- Cultural Preservation
North Macedonia (officially the Republic of North Macedonia) is a mountainous country bordering Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Kosovo. The country is quite small with a population of just over 2.1 million people and measuring less than 200 km wide (east to west). Despite this size, the Macedonian people have a strong national psyche. They take their citizenship very seriously and often seek recognition of their country’s history and culture. Many also have deep pride on the local level, maintaining strong connections to their regional identities. On a more day-to-day basis, Macedonians are warm, generous and hospitable people. Modern Macedonian society has been flourishing since independence. In spite of the enormous pressure and attempts to destabilise the new country (both from internal and external forces), the Macedonian state has progressed tremendously in recent years. The population has been innovative and welcoming of new ideas, practices and development.
National Formation and Cultural History
Macedonians trace their history and culture back to at least 333 BCE during the time of Alexander the Great. Under his rule, the Macedonian Empire had power and territory across Greece, Thrace, Asia Minor/Anatolia, Egypt, Iran and Afghanistan, reaching India. Modern day Macedonians remain very proud of this conquest and legacy; their claim and connection to this point in history is very important to informing ideas of their identity. Following Alexander the Great’s death and the slow dissolve of the Macedonian Empire, the land of Macedonia became part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantium Empire and finally the Ottoman Empire. The military occupation by the Ottoman Empire lasted for 550 years until Macedonia was partitioned in 1912 and 1913 as a result of the Balkan Wars. At this point, the land was split between Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia and Albania. Modern-day North Macedonia was formed as a republic under former Yugoslavia after World War II. In 1991, it obtained national independence peacefully.
Being a young sovereign nation (less than 30 years old), a sense of cultural unification is still developing in Macedonia. There are cultural remnants of countries that once occupied it which are noticeable in the different dialects and social customs across certain regions. Ultimately, North Macedonia has a long history of involvement with three very distinct cultural traditions. There is a strong Christian culture, an Islamic culture connected to the region’s Turkic Ottoman past, and also a Jewish connection. All of these are crucial to Macedonians’ understanding of their nation, though the first has come to be the dominant understanding of the Macedonian cultural mainstream as it reflects the Macedonian majority (more on this under ‘Ethnic Distinctions’ below).
National Identity and Patriotism
Macedonian society is deeply patriotic. While their country has only recently gained independence, many Macedonians proudly associate their national identity with the ancient culture and history of the region described above. However, they have been affected by the scrutiny and denial of this cultural identity by others. Since independence, neighbouring countries have contested the legitimacy of the Macedonian identity, heritage, territory and state. As examples, the country’s former name – Republic of Macedonia – was the subject of a dispute with Greece (see ‘The Naming Dispute’ in Other Considerations for information on this), and there is ongoing disagreement over whether and how much modern-day Macedonians are descendants of the ancient Macedonians from the era of Alexander the Great.
The arguments often hinge on technical claims surrounding ancient history, and are provoked by the fact that North Macedonia is a newly independent country in a historic region. However, the disputes have had serious effects on the development of the country; nations have blocked and inhibited North Macedonia's trade options and entry into international unions such as the European Union and NATO in retaliation. As a result, many Macedonians feel threatened and marginalised in both North Macedonia and Australia. They recognise that as a small country they are seen as a low priority in international relations, and hence feel their voice is somewhat neglected and ignored. There is also fear among some that their country’s status, culture and power may be reduced or even eliminated by global powers. This feeling of vulnerability is further heightened by their neighbours’ hostility to their culture and denial of their .
Macedonians also often encounter what they claim to be revisions and distortions of their history that accuse them of falsifying their culture. These comments can be seriously hurtful (especially to older Macedonians and those that are well-versed in their history) as they essentially deny their people’s right to . The fact remains that citizens living in North Macedonia have always known themselves as “Macedonians” and have a historical connection to the land. One may find that they seek recognition of this and assert their right to be known as such in interactions. Indeed, their persistent feeling of being misunderstood and marginalised has contributed to a complex national psyche whereby Macedonians are often very nationalistic and feel obliged to defend and explain themselves. If this becomes apparent in conversation, show your acknowledgement of the legitimacy of their identity and express solidarity with their feelings.
