Recognising Own National Identity in the Post-Soviet Space Is the Necessary Defence Against Imperialist Russia

The only one to save peoples from becoming merely cannon fodder

30 May 2022

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

The decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to recognise the canonical status of the Archdiocese of Ohrid, the Church of North Macedonia, reminded me of the plight of a nation whose identity is contested by almost all of its neighbours. 

The very decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch is a reminder of this clash of identity. The question of the status of the Orthodox Church of Macedonia should be resolved by its synod with the synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church. And the question of the name of the Church — with the synod of the Greek Orthodox Church. 

The Serbian Orthodox Church doubts the right of the people of North Macedonia to their own autocephalous Church, and the Greek Orthodox Church questions the right to the name ‘Macedonian Orthodox Church.’ But there is also the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Sofia doubts both the right to autocephaly and the right to the name. In Bulgaria, they are sure that the Macedonian nation does not exist…

My own optics may seem quite distorted from the point of view of a Serb, Greek or Bulgarian. It just so happened that I have visited North Macedonia many times over the years, studied its history, culture and journalism and even had an internship in the newspaper ‘Nova Makedonija.’ I understood that neighbours can argue long and hard about the historical collisions that led to ‘the appearance of the state of North Macedonia on the world map.’ 

That neighbours can insist on changing the flag, the emblem, on corrections in history books. But this does not change the most important thing — there are people living in the Republic of Macedonia who consider themselves Macedonians. 

This is their identity, and their sense of self (of course, let us not forget the significant Albanian population, the political nation of North Macedonia is in the making, but that is another story). In neighbouring Bulgaria, even at the state level, they say that the emergence of Macedonians is the result of ‘political engineering.’ 

All European Nations Are a Project

But if you think about it, the emergence of any European nation is the result of ‘political engineering,’ the only question is time and circumstances. 

And the neglect of those nations that managed to emerge, defend and create their own states against those that did so later determined many European tragedies.

When I first began to learn about North Macedonia, I drew only one obvious parallel with its fate — it was a comparison with my own country, Ukraine. The article on the independence of the Republic of Macedonia that I wrote for Moscow’s Niezavisimoy Gazeta in September 1991 was titled ‘Ukraine of the Balkans.’ 

Ukraine declared independence 15 days before the Macedonian referendum on independence, ours was still a few months away, it was held on 1 December 1991, and ended with almost the same result: 90 to 95 per cent in favour of independence.

Even then, I understood that Ukraine’s road to independence would not be easy. That just as there are doubts about Macedonian identity, and it’s very right to statehood, there are the same doubts about Ukraine. Only now will Russia stop behaving towards Ukraine in the same way as Bulgaria did towards North Macedonia. 

After all, although in Sofia to this day they deny the national identity and the history of Macedonians and the Macedonian language itself, it was Bulgaria that was the first country to recognise the independence of the Republic of Macedonia. And this is quite logical — if you really consider the people of a neighbouring country as your own, you will not take actions that will destroy their prosperity.

Denial of One’s National Identity Leads to Genocide

As we can see, Russian actions towards Ukraine indicate the opposite. President Putin claims that Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are one people, and he denies Ukrainians the right to their identity. This statement, based on the mythologised history of the Russian state itself, is shared by millions of Russians. 

It has been defended for several centuries by Russian thinkers, politicians and cultural activists. But the war unleashed by Putin has shown that it is possible to simultaneously propagate the myth of ‘one people’ and destroy representatives of that ‘one people’ with missile attacks. Or with what was done in Bucha.

We must all agree on one simple thought: national identity is a matter of a choice. I say this as a person whose national identity was fought against by the great communist state, which tried by all possible means to prove that it is shameful to be a Jew. But it did not succeed — although I remember well how I learned Yiddish when there were no Jewish schools, no language courses, theatres, musical groups — practically nothing. But even that did not stop me or hundreds of thousands of those who wanted to preserve their national and cultural self even under conditions of daily humiliation.

Why should this happen to Ukrainians, who are the majority in their own country and on their own soil? With Macedonians? With the Bosnians? How can an individual be denied the right to express himself? The right to self-expression of an entire nation? How can this right be destroyed by government decisions and ballistic missiles?

Europe’s Nations Peacekeeping Mission

In post-World War II Europe, there was a clear understanding that solving complex national and religious problems was a matter of cooperation. I well remember a question from the owner of a small hotel in Italy’s South Tyrol. He asked me if I knew what had happened there over a hundred years ago. 

I knew, of course. I knew that as a result of World War I, South Tyrol became part of Italy. And it was an open wound to the people of the region. I knew how Mussolini had denied the people of South Tyrol their right to an identity — despite their allied relationship with Adolf Hitler.

But within the European Union, tools have been found to help heal the wounds. That is why I am confident that once North Macedonia joins the EU, none of its neighbours will have to doubt the identity of Macedonians anymore. And that each day of coexistence in the European family will help forget past claims and demonstrate their archaism and short-sightedness.

But what if your right to be is confronted with aggression — such as Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? I do not believe that we will be able to convince the Russian authorities and society that respecting such a right is a natural attitude of an individual and a respectable state in the coming years. 

This is evidenced not only by the war unleashed by Putin. The restoration of the value of Soviet history bears witness to this. It is also evidenced by the shameful process of Russification of the peoples of the Russian Federation itself. These peoples are deprived of their identity, culture and mother tongue. And they are using young Buryats and Yakuts as Putin’s cannon fodder.

Therefore, the answer to this challenge is the European and Euro-Atlantic integration of countries whose peoples the Kremlin denies the right to exist.

Mutual respect, solidarity and democracy’s readiness for self-defence — this is the plan for our future.

Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship. Read more about the project here and consider contributing here.

This text has also been published in Polish in Gazeta Wyborza.

Picture: Сергій Клименко, Пам’ятник засновникам Києва, Filter added and cropped, CC BY-SA 3.0

Vitaly Portnikov

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Vitaly is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. He is also an author and renowned journalist working in democratic media in Central and Eastern Europe for more than three decades. He is the author of hundreds of analytical articles in Ukrainian, Belarusian, Polish, Russian, Israeli, Baltic media. He hosts television programs and his own analytical channels on YouTube. He is currently broadcasting at the office of the Espreso TV channel in Lviv and continues to cooperate with the Ukrainian and Russian services of Radio Liberty. On the Russian service of Radio Liberty, he continues the project about the post-Soviet space “Roads to Freedom”, which was aired first from Moscow, then from Kyiv, and is now being produced in Lviv as a joint project of Radio Liberty, the Current Time TV channel and the Espreso TV channel.

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