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Out of Skopje: Life is agreeable, even in the midst of an identity crisis

SKOPJE - It was hard to dam the torrent of history pouring forth from the co-president of the Association for the Protection and Propagation of the Truth about Alexander the Great.

'See here,' said Spase Shuplinovski, prodding a much- annotated 1952 Croat translation of the Anabasis of Arrian as he added up tens of thousands of Hellenic Greeks killed by Alexander's Macedonian dynasty. 'Alexander was never a Greek.'

Before long he had taken my pen and filled my notebook with a truly Balkan series of claims about the numbers of Slavic Macedonians in neighbouring states. He counted three million in Bulgaria, 2.5 million in Turkey, a million in Greece, even 350,000 in Albania.

Mr Shuplinovski's passion rose so much that his espresso coffee grew stone cold in the Skopje cafe. Neighbouring tables avoided getting drawn into the discussion. Somehow wild nationalism has not caught on among Macedonia's Slav majority, about 1.5 million of the 2.2 million population.

This small, landlocked state was the most reluctant of all Yugoslav republics to choose independence, and it has not quite found its place in the world. The argument with Greece over the name of the country means that at the border both countries have signs proclaiming 'Welcome to Macedonia'.

Greece has also struck back in a war of symbols. Countering Macedonia's use on its flag of the Star of Vergina, an ancient Macedonian symbol found in Greek Macedonia in the 1970s, Athens has struck a thoroughly Hellenic-featured bust of Alexander the Great and the 16- pointed star burst on its own 100- drachma coin.

The problem is not merely a question of historical debate. The Greek Prime Minister, Andreas Papandreou, has imposed a total blockade on Macedonia to back up his arguments. And Greece is not the only country that has problems with Macedonia's fragile three- year-old independent identity.

Bulgaria recognises Macedonia as a country, but does not recognise Macedonians as a people separate from Bulgarians. Albania recognises the Macedonian people, but wants ethnic Albanians to be recognised as a constituent nation, not a mere minority. Serbia has no problems with either Macedonians or Albanians, but insists that the Macedonian Orthodox Church cannot win separation from their old masters in the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate.

Neighbours are not the only difficulty. Before international recognitions of Macedonia began in December, Greek objections had forced foreign envoys to accredit themselves in curious ways. The United States has still not completely recognised Macedonia, with the American envoy, Robert Norman, moving up from 'representative' in a back room of the USAid bureau to 'acting principal officer' of a 'liaison office'. Before full recognition, France found a grander formula with its 'general delegation'. Britain's Tony Millson is now relieved to be able to hand out cards declaring that he is Her Majesty's ambassador.

With few embassies accredited to Skopje, diplomats are treated as celebrities anyway, whose every word is played back on the evening television news. The President is even likely to whisper to envoys of those European countries who recognised Macedonia first that he 'would remember first love'.

Despite its difficulties, Macedonia is still a fairly happy-go-lucky place, perhaps the best survival strategy for a country whose 800- man tank regiment has no tanks and whose 40 Yugoslav-trained air force pilots have no warplanes.

City streets are instead crowded with banks, small Greek-style restaurants, Central European cafes and travel agencies catering to a large expatriate workforce that keeps many families afloat. Even in the deepest Albanian minority villages, teashops boast the latest in Italian coffee-making machines.

As the manager of one of Benetton's central Skopje outlets said: 'We're all mixed up, we don't know what to think. But life is very pleasant. And anyway, whatever happens here, it's always better than in Bulgaria.'

(Map omitted)