Negotiating Macedonia’s Interethnic Conflict

by Dr. Michael Seraphinoff

Violent conflict erupted in the Republic of Macedonia in the Spring of 2001 between armed insurgents from the ethnic Albanian minority community and state security forces chiefly representing the Macedonian majority community. Hostilities were brought to a close six months later when representatives of both the Macedonian and ethnic Albanian communities signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement brokered by representatives of the international community (represented here by the EU and the US).

The Albanian insurgents (who were never actual signatories to the agreement) mainly agreed to the cessation of their armed struggle because the agreement spelled out the terms of a power sharing form of governance more to their liking and that had the potential for creating a future bi-national state. In addition to amnesty for those who participated in the insurrection, it was also agreed that the state would be required to support bilingualism in districts where the ethnic minority population exceeded 20 percent. Quotas would be implemented in the police, military and other state agencies in order to achieve more equitable numbers of the ethnic minorities.  The constitution would also no longer refer to the Republic of Macedonia as the state of the Macedonian people, but it would now stress the fact that it was the state of the Macedonian people and of Albanians and several other named ethnic groups.

It can be argued that the agreement to and the implementation of these and other measures increased a sense of fairness in terms of interethnic Macedonian and Albanian relations in the society that has helped keep the peace for over ten years. However, lack of follow up, particularly in terms of measures to foster reconciliation between the two major ethnic communities and denial of the truth of what actually occurred in 2001, has led to a number of troubling, unintended consequences. These include  the fostering of a culture of violence, since the use of guns was
rewarded during the conflict in 2001, and a number of individuals who committed violent crimes during the conflict have not been prosecuted for what appear to be strictly political reasons. In 2000 there was a poll conducted in Macedonia that suggested that a majority of citizens of all ethnic groups rated crime, corruption, poverty and unemployment as more pressing issues than ethnic differences. Today most politicians in Macedonia advance their careers by serving the interests of their ethnic community above all else. Thus, the individual, in the absence of adequate state protections under the rule of law, apparently often chooses to be well armed and take matters into his own hands when faced by criminal activity.

Although tensions between the two major ethnic groups in the Republic, the Macedonians and Albanians, probably pre date the 14th century Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Balkans, when most Albanians converted to Islam while most Macedonians held to their Orthodox Christian faith, there is also a history of relatively peaceful co-existence in the past. However, these relations became more strained during the period of the 19th and early 20th century Macedonian liberation struggle, and again during World War Two. Over the generations the people passed on their stories of transgressions committed by their neighbors from the other community. Even during the relatively peaceful period of Yugoslav communist rule, when there was enforced “brotherhood and unity” among all of the constituent peoples of Yugoslavia and certain incidents from the past were taboo topics of discussion, there were occasional public demonstrations in western Macedonia, where members of the ethnic Albanian community demanded more rights and recognition. In the absence of open and honest dialogue between the communities, such demands only served to heighten tensions among them.

Addressing the non-ethnic sources of conflict is one key to a more positive future for the country and probably the region as a whole. Albanians and Macedonians remain deeply concerned about unemployment, crime, corruption and poverty. While membership in the EU will certainly not readily solve such problems, the fact that most citizens favor membership is a hopeful sign. It means that most people in Macedonia aspire to membership in a larger union rather than an ethnic ghetto. They probably hope that it will force their local politicians to answer to a higher standard of conduct. One evidence of meaningful reconciliation will be when citizens begin to elect people to represent them not on the basis of ethnicity but on the basis of how well they address the society’s real needs.

I saw evidence on my own most recent visit to Macedonia in the Spring of 2010 of reasons for both concern and for hope. As we drove through the countryside of western Macedonia on our way to Ohrid there was evidence of the construction or renovation of mosques or churches in a number of villages. One would like to imagine that it is for
spiritual enrichment, although I tend to agree with the comment of a friend, who said, “the people are marking their territory.”

On the other hand, upon my arrival in the capital city, Skopje, I bought a newspaper and three things immediately captured my attention. There were efforts under way to ban smoking in public buildings, institute recycling of trash and draft legislation to protect the rights of gay people. To me these were all signs of a growing will to join their European Union neighbors in a shared civilization that would make Balkan primitivism a thing of the past. One can only hope.

Excepted from “The Ohrid peace agreement, how is it working ten years later?” by Dr. Michael Seraphinoff.  Join Dr. Seraphinoff and journalist Peter Lippman for a discussion of these and other issues in the Balkans at NWLA’s next Fireside Chat, April 11th at 7:00pm.  More information is at our website.