Thursday, September 14, 2006

Vratnica: History of a Unique Macedonian Village

The village of Vratnica in northwestern Macedonia has evolved and developed with each generation since it was founded over 500 years ago. For over half a millennium, it existed as a farming community within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The nationalist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries brought many changes and had a great impact on the village and its people. Many migrated to the United States and Canada, where they established cohesive immigrant communities, a process known as “chain migration,” whereby the newcomers continued to identify themselves with the village more than they did with the larger national or ethnic community. This was a unique phenomenon in the immigration experience of Vratnica, and it can still be felt in the ethnic and religious orientations of Vratnica people, whether they inhabit the village or faraway adopted homelands.

Location and Orientation

Vratnica is located in the northwest of the Republic of Macedonia, 22 km northeast of the city of Tetovo and 5 km southeast of Jazince, the border crossing point with Serbia on the Kosovo border. Vratnica is on the Polog Plain, at the foothills of the northern part of the Sar Planina mountain range, under the Ljuboten peak, about 750 meters above sea level. The Rakita River flows through the village from the mountain range under a bridge outside of the village. There is a ski and resort lodge located on this mountain range called Ljubotan. In the nearby village of Jegunovce, there is the “Yugo-Chrome” factory where many from Vratnica worked.

Today, Vratnica village is the center of a community which consists of seven interconnected and interrelated villages: Belovište, Vratnica, Staro Selo, Rogachevo, Jazince, and Gorno and Dolno Orašje. This community consists of a population of 3,500. Vratnica itself has a population of 1,000 to 1,500.

History and Prehistory: Early Origins Up to the Present Day

Slavic groups began settling the Balkan Peninsula in the sixth century AD, populating the areas of Macedonia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro. In the fifth and sixth centuries, a large Slavic tribal population occupied parts of central Europe north of the Danube river. The two major Slavic groups in the Balkans, the Serbians and the Croatians, had been based in the Czech region (later Czechoslovakia) and in Saxony.

These Slavic groups had earlier migrated from the north and north-east region of the Black Sea. After the 586 siege of Byzantine Thessaloniki, Slavic groups settled the Praevalitana and the region south of the Shkumbi River, where Slavic place-names predominate.

The two major Slavic groups that emerged in the southern Balkan Peninsula were the Serbians and the Bulgarians, which established powerful and expansionist rival dynastic empires. Serbs developed small tribal territories called a zupa, which were ruled by tribal chiefs known as zupani. By the middle of the 7th century, Serbs were moving from the coastal land in Montenegro and were settling northern Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. The Serbs were agricultural tribes, and settled in river valleys and plains where they could grow crops and harvest the fields near an abundant water source.

vratnicabalkanalysis.jpgVratnica rests in the folds of Sar Planina, in Macedonia’s northwestern corner. (Photo: collection of the author)

By the 11th century, “almost all arable soil in the northernmost part of what is now Albania and in the region of present-day Kosovo was in Slavic hands,” according to Miranda Vickers in Between Serb and Albanian. The original homeland or base area for the Serbian population in the Balkans was the Raska region, or Rascia, a region just north of Kosovo. Since Vratnica lies in a region referred to as Old or Ancient Serbia (Stara Srbija), which included the regions of Kosovo, Metohija, and present-day northern Macedonia, the background and historical roots of the Vratnica families cannot be understood without an understanding of the medieval history of the region.

By the end of the 12th century, the Serbian population moved south and settled the area of what is present-day Kosovo and northern Macedonia. In fact, many Vratnica families trace their ancestral origins to this region, present-day northern Macedonia, on the border with Kosovo. For almost a millennium, Serbians, Bulgarians, Albanians, and, later, Turks, settled and fought over this volatile region.

Vratnica: Population and Immigration

Vratnica was first recorded in Ottoman Turkish registries in the 15th century. In the earliest Turkish population census registry or defter, 59 families were recorded as living in Vratnica. In the defter labeled 4 for the years 1467/68 the number of houses had increased to 66, while in 1545 there is a record of 76 houses, and in 1568 there were 84 houses registered.

The village underwent migrations and settlement until the 18th century, and in the 20th century, there was extensive chain migration to the United States. In 1914/1916, the total population of Vratnica was 1,131 with 131 houses; in 1948, there were 1,299 inhabitants and 197 houses; in 1953, there were 1,387 inhabitants and 214 houses; in 1961, the respective numbers were 1,384 and 227; in 1968, 1,240 and 225; and, in 1971, 1,082 inhabitants and 266 houses.

Thus, the number of houses doubled over the 50-year period, but the total population remained about the same. It has declined since the 1960s due to emigration to the US and elsewhere. For example, by the early 1980’s there were over 200 households with Vratnica origins in the Detroit area alone.

