“Macedonia and Epirus”: The solution to the perennial Macedonian Question?

“Macedonia and Epirus”: The solution to the perennial Macedonian Question?

By Alexandre Vardarsky

DISCLAIMER: This article is to be understood purely and only as “creative brainstorming” on a very important Southern Europe problem and in no case as anything else.  The article is deliberately vague on numbers, geographic nomenclature and recommendations in order to allow for maximum extent of flexibility.

The “Macedonian Question” has plagued Southeastern Europe for at least 200 years.  The existence of the Republic of Macedonia today is threatened by multiple factors, both internal and external.  However, the greatest threats for the continued stability of Macedonia, and any country in general, are the internal strife and the geo-strategic positioning.

From the point of view of internal strife, Macedonia’s continued issue has been with the large and restive Albanian population, concentrated in the West and North of the country, mainly in the Polog census (statistical) region, which includes the Albanian-majority large cities of Tetovo and Gostivar.  From a geo-strategic point of view, Macedonia’s main problem is not incorporating a sea port on its territory, that is, being landlocked.

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Figure 1: Ancient Epirus

Macedonia’s neighbor to the west, the Republic of Albania, has similar issues, although somewhat in reverse.  The minorities in Albania, which are sometimes historically and contemporary seen as the source of internal strife, are the Macedonian and the Greek ones found in the south of the country.

The smaller, Macedonian, minority is concentrated around Lake Prespa and the city of Korche (Korica in Macedonian).  The Ethnic Greeks are spread over a much larger area in Southern Albania, roughly corresponding to the historic Northern Epirus, and also closely conforming to the Autonomous Northern Epirus which was proclaimed a separate entity in the south of Albania after the Balkan Wars of 1913-1914.

Historically, the extent of the territory of Ancient Epirus has been fluid and sometimes much larger than the current areas of Epirus in both Greece and Albania.  However, since the XIX century, that is, since the definition of modern Balkan nationalities and carving out of the modern Balkan nation-states began in its earnest, Epirus in Greece (also called “Chameria” in Albanian) and Northern Epirus in Albania have been quite well defined.

Northern Epirus declared autonomy during 1914, after the Balkan Wars, on the claims that it is predominantly populated with Orthodox Christian believers, unlike the rest of Albania, which is mostly
Muslim, with a Catholic minority in the North.  The autonomous entity existed until 1921 when the entire region was incorporated back into Albania.

In Macedonia, the Polog Valley Statistical region is the only one where the majority population is Ethnic Albanian, being in the mountainous Northwest corner of the country, along the Albanian and Kosovo borders.  This region has been populated with Albanians at least back to the XV century when the conquering Ottoman Turks evicted much of the previously domesticated Slavic population and forced them to move northwards.  This is the region where the 2001 Albanian insurgency in Macedonia started.

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Figure 2: The extent of the “Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus” 1914-1921.  The red dot is the capital, Gjirokaster/Argyrokastron.

The postulated exchange of territories does not necessarily have to oblige the historic borders of Northern Epirus (which are up to the current southern suburbs of Vlore) nor the current boundaries of the Polog census region, which include the entire National Park Mavrovo, a favorite winter and summer resort for the Macedonian Capital Region.  The potential exchange would exclude the territory of the National Park Mavrovo while at the same time compensating by excluding the Northern Epirus territory in the proximity of Vlore, having the actual farthest northern demarcation be the village of Dhërmi, which is equidistant from the cities of Vlore and Sarrande and populated mostly by Ethnic Greeks.

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Figure 3: Northern Epirus in Green, Southern Epirus in Orange, Dotted Red Line – 1914 Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus borders

The populations in the territories to be exchanged are approximately the same, around 250,000 people, but that would depend on the decisions of different groups to stay or move out of the newly created entities.  The piece of land that Albania is giving up is larger as an area and has sea access, however the piece of land that Macedonia is giving up has much better infrastructure, highways and railways, and is composed of a very fertile valley, while the Albanian piece is mostly unpassable mountains and a logistics nightmare to build infrastructure, since next to none exists currently.

If an exchange similar to the proposed takes place, both countries, Albania and Macedonia, would be left in a stronger internal and external shape, even by rough estimates.  Internally, Macedonia will have a much more homogeneous religious and ethnic composition, the Muslim population falling from 32% to below 20% and the Ethnic Albanian population declining from around 25% to about 14%.  In addition, the Ethnic Greek share in the population of the new state would increase to about 7% of the total, requiring a linguistic and cultural status as the 3rd largest ethnic group.   The Orthodox Christianity’s share as a percentage of believers in the new entity would increase from the current 66% to close to 80%.

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Figure 4: Polog Statistical (Census) Region in Republic of Macedonia

Externally, Macedonia will have access to sea, though not without large logistics and infrastructure investment and expense.  The Sarrande Bay is too shallow to be a major port and is also in the maritime shadow of the Island of Corfu, however more northward, a bay called Porto Palermo was a location for a Venetian fortress and a WWII Italian military port and could be developed into a major shipping port, of course, with a significant infrastructure investment.  The road Veles-Bitola-Resen-Korce-Gjirokaster-Sarrande, which is to become a major artery, would also require a major infrastructure investment.

For Albania, internally, the large Greek minority, and the smaller, but feisty, Macedonian minority, would be a thing of the past and the Ethnic Albanian share in the ethnic composition of the new Albanian state would be in the high 90th percentile.  This exchange would also eliminate Orthodox Christianity as a significant religion in Albania within the new borders.  Externally Albania would not have a border with Greece anymore, and thus no more inherited and current issues with the “Chameria” region and the militant attempts for its return to Albania.  Also, externally, Albania will have a much longer border with Kosovo and a chance for tighter infrastructural integration and connectivity towards the northeast.

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Figure 5: Ethnic composition of counties in Polog Region, Republic of Macedonia

The population of the newly exchanged regions would have the option to stay at their current location, their property rights translating into the new state entity, or sell and move to the neighboring country, for which proper relocation assistance should be provided.  Both countries are on the path of European integration, thus no violent incidents are to be expected after the final demarcation of the new borders and exchanges of border patrol, police and military personnel.  The new countries would be much more homogenous religiously, harking back to the Ottoman Empire “millet” system, which has historically proven to be a stable model for enduring peace on the Balkans.

For the Republic of Macedonia, another fortuitous development can ensue in its prolonged and arduous name-argument with Greece.  Since with the exchange of territories Epirus would now be a part of Republic of Macedonia, the new country might consider changing its name to Macedonia and Epirus” with the understanding that the country consists of the northern portions of the historic regions referenced in the name.

This should be a guarantee enough to Greece in order to drop the name and history objections, and stop blockading Macedonia’s integration into the EU and NATO.  Greece could probably find some gratitude in the fact that it would no longer have a border with Albania and no more “Chameria Liberation Front” threats of taking Greek Epirus by force.

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Figure 5:  New possible borders of Albania and Macedonia (“and Epirus”) entities

Macedonian culture is very tightly connected to the Sharr Mountains, which with this exchange would be completely in Albania, together the special breed of shepherd dogs endemic to the region, the Sharplaninec.  Similarly there are strong Albanian cultural connections to the towns of Sarande and Gjirokaster, which, with the exchange, would be in the new country of “Macedonia and Epirus.”  These and similar cultural heritages would not be lost, but still preserved in the tradition and national narrative, together with more prosperous and more stable countries, as the result of the exchange.