Macedonia: profiting from a spat between Kosovo and Serbia

As a border dispute stalls trade between Serbs and Kosovars, the beneficiaries are to Kosovo's south.

Little discussed, and for long known only by the elongated and rather ridiculous name the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" or FYRM for short, little oval-shaped Macedonia has forged its own path since independence in 1993. Greece thwarted its ambitions to call itself by its own name, concerned as they were that their own province of "Macedonia" would be somehow confused with its neighbour, or worse still actually claimed by it.

Not since the reign of King Philip II of Macedon (a key figure, as I recall, in the 1956 film Alexander the Great staring Richard Burton) has Macedonia been so often discussed.  Only by agreeing to the FYRM acronym did Macedonia gain admission to the UN in 1993. In dealings with its southern neighbour Greece the convention still applies of course, but most UN members have dropped it.

A Slav nation by and large, there's a sizeable Albanian ethnic minority there, accounting for  24% of its people. Even in the capital, Skopje, Albanians constitute a fifth of the population. And run-ins between the two ethnicities have in the past discouraged international inward investment to the place. Things have died down, it seems. In fact, dealings with Albanian-speaking Kosovo have boomed of late.

In the northern bit of Kosovo live ethnic Serbs who refuse to accept Kosovan authority over their territory.  The Serbs of Serbia proper, by contrast, have profited from the increasingly busy trade with Kosovo as a whole. Until the other day, that is, when a local spat over a border post in the Serb area of Kosovo flared into a full-blown diplomatic incident. Tensions ran high at the crossing near Zvecan. So, NATO's KFOR force was called in to maintain the peace. And exporters from Serbia discovered that trade had dried up completely. Yet "the number of lorries crossing into (Kosovo) from Macedonia suggested that Kosovars were not having much trouble replacing (imported) goods from Serbia," reports The Economist.

This augers well for Macedonia, a country sorely in need of a boost.  

With 25,713 sq km of territory, the country is about the same size as Rwanda or Vermont. And with only 2 million people it struggles to make itself heard in a world dominated by more populous countries. Yet with a rich history exemplified by the ruins at Heraclea Lyncestis and its people's heroism during nationalist uprisings against the Ottomans, this country is sharply defined by its own distinct identity.

According to the IMF, Macedonia's economic growth is expected to hit 3% in 2011, equal to that of Serbia or Bulgaria, both close Balkan neighbours. In 2012 Macedonia is set to grow by another 3.7%, and undoubtedly extra trade opportunities with developing Kosovo will help to maintain momentum.

It'll need all the help it can get, as its biggest trading partners are Germany (currently at risk of stalling), Greece (at present in dire straights), and Italy (teetering on the brink). Thankfully, 65% of Macedonian exports are directed towards other countries, Bulgaria and Croatia most notably.  It sells food, drink, tobacco and textiles in the main. But its economy is well managed, with the World Factbook asserting that, over recent years, its "macroeconomic stability ... was maintained by a prudent monetary policy, which kept the domestic currency at the pegged level against the euro, while interest rates were falling. As a result, GDP growth was modest, but positive in 2010."

A problematic Eurozone is unhelpful, yet an uncoupling of the Macedonian Denar from the single currency would give it a marketing and competitive edge as it embraces the future.

As any marketing guru might tell you, it takes an eon to build a reputation yet only a split second to lose it. The same might be said for trade links.  And the relationships being forged with Kosovo should stand Macedonia in very good stead in the years to come.


Alexander the Great (Alexander III of Macedon) was born in 356 BC in Pella, capital of Macedon in what is now the Greek region of Macedonia. He was the son of Philip II of Macedon.  

Voice of America noted on September 8 2011, "Macedonia is set to celebrate its independence day – and rile neighboring Greece – by officially unveiling a controversial statue in its capital city of Skopje. Thursday, Macedonia marks 20 years of independence from the former Yugoslavia. As part of the celebrations, the government is showing off its capital city renovation project, known as “Skopje 2014.” At the heart of the celebration is a 24-meter high statue, located in Skopje's central square, which depicts Alexander the Great on horseback. Officials in Greece say the statue of Alexander, who ruled the ancient Greek state of Macedon and conquered the Persian empire, is a provocation and an attempt by their neighbor to steal a historical Greek figure."

Just to clear up any confusion you might have: I'm as confused as you as to whether Alexander was born in what is now Macedonia (the Greek bit), or in what was Macedonia (the Greek bit and FYRM combined?) when he was born.

Or, is the statue story a tale of publicity for tourism's sake? For as Brendan Behan said: "There's no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary." And quoting Oscar Wilde: "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

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