Many from the village migrated to the US during the boom decades following the end of World War I in 1918. This migration was heaviest during the 1920s, before the Great Depression. Most of the immigrants were economic refugees, fleeing the poverty of the Balkans. However, the US Immigration Act of 1924 placed restrictions and quotas of the level of immigration from Eastern Europe. Orthodox Slavs in particular were seen as subhuman and alien to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition of mainstream American immigrants. Many migrated to Canada instead.

The Yugoslav Communist regime under Josip Broz Tito allowed emigration to Western Europe to relieve political opposition and to benefit the Yugoslav economy. Up to a third of the Yugoslav economy depended on guest workers who lived abroad. In the 1950s and 1960s, a new wave of emigration from Yugoslavia resulted. Many from Vratnica immigrated to the US and Canada during this period. In agrarian, rural societies like Vratnica, the family was the only socializing institution. The extended family was known as the chelat. When they migrated to the US, the family continued to play a dominant role. Thus the typical immigrant family from Vratnica tended to be cohesive, functional, and nurturing of the individual.

The most prominent family groups in Vratnica include: Stepanovci, Siskovci, Dlabocani, Koecevci, Stanisovci, Vasilevci, Golomevci, Danecevci, Dobrocevci, Peovci, Todorovci, Kostanecevci, Madzicevci, Maskocevci, Mojsicevci, Dabocevci, Papudzini and Kraguljevci.

The Kostanecevci family resettled in Vratnica from the Kosovo village of Kamena Glava, literally, “Stone Head,” approximately 500 years ago The earliest recorded member for whom records exist of this family is Kosto Kostanechev, from the end of the nineteenth century, who had a brother named Uros. Kosto had four sons, Stojko, Stolje, Simon, and Stojan. The procedure for last names was for a son to carry as his last name a form of his father’s first name. During the medieval period, persons were known by a first given name and the by the village or clan from which they came. Many were named by the occupation they were in: “Carpenter,” “Miller,” “Fisher,” “Goldsmith,” and “Baker.” In the eastern Slavic countries of Europe, it was more common to have a last name that carried the name of a grand-father or great-grand-father.

Also significant in the history of Vratnica is the village of Moravce, located 800 meters to the northwest. Moravce is regarded as the original settlement. Because of pressure from the Ottoman Turks, the inhabitants of Moravce were forced to search for a more secure area of settlement. They migrated to the north, towards Kosovo and middle Serbia, but they were eventually forced to abandon those areas as well. They finally migrated back and formed modern Vratnica on its present location, together with the descendants of the original settlers.

Cultural Affiliations and Language

Although Vratnica is in Macedonia, a Macedonian ethnic and cultural identity, as distinct from the Serbian or Bulgarian ones, did not emerge in a dominant way until the late 19th century, when nationalist ideologies were at their peak in Europe. So a Macedonian national consciousness and identity is of relatively recent origin, and in Vratnica people even today differentiate themselves according to their perceived Macedonian or Serbian backgrounds.

The medieval ancestors of the present-day inhabitants of Vratnica spoke a language that has elements of Bulgarian and Serbian and which is distinct from both, but is similar to Bulgarian and modern Macedonian. Vratnica family ancestors observed a “slava,” that is, an Orthodox patron saint was celebrated by the family. This was unique to Serbian Orthodox families, not to Bulgarian families. Histories of Vratnica, the village where the Savich ancestors had lived for over 800 years, claim that the original settlers migrated from the north-east, from the region of southern Serbia, Kosovo and Metohija. The name of the village is derived from the word for “return” or “returnees” (vrati, return) and the suffix –ica, meaning “village of.” Vratnica thus means “village of those who returned” in reference to their expulsion and migration from Kosovo.

Under Turkish rule, the Albanian minority and Turkish settlers gained dominance in the region of northern Macedonia where the Savich family ancestors lived. During Ottoman rule, the Orthodox population became second-class citizens and faced religious discrimination and persecution. The Ottoman Empire was organized on the basis of religion and not on nationality. Thus by converting to Islam, one could obtain privileges and status not available to non-Muslims. By converting to Islam in mass numbers, Albanians were able to gain, social, political, and economic dominance in the region. So under Turkish Muslim rule, the ethnic makeup and demography of the region changed.

Vratnica was located in a region that was part of the Turkish Empire for half a millennium until 1912, which was known as “Turkey in Europe.” As a result, there is a schizophrenic or split nature to ethnic, national, and religious identities in Vratnica and Macedonia as a whole. Some segments of the Vratnica community identified culturally and politically and religiously with Serbia. Some parts of present-day Macedonia identified with Bulgaria and Bulgarian culture. But Serbian culture and influence was dominant in the region. And some member of the community identified with the unique Macedonian identity. For their part, the Albanian minority in the region identified with Albania and Albanian culture.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the population adopted and identified with Macedonian culture and national/ethnic identity. Vratnica is unique in that it is part of a region of Macedonia where segments of the population have retained a Serbian cultural, religious, and ethnic/national identity.


