virtual tour of Skopje 2014 in a high-quality simulation financed by the Macedonian government, in which the viewer is presented with a monumental yet recognizably modern cityscape, where brand new buses and cars circulate along with well-dressed pedestrian traffic, as enormous advertising electronic billboards scroll in the background.

These recent developments have been challenged by a range of Macedonian intellectuals and activists committed to principles of multi-cultural democracy, who see them as worrying signals of totalitarian tendencies in VMRO-DPMNE, manifested in particular in the emphasis on ethnic identity, party loyalty, and the cult of personality around Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. VMRO-DPMNE’s actions have also sparked strong reactions in Greece. as a variety of actors—ranging from former politicians through respected scholars to right-wing thugs—express in increasingly belligerent terms the long-maintained Greek ideological position that Macedonia is Greece, and that any alternative view is threatening.

The internet, and the possibilities it has created for the swift circulation of images such as those linked here, has served to heighten passions further on both sides.  The spot of God responding to a Macedonian prayer, originally broadcast on Macedonian TV (though, as noted above, withdrawn quickly in response to public criticism), now appears on Youtube under the title “Racist and Blasphemous PseudoMacedonian Propaganda,” with English subtitles and a plethora of critical commentary in Greek and English. The scene of burly men disrupting the promotion of a Macedonian-Greek dictionary in Athens was recorded by an audience member, and was then picked up and discussed in a variety of Macedonian media as evidence of Greek police complicity with fascist organizations in Greece.

These sequences of claims and counter-claims in which “historical truth” is at stake, are facilitated by sites like youtube, with their ostensibly dialogue-enabling commentary function. They take more extreme form around graphic representations of violence which blur fact and fiction, drawing together tropes from documentary video and what some have called torture or war porn.  An example of the disturbing lengths that advocates of “Macedonian” and “Greek” positions are prepared to go to is this teaser for a (non-existent) feature film depicting Nick Stoyan, a U.S. Marine of Macedonian descent being tortured in Greece.  Allegedly, the film is based on a true story (though no such story was ever reported.)  One Greek response to this trailer, labels it as a deliberate effort to win sympathy in the United States by demonizing Greece, and makes a comparison with a documented 2002 incident in which Macedonian security forces killed a group of Pakistani labor migrants and claimed they had thwarted a terrorist attack on foreign embassies in Skopje. The Greek video uses documentary footage of the Pakistanis’ bodies and their funerals to brand Macedonians as murderers: the Macedonian trailer features a Greek torturer who strongly resembles the real-life thugs of the Athens dictionary promotion, to accuse the Greek state of a form of genocide.

While the dispute over the ownership of the name and the territory of Macedonia, and of Alexander, goes back at least one hundred years, tensions reached new levels in 2008 when Greece vetoed the Republic’s entry into NATO. Symbolic politics—and in particular, the harnessing of new media technologies to stir up and potentially escalate emotions of solidarity, pride and anger—have serious consequences for personal and regional security.

This is the context for a jointly written paper focusing on the politics of the past in the contemporary Balkans. Since November 2009, we have been tracking VMRO-DPMNE government’s campaign of antiquization within the Republic of Macedonia, as well as exploring the recognizably similar veneration of the past in Greece’s nation-building project during the 19th and 20th centuries. We document the vitality of critical anti-nationalist dissent in the Republic, which persists even though largely ignored by international media. We compare it to the powerful critiques of Greek nationalism offered by expatriate Greek scholars, which contrast in turn with the relative lack of such work by academics and other intellectuals living and working in Greece.

As well as analyzing how, why and for whom these seemingly irrational attachments to a master-narrative of unique ancient origins make perfect political sense, our research identifies three key aspects of antiquization, the names of which we draw from Greek. Archaeophilia, literally the love of antiquity, emerges as a tool of nation-building which represents a form of collective escapism. It fosters what, borrowing from Polybius, we term ochlocracy. Literally “mob-rule,” we use the term to designate the particular form of populism employed by political parties to dismantle rival sources of authority or legitimacy, and thereby ultimately disable democratic dialogue. Monochromatism, finally—literally “seeing only black, white and shades of grey between”—is a product of obsessive attention to exploring and telling “our” history in the singular, rather than exploring multiplicity. We suggest that Macedonia’s leadership is using a template of nation-building borrowed, via Greece, from nineteenth-century Western European models.

Having presenting our work in a number of academic and policy forums, we hope to publish our discussion of the wider, negative impact on civic life of simplistic and singular versions of history and what productive steps might be taken by external actors interested in promoting peace and stability in the region. In particular, we see value in promoting a reflexive discussion among Greeks and Macedonians around other aspects of the region’s past, in particular the genre of folktales featuring the kindred and ambivalent national trickster figures Karagiosis and Itar Pejo.