One’s is arguably the biggest social identifier in North Macedonia as it can indicate one’s religion and social positioning. The majority of citizens are Macedonians, with Albanians being the second largest group. Most Macedonians are Christian, whilst Albanians are generally Muslim. Smaller populations of Turks, Romas, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and others also exist. People are largely respectful of difference in society. Many towns and communities have been historically , and Muslims and Christians have coexisted peacefully for centuries. However, the relationship between Macedonians and Albanians has degraded since independence and has become one of Macedonia’s biggest cultural sensitivities and struggles. It remains a very controversial matter to state statistics on the different demographics. Any effort to do so is often refuted and claimed to be corrupted. A national census has not been taken since 2002 due to concern that results could be skewed for political gain on behalf of an .
Macedonians have the demographic majority and are politically and socio-culturally dominant. However, as previously mentioned, for many reasons they commonly feel that their cultural identity is under attack. As such, they have felt intimidated by Albanians seeking wider official use of the Albanian language, greater representation in public administration and preservation of the Albanian cultural identity. Civil war between the two was narrowly avoided in 2001 when Albanians’ mobilised following their increasing dissatisfaction at their perceived unequal treatment and social discrimination. While agreements were reached to rectify the situation, there continue to be ongoing tensions and a low level of trust between the two groups. Violence can erupt periodically. More recently, the demographics have been shifting and Macedonians have felt threatened by increasing the Albanian representation in business and politics. It is not unusual to encounter open hostility about this topic.
The difficult economic situation in North Macedonia affects many people living in the country. As of 2016, the unemployment rate was 26% with youth unemployment at 53%.1 Many Macedonians have had to leave their ancestral homes in rural areas to search for work and economic security. In 2015, approximately 58.8% of the total population lived in urban areas.2 However, Macedonians are notably adaptable people. Some have been turning to the Internet to provide an alternative source of income, and many men are self-proclaimed ‘handymen’ with a broad set of trade skills. As it is often too expensive to pay for labour, most people try to fix or build things themselves with the help of friends or family. This self-reliance and do-it-yourself approach reflects the traditional agricultural lifestyles of the Balkans.
Macedonians also generally have quite a relaxed and slow pace of life, particularly those from rural areas and the older generations. They take a fluid approach to time as there is rarely a need to rush. Important specific appointments will be scheduled; however, people generally don’t strictly plan or allocate time for socialising. It’s assumed that people will meet and spend time with each other as the day unfolds. For some older Macedonians, this approach may relate to the belief that God predetermines events. A common expression says: “If it is written, it is written. You cannot escape from whatever is written”. However, a recent change to this cultural milieu has occurred as urban Macedonians have had to quickly adapt to the demands of modern life. In switching to the market economy following a period of socialism, people have had to increase their competitiveness by focusing on learning new skills and languages in the digital age.
Regional identities continue to have great significance in Macedonia. People’s hometowns can imply a lot about them, such as their , religion, politics and beliefs. Smaller towns and villages may also have distinct folk identities that differentiate them from their neighbouring provinces. A cultural divide is noticeable between those that live in urban areas and those that live in the countryside. People from metropolitan areas tend to pay more attention to their personal appearance and material wealth. They commonly live in apartments and have quite a globalised lifestyle. Meanwhile, many Macedonians in the mountains and rural areas continue to farm to sustain themselves by what will grow each season and live in self-made houses.
Macedonians are very community-oriented, both in rural and urban areas. The neighbourhood is essential to people’s support network, especially for those whose live far away. This is partly because many families would have lived in the same village or town together for generations. However, it also relates to the nature of the culture. In Macedonia, people usually know all their close neighbours and many others throughout their town. They visit each other and socialise regularly, often spontaneously.
In such tightly knit communities, everyone knows one another and one’s family background implies a lot about a person. This lack of privacy means word of a family’s business can circulate quickly. Thus, Macedonians are generally careful when seeking support to make sure their grievances don’t become the subject of community ‘gossip’ and embarrass the household name. However, the intimate neighbourhood also gives a sense of belonging and safety. Macedonians living in the English-speaking West can find the experience quite isolating initially as such societies are generally more .
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