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Op-Ed Columnist

In Macedonia's World, it's the Past vs. the Future

Skopje

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Macedonia is earth-flattening, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Macedonia's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The media seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the battle for the bullets.

When thinking about the recent troubles, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like computer programs, so attempts to treat them as such are going to come across as foreign. Computer programs never suddenly blow themselves up. Two, Macedonia has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If ethnic conflict is Macedonia's curtain rod, then hope is certainly its tabletop.

When I was in Macedonia last June, I was amazed by the people's basic desire for a stable life, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Macedonia have no shortage of human capital, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Macedonia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Macedonia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not let seemingly endless frustrations cause the people of Macedonia to doubt their chance at progress. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so poorly marked that Macedonia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Skopje needs to come to terms with its own history.

Speaking with a small business entrepreneur from the large Protestant community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shad-farin-bin-yamin, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs."

I don't know what Macedonia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.