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Bitola - Shirok Sokak Street
Shirok Sokak Street in Bitola. Photo: Alan Grant

As a geographical term, "Macedonia" goes back nearly 3,000 years. Macedonian national identity, on the other hand, is one of the youngest in Europe, forged largely in the mid-20th century.

The name "Macedonia" dates back to ancient Greece and the kingdom of Macedon which was established in the 8th or early 7th century BC. Everyone remembers its most famous king, Alexander the Great, who ruled from 336 BC to 323 BC. Power struggles after his death led to the disintegration of the vast empire.

The geographical area of Macedonia, considered to comprise what today are parts of northern Greece, western Bulgaria, eastern Albania and the present day Republic of Macedonia, was a province of the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Starting in the 6th and 7th centuries, Slavic tribes settled the Balkan Peninsula. Some of their – rather short-lived – medieval Balkan states included (parts of) Macedonia.

After the Ottoman conquest Macedonia was divided into several provinces. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the "Macedonian Question" sparked a series of territorial disputes in the region. The new Balkan states of Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece all laid claim to the region, competing for influence through both political and later military tools. Armed groups in Bulgaria and within Macedonia, such as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO), plotted against Ottoman rule, pushing for either an independent state or union with Bulgaria. All those efforts, including the Ilinden Uprising of 1903, were crushed by Ottoman forces, however.

In 1912 Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Bulgaria drew together in the "Balkan league" and declared war on the Ottoman Empire. They succeeded in driving the Ottomans from most of the Balkan Peninsula, including Macedonia. However, while the Serbs and Greeks were able to occupy large chunks of territory relatively easily, the Bulgarians were held up by Ottoman resistance at the fort of Adrianople (Edirne) and the Catalca line. Though having provided much of the firepower, and having paid with numerous casualties, the Bulgarians could only achieve small territorial gains. This prompted Bulgaria to launch an attack on Serbia and Greece in 1913, which resulted in a humiliating and devastating defeat. The Treaty of Bucharest, which followed this Second Balkan War, led to a permanent division of the region of Macedonia: Greece claimed the south, a small part in the east went to Bulgaria, and the territory that now constitutes the Republic of Macedonia became part of Serbia. The Serbian authorities closed all Bulgarian schools and forced local Slavs to "serbify" their names.

During the First World War Skopje was occupied by Bulgaria, but was returned to Serbia after the defeat of the Central Powers. In the following years Belgrade extended its policy of "Serbification" by colonising what it called "South Serbia" with settlers from Serbia and Montenegro. To further promote this policy, Serbian cultural institutions and newspapers were founded. Unlike other minorities, local Macedonian Slavs who saw themselves as Bulgarians were categorically classified as Serbs.

In the Second World War, Macedonia and Skopje again came under Bulgarian occupation. This time around, all teachers were forced to learn Bulgarian; a Bulgarian university was founded, along with Bulgarian schools, a Bulgarian national theatre and Bulgarian museum.

The communist partisan movement, which resisted Bulgarian occupation, finally regained control of the region in 1944.

As part of Tito's efforts to counterbalance the numerical superiority of Serbs in the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Macedonia was declared to be one of the country’s six constituent republics. Macedonians were recognised as one of the constituent peoples of the Yugoslav state. It was also under the communists that the Macedonian language (linguistically close to both Bulgarian and Serbian) was standardised and that an Autocephalous Macedonian Orthodox Church was established. (It remains unrecognised by the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul and the major Orthodox Churches, however.)

As federal Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s, Macedonia was the only republic to secede peacefully. Its citizens endorsed independence in a referendum on 8 September 1991. Nearly all neighbouring states, however, harboured some reservations about independent Macedonia.

"The majority of Bulgarians continue to view the Slav inhabitants of Macedonia as Bulgarians and believe that the current Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. Similarly, to the majority of Greeks the terms 'Macedonia' and 'Macedonian' are wholly Greek property, and they view the use of these terms by their northern neighbour to describe the state, its people and its language as a combination of national theft, historical insult and irredentism against their northern province (which is also called Macedonia). As well as these rigid majority attitudes among Bulgarians and Greeks, there also exist a small number of extreme nationalist Serbs who deny the existence of a separate Slav nation of Macedonia…"

(Hugh Poulton, 'Who are the Macedonians?')

Most important were and are the Greek reservations. Macedonia's recognition as an independent state and its accession to international organisations were delayed by an ongoing name dispute with Greece. In 1993 Macedonia finally became a member of the UN and other international institutions under the name of "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM) – pending a final solution to the name issue. This, however, has not yet happened.

Despite (or maybe because) of their country’s peaceful secession, it took the ethnic Macedonians some time to realise that Macedonia was not a classical nation state, but a multi-ethnic state. In addition to the ethnic-Macedonian majority (64 percent) and the largest minority, the Albanians (25 percent), the country is home to sizable groups of Turks, Roma, Vlachs, Serbs and Bosniaks. Disregard for the interests of ethnic minorities, in particular the Albanians, was one of the reasons for the conflict in 2001.

Population according to Ethnic Affiliation

Ethnic Group

Population

Percentage

Macedonians

1,297,981

64.18

Albanians

509,083

25.17

Turks

77,959

3.85

Roma

53,879

2.66

Vlachs

35,939

1.78

Bosniaks

17,018

0.84

Other

30,688

1.52

Total

2,022,547

100.0

Source: 2002 Census

May 2008

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