10 March 2005
by Carla Bachechi
People here in Macedonia talk about the past a lot. They talk about how much better their lives used to be. They talk about a time when everyone had jobs and enough money for cars and vacations and new televisions. They talk about how they used to be able to travel wherever they wanted. They did not need a visa to go most places and could freely travel to Western Europe. Now they must have a visa to go almost anywhere, and there are few jobs and little money for vacations.
The experts say Macedonia is in a difficult time of transition. Macedonia, like the other former communist countries, is moving from a centrally-run economy to a market-based economy in which the government may regulate, but does not control, the means of production. The government will no longer buy the crops or run the factories that gave people jobs. But did someone forget to explain this to the people?
There are relics of this faded past. The memories are not just a reverie about those glorious bygone days. There is evidence of their prosperity in the houses filled with furniture and china and television sets—all dating back to the 1970s. And there is evidence that they used to take vacations. The country is filled with huge and largely abandoned hotels. Many of these line Lake Prespa and Lake Orchid and still have brochures printed 20 years ago at the front desk, showing crowds of people swimming and sunning themselves and eating under brightly colored umbrellas.
It is strange visiting these old resorts—stepping back in time. The hotels are usually on the outskirts of towns, along lakes, hidden in canyons, or high in the mountains. The buildings are stained by time, in need of paint, and are dated by designs that were modern and popular 30 years ago. They stand empty most of the time, and the sparse staff that mill around to serve the occasional guests do their best to keep the houseplants alive. The upholstery is stained and the bars and the shops are conspicuously empty. Only half the lights are ever turned on, and when you leave it feels like the whole place will fall back to sleep, awaiting a better day, when things will be like they used to be.
But time is not so forgiving, and going back is not an option. The hotels are what remain of a system that ceased functioning. The people blame the government. They say it is the government's fault because it is not providing jobs for the people anymore, and it is not buying the farmers' crops, and it has sold or closed most of the factories.
For many Macedonians, this time of transition seems more like a time of decay. They tell you they have been going through this transition for more than 10 years now and it is not getting any better. They say this with despair. It is hard to make an argument for democracy and free enterprise here. During this period of transition, the people have watched as the state enterprises were sold, factories were liquidated, and a few unscrupulous people grew rich. Corruption is rampant. When choosing between a system they don't understand and don't trust and the quick profits offered by the black market, many choose the black market.
Imagine Disneyland, empty except for a few employees in tattered uniforms. Imagine half of the rides shut down and only a few disheveled flowerbeds and overgrown lawns. Imagine all the shelves in a shop empty, except for maybe one teddy bear faded by the sun. Imagine remembering how much fun it was to visit when you were a child and being unable to fathom how you will ever be able to provide the same for your own children.
This is their past, their present, and their uncertain future.
Leaving her job as a lawyer in San Francisco, Carla Bachechi fulfilled a lifelong dream by joining the Peace Corps. She did development work in a town in western Macedonia. Additionally, she taught economics and business to high school students and ran a youth group that both worked to improve the lakefront and publish a collection of young people’s poems and essays.