Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 January 2000

Sam Vaknin A   B A L K A N   E N C O U N T E R:
The Friendly Club

Sam Vaknin

Cyprus, that beacon of political stability and financial rectitude, was invited to negotiate its membership. Bulgaria, the epitome of good governance and civil society as well as Malta the undisputed friend of the West (remember Libya's Colonel Qaddafi?) were among the list of new candidates registered at the Helsinki meet of the most desired economic club on earth: the European Union (EU). To these were added Romania and its collapsing economy.

Macedonia was relegated to the "West Balkan" group - a revolutionary re-definition of historical affiliations. In this assemblage, it found itself rubbing shoulders with the disintegrating Albania and the pariah Yugoslavia. Croatia was ejected from this leper colony by virtue of the death of its megalomaniac autocrat, Franjo Tuđman, and his replacement by ex-Communists.

A different story

Things had been very different only a few months before, when both the EU and NATO needed the good and naïve services of Macedonia. It was a honeyed courtship. Macedonia was then virtually besieged by a flood of world class politicians, all eager to make the acquaintance of the charming political class of the Balkans. Promises were doled out with abandon. Tony Blair promised tens of millions of pounds. Bill Clinton topped this by pledging hundreds of millions of dollars. And the grateful West offered billions. In the meantime, Macedonia's infrastructure was pulverized by heavy armour and light-footed refugees - a quarter of a million of them.

The people of the Balkans are the offspring of broken promises. Their village shrewdness (which is not to be confused with worldly sophistication) predisposed them not to trust the kindness of strangers. Their in-bred paranoia led them to attribute prophetic foresight, sharp planning and intricate conspiracy to what was mere stumbling and bumbling on the part of the West and NATO. The disillusionment came fast and painlessly. To live in fantasy is often more rewarding than to have it fulfilled - and many Macedonians were grateful for the intermission in their hundred years of solitude.

The hangover, the bitter aftertaste, the sore muscles of the morning after - the Macedonians accepted all these with unusual grace. But as insults were added to injuries, a sense of betrayal evolved. They felt exploited and discarded, objectified and dehumanized by super-powers of mythical proportions. They felt abused and deceived. Used to getting the short end of every stick - this time there was no stick at all. Having been thus manipulated and largely unable to direct their anger at the veritable sources of their frustration - disgraced and flouted they turned upon themselves in internecine squabbling.

This was further exacerbated by incessant preaching and hectoring of the representatives of those powers which had forsaken them. By the very people who reneged on promises. By countries and politicians whose own domestic politics and personal conduct were an object and abject lesson not to be emulated. Countries imbued with corruption preached to the Macedonians about good governance. Countries which suppressed their minorities in bloody campaigns reprimanded Macedonia for its treatment of its own minorities. Countries which sold weapons to every despicable dictator in every corner of the earth prevented Macedonia from trading with its neighbours.

Of the money promised - very little materialized. The blazing trail of West European and American movie stars and presidents became a trickle of East European politicians and Brussels bureaucrats. Membership became association, association became new association and new association went nowhere. Dates were postponed. Dates kept were used as photo-opportunities by synthetic Western leaders.

Total let-down

If anyone should have been invited to join the EU it was poor Macedonia. Poor - but not as poor as Romania. Any comparison of the two bespeaks volumes about the West's betrayal.

Romania's official inflation is 40% - Macedonia's is around 1% and has been, on average, less than 3% in the last three years. Romania's depleted GDP is collapsing. Macedonia has survived the Kosovo crisis with its GDP intact and is poised, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to grow by 4-6% in the year 2000. Romania's average wage is less than USD 90 a month - Macedonia's is USD 160.

The lei is as unstable as Yugoslavia's denar was prior to the Kosovo crisis - Macedonia's currency held stable throughout the external shock-ridden last three years and is trusted by its citizens. Romania's governments change frequently and with little reason, often succumbing to the wishes of an ominously violent street. Macedonia's government has changed once in the last five years and that following a fair and democratic election.

Admittedly, Romania's market is much bigger than Macedonia's and its location closer to the EU. But Macedonia is an important bridgehead to the Balkans and beyond and its web of trading agreements and arrangements makes it a virtual market of more than 110 million people.

But Macedonia is friendless in the EU. It has no patron saint, no Germany (as for Croatia and Czech Republic), no France (Romania), no Greece (Cyprus). It is too small to fear and small enough to ignore comfortably. It is a peaceful and docile nation. It is co-operative. It is trustworthy and has proven its devotion to the ideals of the West in good times and bad. Perhaps these qualities disqualify. Perhaps being taken for granted does not grant being taken. Whatever the explanation, the people of this tiny country grieve this short romance, so fleeting, so sweet, so dreamy and, as they are finding now, so surreal.

Dr Sam Vaknin, 7 February 2000

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Sam Vaknin's articles for Central Europe Review are archived here.

Sam Vaknin's Website is here.




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