A tense welcome to the Republic of North Macedonia

In a few days, on Sunday, the citizens of Macedonia will vote in a referendum to ratify a deal with neighboring Greece that will see their country renamed as the “Republic of North Macedonia.” To be sure, it will be a small country with two million inhabitants, but the approval of the referendum will bring huge dividends to this secluded corner of Europe, making it a part of the European Union and NATO.

Moscow sees this event as another step toward NATO expansion and consequently as a threat. It has tried to undermine the Greek-Macedonian agreement by aiding and abetting local activists and spreading vicious propaganda through social media, according to the well-established pattern that was widely tested in the United States and various European countries. The new country of North Macedonia hardly threatens Russia as it is surrounded by three NATO member states. But the resolution of a long political dispute between Macedonia, formerly a region of Yugoslavia, and Greece marks an important measure of success in international mediation under the auspices of the United Nations.

The world is well familiar with Macedonia as the territory where the Greek kingdom of Macedonia flourished in the fourth century B.C. when King Philip II subdued middle Greece and Thrace. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, overthrew the Persian Empire and expanded Macedonia’s empire to the Nile and Indus rivers. In 168 A.D., Macedonia lost to Rome and became a Roman province. In 1991, the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia became independent, and the naming dispute erupted with a vengeance. Millions of Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians and associate the two million people in the northern territory with Slavic people. Unsurprisingly, the Greeks accused the Macedonians of appropriating symbols and figures that are historically considered part of Greek culture, including Alexander the Great. It was part of a bitter political conflict between Greece and Yugoslavia, with roots in the Balkan Wars and World War II. Finally, in 1995, Macedonia, with UN membership achieved in 1993, formalized bilateral relations with Greece and started negotiating. In a few days, we will know if the compromise over the “Republic of Northern Macedonia” has ended, once and for all, the dispute centered on nomenclature.

I recently visited Northern Macedonia with a dozen members of the Fulbright Association. The trip was an eye-opener, not just socially and politically, but because of the magnificent scenery and one jewel, in particular, the lake of Ohrid in the southeast region. The town by the same name on its eastern shore goes back to the fourth century B.C. Its history stretches from ancient tribes going back to the Bronze Age and to the Romans who found Ohrid to be a most attractive site to establish a town with an amphitheater, basilicas and villas. Lake Ohrid straddles the border of Macedonia and Albania. It is one of the world’s oldest lakes, formed in the Pliocene epoch, five million years ago. It is the deepest lake in the Balkans (940 feet) and also one of the most bio-diverse with hundreds of individual species only found in its waters. These are simply enchanting, of a cerulean green hue and transparent to a depth of over 60 feet.

American tourists who are fond of lakes should forego beautiful but expensive Lake Como in Italy and the hope of meeting George Clooney in the streets of Bellagio. Lake Ohrid has everything that Lake Como has, with an added plethora of monasteries, Byzantine churches, cobbled streets and miles of hiking trails. The filtered spring inflows of Lake Ohrid sustain the population of trout, whose pink meat – they say – is a favorite of English queens. It is also said that Queen Elizabeth is fond of another offering of the lake: its man-made pearls. They are produced from the scales of an indigenous fish, plasica, according to a technique that creates an emulsion to cover the surface of an artificial pearl. The originators of the Ohrid pearl were two families from Russia. Of course, they still hold tightly to the secret of fabrication.

Small and insignificant politically as it may be, the new Republic of Northern Macedonia (smaller than Maryland) is the world’s first country to have full wireless broadband access. Thanks to the U.S. aid, more than 5,000 computers were installed in secondary and primary schools, and 6,000 teachers received technology training. The outcome is that Macedonia is a world leader in Internet access.

As a Roman, I was fascinated by one testimony of the Roman civilization that brought roads to a mountainous land. The Roman via Egnatia, built in the second century B.C., was the great west-to-east land route, starting from Durres, on the Adriatic coast of Albania, to Byzantium – modern day Istanbul. It crossed Albania, Macedonia and Greece stretching 625 miles through mountains and valleys, lakes and villages. I saw one of its bridges still standing, its graceful arch spanning an Albanian river. The ancient bridge is a sight to behold at a time when modern bridges collapse, as recently happened in Genoa. Finally, one can now walk a portion of the Via Egnatia, from Durres to Thessaloniki in Greece. This is another place that fired my imagination for an unanticipated reason: Roman buildings that were buried under the growing soil of centuries have come to light after excavations for new apartment houses. A wealth of thermal baths, public buildings, and civil structures came thus to enrich the sights of Thessaloniki, a city that boasts a perfect replica of the Roman pantheon.

In Macedonia, one cannot but applaud the legitimation of a new nation in Europe, a part of the Balkan region that was an amalgam of cultures but also synonymous with warfare. Nowadays, there is no violence in Northern Macedonia. It is time indeed to praise the leaders of Greece and Northern Macedonia for showing vision and courage. The only problem: Northern Macedonia will be invaded by tourists. Ohrid will be under siege and the trout, but not the pearls, will run out.

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