Macedonia and the National Geographic:

Constructing Stereotypes

by Basil Gounaris

More than one year has elapsed since National Geographic [Vol.189 No 3 (March 1996)] caused the anger of many Greeks -both at home and in the diaspora- by presenting, among much inaccurate information and unfortunate comments, a least favourable to the Greeks version of Macedonian history. Priit J.Vesilind, a senior writer of the famous journal, skillfully combined his interviews with local people in Skopje and Bitola with his apparently bad knowledge of Balkan history and succeeded in masterfully victimising the people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. In 1996 such a venture was no longer exceptional though some of his mistakes were: i.e. presenting S.R. of Macedonia as having been a buffer state for 46 years (since World War II) to "ward off" Greek and Bulgarian expansionism (!) or the reference to the alleged deliberate shipment of Greeks from Asia Minor by the Greek state to expunge Macedonian loyalties!

My point, however, is not to criticise Mr Vesilind for lack of historical background or unsatisfactory handling of anthroplogical data. It would be unfair. He was honest enough, actually, to declare that he himself had his "own confusions about Macedonians". I just want to point out the on-going contribution of ill-informed (not to mention ill-willed) journalism in the creation of evasive or deceptive stereotypes about the Balkans in general and Macedonia in particular. Mr Vesilind wrote: "This is Balkans after all where chauvinism often passes for history and facts are obscured in ethnic and religious murk". If this is true, then the question is whether journalists reporting on Macedonia have managed to distinguish between history and chauvinism and clarify the facts. If we are to believe Mr Vesilind for example, the facts are that Greeks are mean, furious, irritable, and influential lobbyists, Slav peasants are sensitive, durable, reasonable, traditional, and pious, Albanians are aggressive, Serbs are militant. In other words, in his presentation, immutable ethnic characteristics, tradition, faith and blood feuds are accounted for the fragile situation in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Such approaches are hardly enlightening; but they have a long tradition. I still recall one of my professors saying that the image of Slav peasant with the "great soul", projected by the British press, was indispensable in order to neutralize mutual mistrust and facilitate the Anglo-Russian rapprochement in the early years of the 20th century. They probably have an equally promising future, as long as analysts and reporters tend to simplify things, create least useful analogies with the past, and use emotions instead of arguments to influence public opinion or even foreign policy.

In 1913 a very similar approach to the Macedonian Question was published by the National Geographic under the title "The Races and Religions of Macedonia" [Vol.23 No 11 (November 1913) pp.1118-1132], which claimed that homogeneity would have solved the Macedonian problem. In that article (written around 1904) Luigi Villari portrayed the Greeks as wealthy and conspicuous, the Vlachs as intelligent and fine-looking (rather "indistinguishable from the Greeks"), the Albanians as barbarous but also brave and hospitable, the Jews as industrious and honest, the Bulgarians as not brilliant, silent, truthful and practical. Villari, like all his contemporaries, knew nothing about ethnic or national Macedonians. He pointed that Macedonia was only "a geographical unit".

Identical views were expressed by H.D.Dwight who prepared the article for "Saloniki" published by National Geographic in 1916 [Vol.30 No3 (Sept.1916), pp.203-232]. He met there pleasant, hearty-looking Jews, lordly Albanians and less lordly Bulgarians, kilted Greeks "who have an older claim to Saloniki than any one else" etc etc. He concluded that "any final equilibrium [of races in Macedonia] ... must necessarily be in part an artificial one". Vesilind would no doubt agree that Villari's 1913 and Dwight's 1916 ethnic and racial puzzles, even if they were published by National Geographic, are not sufficient arguments to negate post-war modern Macedonian nationalism. It would be reasonable to assume that his own ethnic approach will not be of much use in the future either.

Of course, though better known around the world, the National Geographic is probably the least responsible for the creation of stereotypes in the Balkans. In fact the importance of such cliches has already attracted the interest of serious scholars who try to locate and analyse the mechanisms of reproduction, textbooks and the media in particular. The book by Maria N.Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (Oxford, 1997) deals with such matters as well as the collective work Oil on Fire: Textbooks, Ethnic Stereotypes and Violence in South-Eastern Europe edited by Wolfgang Hopken for the Georg-Eckert Institute (Hannover, 1996). Also, the project "Balkan Neighbours" coordinated by ACCESS, a Sofia-based NGO, started in October 1996, funded by the Open Society Institute in Budapest, monitors the main print media in seven Balkan countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, FYROM, Romania, Serbia and Turkey in an attempt to locate the Positive and Negative Stereotypes.

Many more serious projects and studies could be mentioned which seek to demonstrate how stereotypes are created, reproduced and used. This is by no means an easy task. Even the very analysts of stereotypes sometimes create cliches to support their own views or even worse select evidence to support ready-made theories. Mr Dimitras', for example, (working for ACCESS in Athens) monthly presentation of the Greek press is at best a patchwork fallacy. Through the use of selected citations and references to minor articles, coming from two or three conservative newspapers (out of eight he is officially monitoring), he is building the stereotype of a nationalist and discredited Greek press, where reason and peace are always in deficit.

Analogy, models, generalisation, repetition, patterns, stereotypes, cliches of every kind are all schemes imperative to make the world more comprehensible to public opinion and easy to handle for diplomats. But simplifications of this kind do not necessarily imply accuracy nor are always compatible with truth. It is Mr Vesilind and Mr Dimitras tough task, as well as of all those interested in Balkan politics, history, and culture to find the appropriate methods and terms of analysis which will not destroy Balkan complexities for the sake of simplification and model building.

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