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Vol 3, No 6
12 February 2001
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Hugh Poulton's Who Are the Macedonians? Who Are the Macedonians?
Hugh Poulton
Second edition
Indiana UP, 2000
ISBN 0253213592

Eleanor Pritchard

This book attempts a mammoth task: the definition and charting of the Macedonians from antiquity to the present. The introduction lays out clearly the overlapping and ambiguous uses of the term "Macedonian"—which has variously referred to the peoples of the wider Macedonian territory (often referred to as "Greater Macedonia"), those resident within the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and finally the group which identify themselves ethnically, religiously and linguistically as Macedonians.

The book is a digestible one-stop introduction to some of the most complicated demographics and related issues in the Balkans. On its original publication in 1995, it attracted considerable attention, with comments and reviews generally falling into two camps. On the one hand, there were those such as Misha Glenny, who saw it as an excellent introduction for the general reader, and, on the other hand, those such as Anastasia Karakasidou, who regarded it as an academically deficient text.

The second edition is so little changed (with some 12 pages of new text and no revisions of content) as to make reviews of the first edition equally pertinent to the 2000 edition. Consequently what follows is offered as a personal commentary on the text, which I consider to be a general, popular introduction to the subject.

The subject is virtually a niche market, the only other mainstream single-volume texts on the subject being Loring Danforth's The Macedonian Conflict (1997) and Karakasidou's Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood (1997). This means that readers cannot consider it in a comparative fashion, and for this reason, one can argue that it has an extra responsibility to be painstakingly consistent and attend to minute details.

Macedonians and minorities

The most immediate effect of the broad definition of Macedonians identified in the introduction is the welcome inclusion and generally objective representation of the Albanian, Turkish, Serb, Greek and Muslim-Slav minorities within the geographical boundaries of Macedonia, and of "ethnic" Macedonians as minorities within other territorial entities. Given Poulton's background as an Amnesty researcher, this is to be expected, but it has given rise to criticism from some quarters that he "orientalises the tyranny of the majority" (either Greek or Macedonian, depending on context).[1]

The consistent representation of present ethnic groups in the region is a rare thing indeed, yet analysis of the impact of this diversity on political and social developments is considerably diluted by the vast time span of the text. While this overview strategy gives a continuous "story line" to the general reader, it is unlikely to satisfy even the moderately read observer, and here is found a fundamental flaw of the text.

Its intended market is not clear enough; it lies uncomfortably on a fault line between popular histories, minority advocacy and political analysis. This is, however, probably more the responsibility of the marketing department at the publishing house, who appear to be capitalising on current affairs to re-issue the book, and less that of the author, whose comparatively modest objective of examining group identities laid out in the introduction is certainly addressed by the text.

Bad timing

The release of the second edition of this book was unfortunately timed. As the book went to print, the Kosovo crisis had not been played out, and the long-term implications for Macedonia domestically and internationally were unclear. This results in frustrating untied ends on this critically important subject. Of course, the crisis still has many loose ends in Macedonia, but a small delay in the reprint would have increased the value of the second edition greatly and given it a longer shelf life.

There are further issues related to international bodies (the EU, Council of Europe, etc) which were less predictable, but have developed dramatically over the past year and may indicate the long-term direction of the country, yet are absent from the book. The year 2000 saw dramatic changes in Serbia, which have already started to impact bilateral relations between the states, the Stability Pact kicked in and regional agreements abounded. All this will affect Macedonia and the Macedonians (however defined!). While there can never be an "ideal" time to release such a text, the start of 2000 was clearly a time less ideal than most.

That the book starts with the arrival of the tribes in the geographical area of Macedonia is a little tedious for a reader interested in the contemporary position of the Macedonians, yet gives valuable background to long-running nationalist arguments. I would have much preferred a highly contemporary text, devoted to the post-independence period with older history drawn in to illustrate the contemporary problems, as I found the chronological structure quite ponderous at times. In addition to the issues which developed in 2000, (illustrated above) several other aspects of the post-independence period are worthy of mention.

The issue of nationalism

The pan-Albanian / Ilirida ideologies presented in Chapter 9 are not presented clearly. The call for a greater Albania by radical politicians in the wake of independence is perceived by many to have been simply an expression of discontent with the "national minority" status accorded to Albanians in the 1992 constitution. This point could be argued indefinitely from both perspectives, but the presentation of only one side of the argument contributes to the tired, oversimplified comparison of Macedonian-Albanian relations with those of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo.

The post-independence Macedonian party VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity) was indeed a rabidly nationalist party on its emergence in the wake of independence. However, it has of late realigned itself dramatically, moving to the centre and committing fully to regional and wider-European integration. This is reflected in the work of the current government, a spokesperson of which once described to me the policy of the cabinet in the frighteningly Blair-ite phrase "tiny steps with positive energy"—hardly a hardline nationalist catch phrase.

This realignment may (as cynics and the opposition suggest) be a strategy to extract funds from the EU with which to garner further support at home. It may not. Essentially, it doesn't really matter—it will tie Macedonia to its neighbours and to Europe, affecting all nationalities in the region. This shift of direction is not reflected in the new edition, which renders the contemporary analysis almost a tableau of the country during the Bosnian and Croatian wars.

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Despite the careful explanation of transliteration policy at the beginning of the book, there were several aspects which were potentially confusing or unhelpful. Particularly strange is the practice of transliterating Macedonian without diacritics: (thus Gotse Delchev rather than Goce Delčev), which is transgressed only for the names of places familiar from their transliteration into Latin script in the days of Yugoslavia: Kičevo.

There is a parallel issue with the Anglicisation of names. This is irritating to the more advanced reader, and baffling to the general reader for whom no indication is made that a more common variant of the name exists which may well appear elsewhere. Consequently, the founders of the Macedonian church are presented as Cyril and Methodius instead of Kiril and Metodius, and the revolutionary Serb leader is Karageorge rather than the more familiar Karađorđević. These are small points indeed, but they disrupted the flow of the text as I tried to find the reason for each unfamiliar transliteration.

Who Are the Macedonians? is an excellent introduction to the peoples and questions present in the region. In particular, this work makes a valuable contribution to mainstream literature on minorities of the region and a perfect starting point for further reading on a wide variety of Macedonia-and Macedonian-related subjects, from politics to demographics via anthropology. It is not exhaustive on any time period, however, and particularly for readers seeking to understand the post-independence period of FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), this edition will date quickly.

Eleanor Pritchard, 12 February 2001

Moving on:


1. Anastasia Karakasidou, Current Anthropology, Vol 41, Number 3, June 2000.


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