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2,300 years later, 'Alexander-mania' grips Macedonia

Much to the anger of Greece, the ancient conqueror is making a big comeback in Macedonia – he's arriving just in time for Sunday's election.

By Staff writer / March 21, 2009

NATIONALISTIC FERVOR: Ahead of Sunday's elections, Alexander's name is stirring passions.

ognen teofilovski/reuters

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SKOPJE, Macedonia

As part of a stunning new homegrown ideology of history and identity based on Alexander the Great, this capital city's main square may soon boast a huge new statue of the ancient conqueror.

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Two years ago, the national airport was renamed after Alexander, infuriating Greece.

In January, despite a recent Greek nixing of Macedonia's NATO bid over the airport name, the ruling nationalists here changed the name of its main roadway to Alexander of Macedon Highway.

In Macedonia, it is becoming all Alexander the Great, all the time. Ahead of Sunday's presidential elections, the ruling party's Alexander ideology is seen as fantastic, even by Balkan standards.

In an intense media campaign, locals are told that ethnic Macedonians are the proud direct descendants of Alexander, and thus a people responsible for spawning the white race of planet Earth, from the Caucasus "to the seas off Japan," according to a public service spot on national TV.

The "Alexander-mania," as critics call it, is partly a vote-getting strategy by the ruling party, known by its initials VMRO. Doubts exist as to whether party leaders actually believe the claims, but they are being sold as truth. The failure last spring to get a clear NATO invitation prompted fury in Skopje, and the Alexander campaign is seen as an effort to up the ante.

By pushing its thumb further into the already sore eye of Greece, both NATO and EU membership for the small, landlocked state remains in limbo. Macedonia is also distracted from reducing tensions with its sizable Albanian minority community following a brief ethnic war in 2001, diplomats say.

The dispute with Greece, largely unchanged since 1991, centers on a fight over the use of "Macedonia" as the country's name. Greece wants a name that doesn't include or at least deemphasizes "Macedonia," which Greeks say is their own. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia says its name is its own sovereign business. Negotiations have been endless.

For years, Greek demands were seen as cock-eyed and petty in diplomatic circles. Yet Macedonia has been losing sympathy as it roars out heritage claims on Alexander.

"If the name is the condition of our survival, which it seems to be, we are very far from reaching our strategic aims: NATO and the EU," says former Macedonian Foreign Minister Denko Maleski. "The new way of thinking about history is keeping tensions alive. We are a new nation, liberal and international, suddenly veering into the 19th century."

A poll last month showed that 97 percent of ethnic Macedonians favored staying out of the EU if it meant compromising on the name.

"The name dispute is more than a bilateral issue between Skopje and Athens. It risks derailing the main strategy of both NATO and the EU for stabilizing Macedonia," says a recent report from the International Crisis Group.

Some diplomats frame Sunday's elections as a vote for a president who may push Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski for a name resolution versus a nationalist who would not. Right now, it appears that VMRO's George Ivanov, an architect of the Alexander discourse, is set to win big. The opposition is in disarray, and Macedonia could end up with a one-party state.

"The entire nationalism hysteria, which only few question as most media get huge sums of money through government advertising, serves not only as a distraction from serious problems ... but has created an atmosphere that makes compromise difficult. It reminds me a bit of the madness of Serbia in the '90s, though not on the same scale, when Serbs spoke of themselves as 'the heavenly people,' " says Ana Petruseva, managing editor of Balkan Insight, in Skopje.

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