• A place at the table for Macedonia | September, 2010
• Morten Harket Sings a New Song | November, 2007
• Bryan Ferry in a New Town | October, 2007
• In Search of a Midnight Sun | June, 2006
• Decade | June, 2006
• The Leadership of Ronald Reagan | June, 2004
• Where the Monks Drive Range Rovers | December, 2000


June, 2006


If memory and the Outlook calendar function on my computer serve me correctly, it was Saturday, May 25, 1996 that I first set foot in the Republic of Macedonia.

I clearly remember, as if it were yesterday, flying in from Zagreb where I had spent a week working, and looking down and seeing many small fires burning in the yards of homes in the villages near the Skopje airport as we descended.  As the sun sunk low in the Western sky, I thought myself back to my days running around El Salvador in the early ‘90s, and seeing the same thing: fires.  And I thought: is this a metaphor?

The American holiday of Memorial Day was the following Monday, May 27, so this made it a three-day weekend, the perfect opportunity to taste Skopje as it were.  I was considering a job with the humanitarian organization Mercy Corps and thought it a fine idea indeed to fly in from Zagreb, whilst I was in the region, to check it out and see if I might actually be able to live in Macedonia for the three month contract I was considering.  Although I was completely on my own for those three days – I knew not a living soul – something in the air or something about the Macedonians at least must have clicked with me.  A decade later, I’m still here, though not full-time.

A decade is a long time, at least in human terms. If the life expectancy of an American male is 74.4 years, then a decade is almost one eighth of that lifetime.  So I’ve spent one eighth of my life in Macedonia.  And although I have truthfully tried to leave – for good – on two separate occasions, I’ve been pulled back, as it were, perhaps from the abyss and into, well, back into Macedonia. And I’m not finished yet.

I didn’t have the experience of the Apostle Paul who had a vision of a Macedonian man in Acts 16 begging Paul to come over and help.  My idea of coming to Macedonia was much more mercenary and partly cathartic: make some money and get out of that pit of despair, Washington, DC, where I had labored in vain and vacuity for seven long, arduous years.  So come to Macedonia I did.

My three month contact with Mercy Corps drew to a close and I figured everything was going along swimmingly so I upped it to a year.  One year became four and a half with Mercy Corps and then they no longer needed an expatriate to oversee their work here.  So while they left, I didn’t.  I hung out my proverbial shingle, so to speak, and started doing gigs on my own.  And that was over five and a half years ago.

My reasons for staying are no longer mercenary, though I do need to make a living somehow – I haven’t won the lottery yet.  And as for catharsis, yes, that is still partly true (we all need a break from the drudgery that can be daily life), but my returning is much more along the lines of wanting to see Macedonia do more than just survive – I want to see you succeed.

So I guess I like Macedonia.  Actually, that’s not true.  I respect Macedonia because I love the people of Macedonia.  I like your warm and hospitable manner, your openness and friendliness, your emphasis on family, friends and relationships.  And I’ve always cheered for the underdog.  I consider Macedonia to be the underdog because of everything you’ve had to put up with and go through in the short almost fifteen years of independence as a modern nation state.  That’s not to say you haven’t done some pretty dumb things – you have.  Some of your leaders have….well, let’s just leave it at that for now.

But besides some sad and unfortunate people running Macedonia, from time to time, the proverbial deck has been very much stacked against you since the creation.  Sanctions on the rump Yugoslavia, sanctions from your friends in Greece, the Kosovo crisis, the 2001 crisis, the near-death of one president and the death of another, the non-recognition of your name by many “friends,” the non-recognition of your church by many “friends,” the non-recognition of your language by another “friend,” the über nanny in the form of some in the international community lecturing and hectoring – these have not been easy to overcome.  But slowly, you, Macedonia, are overcoming them.  And I say good for you.

Hanging around in your country for a decade has given me a unique insight into your country if not your psyche too.  I’ve learned much about you – and about myself. Goodness knows I’ve learned much about my own country too.  It’s been a lifetime in a decade.

I’ve probably forgotten more than most self-professed experts on Macedonia will ever know.  I’ve certainly forgotten more than most policy makers and decision makers in the world’s capitals will ever know.   Yes, I realize there is a whiff of arrogance in that statement and yet, it remains true. And yes, I’m still learning and forgetting.

In ten years, I’ve been present at the creation of many people and things.  In fact, I’ve often been more than just present.  My whole raison d’être, however, has been to affect positive change whether it be with one individual or with an entire country.  And I believe that has been accomplished to one degree or another though again, it’s not finished.

In ten years I’ve seen marriages, divorces, births and deaths of friends – and that’s just here in Macedonia.  I’ve witnessed the same thing in my own country and in other countries I haunt too.  Throughout Macedonia and Europe, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know presidents, prime ministers, princes, princesses, parliamentarians and many normal and sane people too.  And I’m comfortable with both types – the high and the humble.

In ten years I’ve lived through wars and rumors of wars, terrorist activities, earthquakes, floods, and a myriad of other dangerous happenings – and that’s just in Macedonia.  But these too, you have overcome.

That’s partly because you have a lot of people around the world who care and are praying for you.  I’ve been praying for you.  Not just for my close friends but for others are well.  Like your leaders.  Like Archbishop Stefan.  He has a heavy weight on his shoulders and a great responsibility.  Pray for him and pray for your leaders.  Pray for guidance, wisdom and discernment.  Pray like there’s no tomorrow, Macedonia.

