VEVCANI, Macedonia (AP) — The tiny Macedonian town of Vevcani boasts its own constitution, its own currency and a passport emblazoned with a golden coat of arms.
They are a tongue-in-cheek expression of the village's historical defiance of authority -- and were born of a symbolic declaration of independence. But beneath the mockery lies a real rebellious streak that has coursed through Vevcani for decades and spawned violent protests, diplomatic incidents and run-ins with the law.
That spirit of rebellion reaches a climax every year during the village's annual carnival in January, where villagers don costumes that poke fun at the world around them. The sharp satire leaves nothing untouched, targeting the national leadership, politics, religion and social issues. Most recently it has taken aim at Macedonia's crisis-stricken southern neighbor, Greece.
With its colorful floats and masked revelers, the festival -- said to be 14 centuries old and date from pagan times -- has grown in popularity over the last decade. It attracts thousands of visitors to St. Vasilij Day celebrations on Jan. 13, welcoming in the New Year according to the Julian calendar.
"We have had (masks of) Muslims, priests, world leaders, terrorists," said Mayor Pero Ilieski, adding that people shouldn't be offended by the outré themes: "It is only a carnival, so it is something that is not real."
Vevcani, nestled on the forested slopes of the Jablanica mountain about 190 kilometers (120 miles) southwest of the capital Skopje, held its own referendum on independence in 1993, in a move tinged with nationalism after members of the country's ethnic Albanian minority living nearby did the same. Ninety-six percent voted in favor of independence, and the 'Republic of Vevcani' was born, according to Mirte Aluloski, who drafted the new republic's constitution.
Vevcani set up its own parliament and named its currency the licnik -- although the money is essentially sold as a souvenir and is not in circulation. To selected guests, the mayor hands out red passports of the "Republic of Vevcani," with its coat of arms depicting two harlequins dancing over a magic cauldron.
Although the independence fervor is now largely part of the tourist draw, Aluloski insisted the referendum was serious at the time. Ethnic tension is never far from the surface in Macedonia, where the mostly Muslim ethnic Albanian minority fought a brief armed uprising against the government in 2001, seeking greater rights.
"We have all the things necessary to be independent and they will be activated if the need arises," he said. For all of the stunts, there's a serious defiance of authority. Last month, Vevcani threatened to stop paying the state-run electricity company over delays by engineers in repairing a fault that had knocked out power to hundreds of homes. The threat worked, with repair crews quickly restoring power in a matter of days.
The village's reputation for rebelliousness dates back to when Macedonia was part of the Yugoslav federation. A government plan in the late 1980s to have the village share water from its wells with a neighboring village sparked outrage, with locals heading en masse to Skopje for rowdy protests — an action almost unheard of during communist times.
The villagers first attracted international attention when the government sent special police units to suppress the 1987 protests and dismantle barricades set up over the water dispute. Despite severe beatings and violence, the water rebellion dragged on for weeks, until authorities eventually backed down.
"The authorities, in different times, could not put up with the originality, the assertiveness and independence of Vevcani, not only this authority but in the former Yugoslavia, and the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Ottoman times and the rule of Bulgaria," said Nenad Batkoski, the self-proclaimed consul of Republic of Vevcani. "This place has always had resistance."
It is this rebellious spirit that has become the hallmark of the Vevcani carnival. The country's politicians are a preferred and regular target. One of this year's costumes depicted a magician's box, with Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski sticking out of one end, and the opposition leader Branko Crvenkovski poking out the other, while a magician sawed the box in two. It was a dig at the deep divisions between the governing Conservatives and opposition Social Democrats.
Last year, the festival sparked violent protests among the country's Muslim minority over costumes mocking the all-encompassing burqa for Muslim women. The festival has in the past also mocked the Christian Orthodox church.
The festivities sparked outrage in Greece after some revelers of the parade staged a mock funeral for Greece, with participants carrying a coffin representing the nation's crippled economy. Macedonia has been at odds with Greece for two decades over the former Yugoslav state's name, with Athens contending that the name implies territorial intentions against its own northern province of Macedonia.
Greece was the butt of jokes again this year: A group of carnival revelers commemorated "one year of death" for its southern neighbor due to its financial woes. Dressed in a costume made up of the blue-and-white stripes of Greece's national flag, Gojko Luoski begged for money while carrying a cradle and baby.
"I am not making fun of Greece," he insisted as he marched down the street in the parade. "Greece is in debt so I'm begging for whatever you have ... however many billions you have so it can pay its debts."
The masks are a tightly kept secret until the day when hundreds of villagers parade on the streets of the hamlet. The day after the festival, all masks are taken to the village square and burned -- a symbolic act of purification to chase out the evil spirits.
Magdalena Marevska, who is from the northern town of Kumanovo and was visiting the village for the carnival, said the annual mockery was also a way of airing some uncomfortable truths. "It's not about our neighboring countries, it's about the tradition that the carnival has on its own," she said. "They are showing how the society actually looks like during the year," she said.
"After all, this is only a carnival. This is make-believe," said Ilieski, the mayor, underlining that there was no need for anyone to be insulted by the costumes. "It is something that is not real. It's a mask. Anyone who has any common sense understands that it is a mask. You take it off and burn it."