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The Crisis of Waiting in North Macedonia

The public health consequences of North Macedonia's political crisis would be considerable.

Bojan Srbinovski //

In the opening sentences of Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” a man from the countryside arrives at a gate through which he must go “to gain entry into the law.” Before it sits a gatekeeper, who responds to the man’s request for entry with a tentative “it is possible, but not now.” The narrator reports that the man sits down and waits “for days and years.”

The nonchalant shift in time, between days and years, in Kafka’s tale, an allegory of infinite waiting which has become a gathering site for dispossessed people around the planet, has also come to describe the political predicament of North Macedonia, whose EU membership talks were blocked in October. France stood alone in its rejection of the newly-renamed Balkan country.

In what follows, I want to proceed by calling the situation in North Macedonia what it is: a crisis. This crisis has a public health dimension. Suffice it to say, the prospect of Euro-integration is deeply important for the country’s challenged healthcare system. One remembers the case of Tamara Dimovska, a nine year-old girl who died waiting for the Ministry of Health to release funds for an emergency surgery to treat her severe spinal deformity abroad. This case, which sparked a series of protests, represents a particularly gruesome example of a broader healthcare system that seems incapable of supporting its charges. On a completely different level, I want to use the word crisis to name the psychic pressures that shape the experience of waiting–for a better tomorrow that never comes–a waiting that has defined the lives of Macedonians for decades.

“The enlargement rules need reform,” said French President Emmanuel Macron at a news conference after blocking the negotiations for both North Macedonia and Albania. (France was joined by Denmark and the Netherlands on the subject of Albania’s accession.) Neither President Macron nor his team offered any serious explanation of what such reforms would entail.

This setback punctuates a 14 years-long period of waiting, which began when the country that now goes by the name of North Macedonia attained EU candidacy status. Since then, the country has undergone a series of massive political changes that have included, in this order, the violent coming-to-power of a right-wing political party, the rise of a brand of authoritarian ethno-nationalism, the public’s response in a series of peaceful protests, the narrow election of a pro-Western center-left government, and the change of the country’s name to settle a decades-long dispute with its southern neighbor, Greece.

The agreement with Greece, wherein the Republic of Macedonia changed its name as a sign of diplomatic good will should give one a sense of the lengths to which the former Yugoslav state has gone to evidence its commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. This gesture was rewarded with a formal invitation to join NATO­, which reverses Greece’s initial 2008 decision to veto the country’s accession to the Alliance. As a result of this invitation, foreign investors now see North Macedonia as a stable market. There have been a number of setbacks, like the allegations of corruption by the country’s Chief Special Prosecutor Katica Janeva, but the response has been to file charges against Janeva and her accomplices, which all but confirms that the judicial system, however flawed, is working.

To put it another way, no other country has transformed so radically the makeup of its institutions to declare repeatedly, in the past three years, its loyalty to the (oftentimes imaginary) enterprise of a democratic West. The response to this declaration has ranged between milquetoast and lukewarm.

The potential public health benefits of an EU entry for a small economy like North Macedonia’s (with 22.2% of the population living under the poverty line) are difficult to estimate, but it is safe to assume that they would be considerable. Its status as the second most polluted country in Europe and the fifteenth most polluted country in the world makes it the kind of place where the neglect of greater political power players–players that profess their support for the country in the most invidiously immaterial ways–has immediate consequences. Neither European nor local authorities have taken seriously what is most certainly an environmental and therefore also a public health crisis. In 2018, lung cancer was the most common kind of cancer in the country; in the same year, North Macedonia ranked as the country with the eighteenth highest rate of lung cancer in the world. The statistics bear out a truth that is difficult to avoid: when Europe looks the other way, Macedonians die.

To call the situation in North Macedonia “a crisis” demands, of course, that we attend to the origins of that term. If the Ancient Greek krisis meant decision, and if the term still carries in it a resonant affective amplitude of a moment in which one decides the path forward, then the current crisis in North Macedonia would be precisely the opposite. Rather than a singular act of decision-making, “crisis” in this context names an infinitely revolving spiral of undecidability. Such crises take part in a kind of situation tragedy writ large, in which the subjects of this insignificant nation become, like Lauren Berlant’s TV characters, “caught up in despair not existential or heroic but shaped within the stresses of ordinary life under capitalism.”[1] An increasing number of people in North Macedonia could be thus forgiven for believing that Europe has abandoned them (a belief that would falsely suggest that the opposite had ever been the case) and for turning the other way–toward the ultra-conservative opposition with strong ties to Vladimir Putin. Of course, such a turn would only become reabsorbed into the country’s perpetual crisis.

In October, after the failure to open accession negotiations with the EU, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to block the talks a “historic error.” European Council President Donald Tusk echoed this sentiment, calling the blockage a mistake. “It is not a failure,” he told The Guardian, “it is a mistake. I feel really embarrassed.” Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who still bears a scar on his forehead from surviving an attempt on his life in April of 2017, repeated the phrase “historic error” in a tweet thread as he called for an election, calling this failure “a second scar.”

For people who live in North Macedonia, however, as well as for the estimated 447,000 (out of around two million) who live abroad, the fact of France’s blockage feels less like an error of history, and more like a repetition of it. Such an event is a feature, and not a bug, of what it means to be a subject of this minor country whose stability matters so little to the world’s superpowers, but whose fictionalized image as the home of Russophile cyber-villains has been invoked time and again in the ploys of global players. In fact, the insularity of political discourse in the West seems to have precluded many commentators from remembering that the historical connection between the former Yugoslav state and the USSR is tenuous at best and that not every former socialist country is a Russian satellite.

The people of North Macedonia are decidedly not what former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described, in a discussion of the 2016 US election results, as those “guys over in Macedonia who are running these fake news sites,” implying that they might be Russian agents who interfered in the election. And contrary to what Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has suggested, most of them feel that they are a people who belong to a real country.

Among the half million Macedonians scattered across the world are the mother and daughter who work as servers for a major cruise liner company, but are staffed on different ships, so they can only see each other if fortune makes their destinations overlap; the Harvard graduate who works as the chief of staff for the vice-president of a major Chicago nonprofit; the club promoter whose summer job in Greece turned into a four year-long gig in South Africa; the young gay doctor who moved to Germany after medical school and immediately found employment; and the young woman who came to the US as part of the Work and Travel program and got married. Most of them tell me that they don’t spend too much time following the situation at home. They are, like me, part of a generation scattered across the world after Yugoslavia’s collapse, whose psychic lives have been shaped by the dull, persistent suffering of an infinitely deferred anticipation.   

Near the end of his life, the man from the countryside asks the gatekeeper in Kafka’s tale, “How is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?”, to which the keeper responds, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m now going to close it.” The image that this ending conjures, when it is read in the context of North Macedonia’s predicament, is not so much one of a cyber-villain plotting to take down some Western country, but precisely of an exasperated person who has been sitting in front of an open door in an old waiting room. This person suffers from maladies, of the body and of the spirit, which are the results of having sat in this room for a generation. Sometimes they can see past the guard who mans the door, and sometimes they can’t.

What has changed now is that they finally understand they will never get inside.

[1] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 290n18. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

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