Vratnica locals, pictured circa 1930. (Photo: collection of the author)

National, religious, and ethnic identification in Vratnica has remained controversial and subject to much debate and conflict. Residents of Vratnica have been dismissed as Serbophones or Serbophiles, due to the “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” of the Serbian government during the 1918-1941 period when Macedonia was part of Serbia (the alleged “Southern Serbia”). In this period, last names were recorded under the Serbo-Croat-Bosnian –ic ending, instead of the –ski or –ov ending. The –ic ending connoted Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian ethnic or national identity, in this case, Serbian. The –ov ending connoted Bulgarian identity. The –ski ending was generally accepted as denoting Macedonian identity.

With the coming of a Communist regime in Macedonia after World War II, which sought to remedy and reverse the policies of the Serbian royalist regime, the –ski ending was restored for the official last name. Yet can ethnic and national identities be created and destroyed so easily? Vratnica remains an interesting case study for such questions.

The Split Church: Local Repercussions of a Larger Issue

A unique characteristic of society and identity in Vratnica involves the role of the Orthodox Church. Agitation over the nature and identity of the church in Macedonia had antecedents and stemmed from a long and mixed history. A Bulgarian Archbishopric of Ohrid was established in 1019 during the reign of Samuel. In 1767, the Archbishopric was abolished by the Ottoman Turkish authorities, under pressure from Greek lobbying in Constantinople, and placed under the authority of the Patriarchate there. However, in 1870, the Archbishopric became part of the Bulgarian Exarchate, which lasted until 1913.

After World War I, in 1918, what is known as “Vardar” Macedonia became a part of Royalist Yugoslavia, the alleged “Southern Serbia.” During this period, several of the dioceses of the former Bulgarian Exarchate were claimed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Macedonian Orthodox Church claimed to be the successor to the restored Ohrid Archbishopric, a claim not recognized by any other Orthodox church.

In 1944, in the village of Gorno Vranovci, an Initiative Board for the Organization of the Macedonian Orthodox Church was formed. In March 1945, a resolution to restore the Archdiocese of Ohrid as Macedonian Orthodox Church was made at the First Clergy and Laity Assembly held in Skopje.

The resolution was submitted to the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which had jurisdiction over dioceses in Macedonia. The Macedonian diocese was then under the jurisdiction of the United Orthodox Church of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, which was later called the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church refused the resolution. The Initiative Board then proposed that the Macedonian Orthodox Church be granted autonomous status instead of autocephalous status being recognized as autonomous. The Synod rejected this proposal.

In 1958, the Second Clergy and Laity Assembly, held in Ohrid, made a proposal for the restoration of the Ohrid Archdiocese of Saint Clement as a Macedonian Orthodox Church. The Assembly accepted the proposal. Dositheus was appointed the first archbishop. This resulted in autonomy for the Macedonian Orthodox Church within the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church accepted the proposal of the Macedonian Clergy and Laity Assembly in the resolution AS. No 47/1959 and 6/1959, minutes 57 of June 17/4, 1959.

On July 19, 1959, a joint liturgy was conducted in Skopje with Serbian Orthodox Patriarch German in the church of Saint Menas. Clement was ordained the bishop of the diocese of Prespa and Bitola, and Nahum was ordained the bishop of Zletovo and Strumica. The Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church was subsequently established.

In 1966, the demands for autocephalous status increased. In the fall of that year, on the initiative of the Central Committee of the Macedonian Communist Party, the Macedonian Church announced its separation from the Serbian Church, and Bishop Dositej became Metropolitan of Macedonia and Ohrid. This occurred three months after the purge of Alexander Rankovic from the Yugoslav leadership.

Then, a year later, the Orthodox community in Macedonia splintered from the Serbian Orthodox Church, so that a distinct and new religious entity emerged in the former Yugoslavia, the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

On July 17, 1967, the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church summoned the Third Clergy and Laity Assembly in Ohrid, and proclaimed the Macedonian Orthodox Church as autocephalous. At a liturgy celebration on July 17, 1967, the Holy Synod of the Macedonian Orthodox Church announced the proclamation, on the second centennial after it had been banned by the Ottoman Turkish authorities. The act of proclamation was made at the 11th-century Church of St. Sophia in Ohrid. A witness described the ceremony:

“It was one of the most extraordinary occasions. There were priests with long beards, Communist officials, and plain people and they were all crying and kissing one another. It was a scene of delirious happiness, like witnessing the rebirth of a nation.”

