13 October 2009
Macedonia embroiled in encyclopaedia row
Published: Tuesday 13 October 2009
EU candidate country Macedonia has removed a controversial encyclopaedia from libraries after the manual triggered furious reactions from EU members Greece and Bulgaria as well as neighbouring Kosovo and Albania. The reason behind the removal was strong pressure from the US and the UK, diplomats told EurActiv.
In April 2008, Athens vetoed Skopje's invitation to join NATO, arguing that the name 'Macedonia' could lead Skopje to make territorial claims over Greece's own northern province of the same name (EurActiv 04/04/08).
A nationalist backlash followed in the small country of 2.5 million, which former US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrook famously called "a hole in the middle of nothing".
As a result of this situation, Macedonia still finds itself unable to start accession talks with the EU, despite the fact that it received the status of candidate country as early as December 2005.
Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has repeatedly warned that the unsolved 'name dispute' with Greece could negatively affect Macedonia's EU agenda. Meanwhile, UN-sponsored talks to solve the dispute are making no progress.
Following angry reactions, including the burning of the Macedonian flag in Kosovo, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Art (MANU) recently decided to remove its recently published two-volume, 1,671-page work, the 'Macedonian Encyclopaedia'.
The work has managed to offend most of Macedonia's neighbours. Greece, which is pressing Macedonia to change its name because it coincides with that of the northernmost Greek province, considers that Skopje is misappropriating large chunks of its ancient history.
Similarly, Bulgaria considers that Macedonia is cherry-picking heroes and glorious episodes from its 19th and early 20th century struggle against Ottoman domination.
But those most offended this time were the Kosovars and the ethnic Albanian population of Macedonia itself, as MANU refers to ethnic Albanians as "settlers" who came to the country in the 16th century and to Albanians as 'Shiptari' or 'Planinci', which has derogatory connotations. The Albanians are widely recognised as the descendants of ancient Illiryan tribes, who settled in those lands in approximately 1,000 BC.
The authors also claim that the ethnic Albanian movement in Macedonia, the National Liberation Army, was trained by US and British special forces in 2001, and that ethnic Albanian leader Ali Ahmeti, now leader of the Democratic Union for the Integration of Macedonia, is suspected of war crimes. In fact, Ahmeti has never been indicted. Both the US and UK embassies have rejected the information as "false" and "ridiculous".
Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called the book "absurd and unacceptable" and complained of "identity based on the forgery of history".
Bulgarian and Greek leaders kept a low profile, but according to diplomats, the encyclopaedia has infuriated both Athens and Sofia.
The Bulgarian Embassy in Skopje issued a statement saying that the content of the Macedonian Encyclopedia had the single purpose of collecting political dividends.
"It is unacceptable for a country aspirant for NATO and EU membership to resort to terminology typical for the ideology of the Cold War era," the statement says.
Skopje, meawhile, was apparently less concerned about the reactions in Athens and Sofia. The ambassador of an EU country told EurActiv that in fact it was pressure from the USA and the UK which convinced Skopje to back down and remove the book from the shelves.
MANU published a press release promising to convene an extraordinary assembly that will focus on reactions, remarks and suggestions related to the encyclopaedia.
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Former Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, who holds a Bulgarian passport, strongly criticised the MANU encyclopaedia, calling it "an absolute rehabilitation of communist power and Macedonia's communist period". Georgievski was categorical in saying that the authors of the work are pro-Serbian and that their main aim is to prevent Macedonia from joining NATO, and to complicate the country's EU accession process.
"The encyclopaedia is anti-Bulgarian, anti-Albanian, anti-Greek and pro-Serbian in its basis. All of the personalities in the time of communism are presented as positive. The encyclopaedia not only rehabilitates the communism period but also Macedonia in the time of royal Yugoslavia," Georgievski noted, speaking to the Focus news agency.