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After name row, Macedonia faces revising how to teach its history

The old bridge of the Vardar river is in front of the monument of Alexander the Great in the center of Skopje. Macedonia's history textbooks now look set for another overhaul as the Balkans country closes in on a settlement with neighbouring Greece in a decades-long, bitter dispute over its …
AFP

Skopje (AFP) – From piles of toys cluttering the attic of his family home in Skopje, Nikola Cvetoski eventually extracts the “Legend of Ancient Macedonia”.

With this big, red book written by a local politician and published two years after Macedonia’s 1991 independence, “society told us that everything we had been taught was no longer the truth,” he told AFP.

“Suddenly, the schools were demanding that students buy this book,” fumed the 65-year-old retired mechanic, who grew up during Josip Broz Tito’s regime when Macedonia was part of communist Yugoslavia.

Macedonia’s history textbooks now look set for another overhaul as the Balkans country closes in on a settlement with neighbouring Greece in a decades-long, bitter dispute over the right to call itself the Republic of Macedonia.

But revising the national narrative, built up over more than two decades, may prove harder than changing the country’s name.

– ‘National romanticism’ – 

Under Tito, a common Yugoslav identity was promoted that eclipsed learning at school in Macedonia about the likes of ancient warrior king Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, and his father Philip II.

But after the war-torn former Yugoslav Federation disintegrated during the 1990s, Macedonia like other Balkan countries saw a return of old nationalist sentiments that had been hushed by Tito’s regime.

Historian Todor Cepreganov said there was a “renewal of a national romanticism” in Macedonia, which would be boosted by right-wing leader Nikola Gruevski’s grip on power from 2006 to 2016.

As a result, Macedonian history textbooks started to look quite different.

By the 2011 edition, pupils aged 11 and 12 learned how, in the Macedonian state under Philip, the ancient king had “conquered the Hellenic colonies”.

And that his son, “Alexander the Macedonian”, had “managed to defeat them (the Greeks), forcing them to recognise his authority”, the textbook reads.

Indeed, even if reconciliation now looks on the cards with Greece in the name row, both countries continue to stake a claim to Alexander the Great.

– What’s in a name? – 

For more than a quarter of a century, Greece and Macedonia have rowed over the right of the former Yugoslav republic to call itself Macedonia, which Athens objects to because it has its own northern province of that name.

Greece fears the name, Republic of Macedonia, may imply territorial ambitions and also accuses Skopje of trying to usurp the heritage of the ancient Macedonians and stake a claim to Alexander the Great.

After recent talks between the two neighbours, a resolution may now be close.

But the longer term challenge could be how to recast the way Macedonians have been taught — literally through their history textbooks — to view and feel about their own history and culture.

For national celebrations, Macedonian children are dressed in clothes resembling those from ancient times. Some of their parents, meanwhile, view Macedonians not as Slavs but rather direct descendants of Philip and Alexander.

– ‘Brainwashing’ –

Higher education has not been spared either.

In a 2010 archeology textbook from the eastern Goce Delcev University in Stip, “ancient Macedonia” is described as the “Balkans region where Macedonians were reigning”, and not as part of Greece, although it became the dominant state of Hellenistic Greece. 

For Damjan Todorovski, a 59-year-old teacher from the southwestern city of Bitola, all “textbooks introduced after 2006 contained systematic brainwashing, not education”.

“There was no Macedonian state until 1945… What are we talking about?” said Sonja Trajanovska, a pupil’s mother in her 40s from Skopje.

“I will not allow my child to be indoctrinated by nationalism and falsified history.”

Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats (SDSM) pledged shortly after taking office last September to undertake a complete revision of textbooks.

– ‘Angers the Greeks’ – 

“One cannot impose on our children assumptions and hatred, notably towards our neighbours,” said Petar Atanasov, tasked with education within the SDSM.

“But this should be done by experts and professors, not politicians,” he added.

Teachers, especially the younger ones who themselves have been educated during the last couple of decades, need to accept a new change of direction in the teaching of Macedonian history.

“An eternity will be needed to repair the damage,” warned 87-year-old retired history teacher Marija Veskova.

But her 28-year-old peer Natasa, who refused to give her surname, is worried.

“I don’t understand why we should be ashamed of what we are. Alexander was Macedonian. And we are afraid to say it since it angers the Greeks.”

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