Macedonia, you’ve got exquisite potential.  While the rest of the world is going to hell in a hand basket, that doesn’t mean you have to join them.  And if, in fact, the world will one day end with a whimper and not a bang, that doesn’t mean that whilst you’re still here and hanging around, you can’t do something positive for your fellow man.  In fact, that is the only thing that makes life worth living and is best exemplified, in my humble opinion and belief system, by imitating the life of the one who gave his life for all of us – Jesus of Nazareth.

Macedonia, you can have a positive impact on your fellow man and in and throughout the world today and you can export that.  I’m reminded of Blagoja Samakoski, his technological inventions and his new innovations in wind farm development.  Or Boris Trajanov who just celebrated 20 years of exporting Macedonia with that magnificent voice of his. Or Sveto Janevski and his superb Tikves wines. And countless others.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a Macedonian friend of mine and we were comparing life in Macedonia to life in the United States.  He stated what I have come to realize is the obvious – that life here can be very pleasant.  It doesn’t take a lot of money and the pace of life is really laidback (actually it is so laidback, at times, that it’s in danger of falling over).  Compared to life in the United States – where we are always on the move, forever pursuing the capitalist gods of our consumerist culture, always on the lookout for just one dollar more – life in Macedonia can be downright pleasurable.  Family and friends often count more here, though the burdens of family can be too overbearing at times as well.  But you need to ask yourself the question: What price paradise?  How much is enough?  Be careful as you pursue wanton gain.  Riches are nice, for a time, but relationships are better.

Another friend asked me if I would live here permanently.  We’ve known each other for nine of the past ten years so he knows that I have actually lived here for seven of those.  After hesitating for a moment – because I own a home in Arizona, right now and am straddling the Atlantic – I said yes.  Let me now take the opportunity to qualify that with an unabashed, emphatic and definitive yes.  Had I the extra money, I would buy here in a heartbeat.

Another conversation, another friend and we turn to the subject of tourism and wine.  Being a novice connoisseur myself, I am unequivocally now convinced that T’ga Za Jug is the wine for the United States.  It has the delicate balance and exquisite taste of a California Barbera and I know it could make a big hit there.  However, we will have to rename it as most of my fellow gringos just won’t, for the very dear life of them, be able to pronounce it in its current form. 

To me, Macedonia is a very agreeable country and Skopje is a very pleasant and comfortable city to live in.  I’ve been witness to the many changes here a half score of years and I am pleased to admit that Skopje is looking better every day.  Whoever is working on beautifying the parks and sidewalks and street lights and general infrastructure deserves our praise and thanks.  Now if you could only learn to obey the traffic laws and get the parking thing figured out this would be one fine place.

And you’ve even taken to improving your health.  When I came here ten years ago, people would stare at me like I was half mad when I went for a jog along the Vardar River (of course, I am half mad).  Today, however, the Vardar riverside liberally oozes with people jogging, biking, skating and just walking along the path that flows with the river – all for the health of it.  Good for you.

Macedonia, you’re on the right path though your leaders need to focus a bit more on the things that most people care about – whether you’re from Mongolia, Madagascar or Macedonia – and that’s jobs.  It is jobs, jobs, jobs.  Did I mention jobs?

Most people around the world simply want to hold down a good-paying job, raise their family and send their kids to school.  Is that too much to ask for?  To help them do it, the government – any government – needs to focus relentlessly on jobs and the economy.  My advice is to look to those who have created jobs and brought in foreign direct investment in the past and are pledging to do so again.  Stick with a proven track record.

But there is more than this.  You’re on the way to EU and NATO membership – again, good for you.  But it’s something you’ve got to continually work at and I think you’re headed in the right direction, demonstrating your willingness and ability to accept these responsibilities.

Keep working on the other issues that are important to you – recognition of the name, recognition of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, recognition of your passports and your search for visa-free travel.  You need help with this?  Just ask.  You have many friends ready and willing to help.

Keep focusing intensely on education, the changing environment of information technology and communications.  The country is being wired so that everyone will have an opportunity to reach out and use the full potential of the Internet.  Outstanding! Children are the future of any country and when you combine improved education, improved educational facilities and access to the latest in information technology, you’ve got yourself one fine potential future out there.  So keep it up.

Macedonia, the world will continue to change.  There will continue to be, as there have always been, aggressors and victims.  Borders will continue to change no matter how much the international community sings the praises of the “inviolability of borders.” (If you don’t believe me, compare a map of today with a map of just 20 years ago).  Time will march forward, the sun will rise and set and hurry back to where it rises again and there will be nothing new under the sun.  Man will continue to toil and I’ve seen it all and heard it all before.

Macedonia has been burned in the past, both figuratively and literally and the fires of war, incompetence and downright evil have nearly consumed the country.  But the legend also tells us that Prometheus gave fire to man to use as a tool to better his life.  All those fires burning gently in the night skies. 

And then it hit me, the metaphor that is.  I remember walking past parliament, on many nights, while the lights were still burning brightly in the office of President Boris Trajkovski.  He was working late into the night for Macedonia.  And as I remembered that, I started looking for other signs of folks, up late, working hard.  And I saw them.  I don’t know who they were – maybe teachers up late working on lessons, inventors up late creating new technologies for the betterment of Macedonia and the world, computer programmers, businessmen and women, journalists, priests and countless others.  All working hard because they want to provide for their families and because they believe…in Macedonia.

Never give up. Macedonia is worth fighting for.

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Jason Miko
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