August 30, 2016

Restitution of the stolen items?

Scattered heritage


A large part of Macedonia's cultural heritage has been destroyed; a small part has been taken out of the country via legitimate or illegitimate purchases, and the biggest part of Macedonia's heritage that's outside of its borders was obtained by robbery, namely by occupying forces during wartime.

The act of robbery is a civilisation-destructive act, and the question of the return (that is, the restitution) of the stolen heritage is a civilisational question. That treasure, besides its exceptional cultural, historical and art value, is an integral part of this people's identity. There are many examples and historical sources that point to illegal taking of incredibly large quantities of culturally significant items from Macedonia, which show a rich cultural and national existence during the Macedonian people's past. However, the Macedonian experience regarding the restitution of the stolen treasures—just as some other countries' experiences (for instance, Greece and Egypt)—suggests that restitution is almost impossible, although there are international conventions that regulate such matters.

The Republic of Macedonia has signed some of those conventions, some of which do not have a retroactive influence (that is, they apply only from the signatory date forward). As consolation, it's worth noting that the largest part of the stolen Macedonian heritage was appropriated during wartime, i.e. during occupations. (For instance, in 1915, the Bulgarian state founded a so-called Macedonian military-inspection area, with headquarters in Skopje and a chief governor, which means that Macedonia was under military rule, i.e. it was treated as an occupied area. According to that, many items were taken to Bulgaria were taken during military rule, as well as during World War II, when Bulgaria again occupied Macedonia. Thus, the items were taken in times when Macedonia wasn't under Turkish rule. Bulgaria has appropriated the items and robbed Macedonia when it proclaimed military rule – and according to international agreements and conventions there is a legitimate basis for asking for their return to the Republic of Macedonia today.)

It is usual that after wars a procedure of reparation and restitution is initiated. That procedure is based on clear legal terms, precisely because it's regulated by international law. But even in such cases experience shows that only rarely are treasures of this kind returned.

A significant amount of Macedonian cultural heritage can also be found in the countries that used to form the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Even in the time of former Yugoslavia there were restitution initiatives, but they failed to produce any results, because Macedonian institutions weren't persistent enough in their requests. There were even cases when some Macedonian institutions donated their own pieces in order for some Yugoslavian peoples' cultural history collections to be completed. Those items are now outside Macedonia's borders. There were cases when later the return of donated relics was requested, for instance from Serbia, via reciprocal exchange, but they were unsuccessful.

Macedonian museums and other institutions responsible for the care of cultural heritage, backed by the state of course, still have a responsibility to use their rights and ask for restitution of the stolen treasure – via bilateral agreements (after all, that's why international conventions exist). In fact, some countries don't even allow access to Macedonian scholars for cataloguing or studying, although in some cases studying, copying and presenting certain types of heritage is allowed. Things are hidden simply because they have been stolen. But it should be possible to prove that certain items are from Macedonia, and that they have been stolen. There are many historical documents about it (and they only show that the fate of Macedonian cultural heritage is only a typical part of the pan-Macedonian destiny in the past.) However, before a well-prepared and legally founded procedure is initiated, a complete inventory of the cultural heritage should be made, which should include the scattered heritage. Cultural heritage belongs to all of humanity, but most of all to the people whose ancestors created it.

Caption: Robbery is a civilisation-destructive act, and the restitution of the stolen heritage is a civilisational problem that is not solved in a civilised manner

Nove Cvetanoski

– Ante Popovski: A Voice from the Ancient Past, "Makedonska kniga" Publishing, Skopje, 1985;
– Mihajlo Georgievski: The Fate of Macedonian manuscripts, in the collection Macedonia's Handwritten Heritage, Macedonian Culture Foundation, Skopje, 1998;
– Gjorgji Pop-Atanasov: Dictionary of Old Macedonian Literature, "Makedonska kniga" Publishing, Skopje, 1989;
– Simon Drakul: Arhimandrit Anatolij Zografski, The National History Institute, Skopje, 1988;
– Ilija Velev: Delving Into the Tradition and Continuity, The Macedonian Literature Institute, Skopje, 2000;
– Jovan Ristov: The Archaeological Treasure of Macedonia and Its Protection, in the collection The Archaeological Treasure of Macedonia and Its Protection, Macedonian Culture Foundation, Skopje, 1998;
– Eleonora Petrova: The Alienation and The Illegal Trade of Numismatic Material in the Republic of Macedonia, in the collection The Archaeological Treasure of Macedonia and Its Protection, Macedonian Culture Foundation, Skopje, 1998;
– Dragi Nestorovski: Cultural Heritage and Its Illegal Trade, in the collection The Archaeological Treasure of Macedonia and Its Protection, Macedonian Culture Foundation, Skopje, 1998;
– Pasko Kuzman: Trebeništa's Art, "Gjurgja" Publishing, Skopje, 1997;
– Statements by Mihajlo Georgievski, Zoran Todorovski, Eleonora Petrova and Jovan Ristov, given to this publication's author and used for the series of articles titled "How the Macedonian Cultural Heritage Was Stolen and Where It Was Taken To", published in the „Nova Makedonija“ daily newspaper (October 18th-29th, 1998).

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