The new Macedonian Orthodox Church consisted of 10 dioceses, seven in the Macedonia and three outside of Macedonia, with 10 bishops. The feasts of the Macedonian Orthodox Church are celebrated based on the “old style” Julian calendar. Services are conducted in Macedonian, or in the Old Church Slavonic language.

Some historians maintain that the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito manipulated the Orthodox Churches in the former Yugoslavia as a way to balance and manage the nationalist and ethnic conflicts. There had been conflict between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Macedonian Orthodox Church during the post-war period as the Communist regime of Yugoslavia sought to weaken the Serbian Orthodox Church. In order to boost Macedonian nationalism and to sever any connections between Serbia and Macedonia, the Communist regime engineered the split between the two churches based on national lines. The Macedonian Orthodox Church, however, is not recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople or by any other autocephalous church.

For its part, the Serbian Church sought to fight back by promoting internecine strife amongst the Macedonian Church leaders in the aftermath of the declaration. This interference has been noted ever since and was perceived most recently during the past few years, with the saga of the renegade “Bishop Jovan,” who was jailed for promoting the Serbian ecclesiastical agenda in Macedonia.

Today, there are around 40,000 citizens in Macedonia who identify themselves as ethnic Serbs. In Vratnica, the Sveta Petka Orthodox Church is part of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, whereas the Sveta Petka Orthodox Church in Troy, Michigan, built last year, is part of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This reflects the schizophrenic nature of religious, national, and ethnic identity of the (extended) Vratnica community.

Vratnica and Greater Albania

Vratnica has been a target of the Greater Albania ideology since it was enunciated in the 1878 League of Prizren. During World War II, Vratnica was a part of a Greater Albania created by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for a brief period. Albanian nationalists seized Vratnica and incorporated the village and surrounding area into the Nazi-fascist Greater Albanian state.

During the 2001 terrorist “insurgency” in Macedonia by Albanian ultra-nationalists whose exploits were tolerated by the US, NATO, and the EU, Vratnica was again under attack. This was an example of sanctioned “terrorism.” Armed Albanian bandits besieged four villages at the far north in the Tetovo region populated by Macedonians. Vratnica and the three surrounding villages of Staro Selo, Belovishte, and Rogachevo, consisting of 2,500 residents, were under a practical siege by the so-called NLA (National Liberation Army). Vratnica went for weeks without food, water, medicine, or any medical assistance.

This siege created a ghetto of Vratnica and the neighboring villages and was especially difficult on the children and elderly. The Albanian terrorists, based in the nearby village of Odri, presented an ultimatum to the residents of the surrounded Christian villages to leave the area, the Albanian version of “ethnic cleansing.” Toni Kocevski, the mayor of Vratnica, told reporters: “We do not have food, neither medicine and for ten days we do not have a doctor. A couple of days ago some representatives from the International Red Cross came and promised some humanitarian help made up of medicine and food for tomorrow. From time to time we are visited by OSCE, but that does not do any good to us because the Albanian terrorists are keeping us under siege.”

The movements of members of the Albanian terrorist groups were observed under the Ljuboten mountain peak, which is near Vratnica. Earlier, the armed Albanian terrorist groups had kidnapped about forty youths from Vratnica, which is a war crime. No one was able to go to work or to harvest the wheat crop.

Although peace and normality were restored after the war, sporadic incidents have recurred. On July 12, 2005, the police station in Vratnica was attacked “by unidentified persons” who opened fire with automatic weapons and mortar grenades, causing damage to the station. Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski stated that the attack was a “provocation” by a regional extremist group said to be involved with Agim Krasniqi’s armed group. In any future attempt to re-create a Greater Albania, Vratnica will remain on the front lines, one of the last areas of Macedonian and Serbian population remaining in northwestern Macedonia, now comprised almost entirely of Albanian settlers.


The history of Vratnica reveals, in microcosm, the complexities and ambiguities of nationalism and ethnic and religious identity in the Balkans. That history shows how identity is developmental and evolutionary. The simplistic, black-and-white model of nationalism, ethnic, religious, and national identity breaks down in the case of Vratnica. The complex nature of who we are, what we are and what we believe in is here fully shown. The Vratnica case shows that there are no easy answers to the complex issues of nationalism, ethnic, religious, and national identity.


Doder, Dusko. The Yugoslavs. NY: Random House, 1978.

Georgevitch, Tikhomir R. Macedonia. NY: The Macmillan Company, 1918.

Milosavlevski, Slavko. Vratnica: Etno-Sociolozhki Prikaz. Belgrade, Yugoslavia: Filip Visnjic, 1985.

Petrovic, Ruza. The Migrations of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo and Metohija. Belgrade: Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1992.

Vickers, Miranda. Between Serb and Albanian. NY: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Vivian, Herbert. The Servian Tragedy with Some Impressions of Macedonia. London: Grant Richards, 1904.

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