AIM: start



To Have and Then To Have Not

By: Zeljko Bajic

Ethnic minority communities in Macedonia have been struggling in the past few years to achieve the rights they have once had in the past.

One of the first determinants that a foreigner encounters in the youngest European state is the one that it is multicultural, multiethnic and multireligious. As a rule, it is proudly added that for centuries members of different Balkan nations have lived in this space side by side or (more scarcely) with each other, as if the situation were not more or less similar in the other surrounding countries. Nevertheless, when speaking about Macedonian multiethnicity and multiculturality what is actually meant is the relation between the Macedonian people and the numerous Albanian community. For good reason.

Since Macedonia became independent in the end of 1991, there were several conflicts between the official state administration and the local Albanians. By its severity, the most outstanding one is the armed conflict of the National Liberation Army (UCK) with government forces in spring 2001. The armed conflict ended in a compromise: the Ohrid Agreement which warranted the Albanians and other communities considerably broader collective and individual rights than the Constitution passed at the height of national and state-creating euphoria in the beginning of the nineties had granted them until then. With the Ohrid Agreement the story on national communities and their minority collective and individual rights was back to square one.

At the time of Socialist Yugoslavia, but especially during its last decade, at least formally, ethnic entities (as positive legislature regarded ethnic minorities) enjoyed a high degree of collective and individual rights. The Albanians in Macedonia, for example, had the right to officially use their language, the state financed the publication of a daily in Albanian called Flaka i vlazerimit (The Flame of Brotherhood), state radio and TV broadcast programs in Albanian. There were elementary and secondary schools in Albanian language, and university training was mostly acquired at the University in Pristina in the neighbouring Kosovo. It should be mentioned that socialist authorities were guided by the assessment that the Albanians are an ethnic community that could not be disregarded although it was difficult to determine the number of its members because a certain number of ethnic Albanians did not participate in 1981 population census.

The members of ethnic groups whose mother tongue was Serbo-Croat (which after dissolution of SFRY the Serbs decided to call Serbian, and the Croats Croatian) satisfied their ethnic, cultural and educational needs quite simply thanks to the fact that Serbo-Croat was considered the official language in the entire federation. Declaratively, even the Turks and the Roma, members of ethnic groups that form a considerable part of the population in some places, were also entitled to elementary education in their mother tongue, there were RTV shows in their languages and similar.

The very preamble of the first Constitution of independent Macedonia did not promise anything good to ethnic minorities. It was stated that Macedonia was a state of the Macedonian people. Ethnic minorities were offered quite narrow maneuvering space. The newly established political parties of ethnic Albanians owed their participation in the government primarily to their own political activities, and to a certain extent to international pressure, much more than to the readiness of the majority people to enable them to participate in power. Nevertheless, in the middle of the nineties a model was reached that was supposed to operate as an expression of harmony among ethnic groups which live in Macedonia as an example that co-existence was possible in the warring Balkan. Thanks to this recipe conceived probably in some international office and then suggested to Macedonian authorities, ethnic Albanians took part in the coalition Government with five ministers which was a quarter of the cabinet.

The population census that coincided with such a concept of the authorities yielded a similar result. Indeed, distrustful about the results of 1991 census, the parties of ethnic Albanians managed to initiate the organization of a new one in 1994 that was monitored by the international community. It showed that ethnic Macedonians formed 66%, ethnic Albanians 22.9%, the Roma 2.4%, the Serbs and the Turks 2% each of Macedonia's population of two million . Several ten thousand citizens declared themselves as members of Vlach, Bosniac and other communities. Despite such precise results, mistrust and mutual accusations continued between the authorities and ethnic minorities. On the one hand , the authorities tried to disregard the fact that "non-Macedonian" population forms one third of the population, and on the other, practically every minority claimed that its membership was much more numerous and that the results of the census were not realistic.

The reports of international organizations for human rights at the time warned that in Macedonia minority rights were not recognized in the field of education, culture, presence in the media. It was clear even at first sight that there were no educational institutions in Serbian or Croatian language, the rights of the Turks and the Roma were considerably reduced. Nevertheless, the international community did not seem to manifest sufficient readiness to deal with this problem choosing to believe the words of the administration headed at the time by Social Democratic Alliance, reformed communists, who simulated efforts on the promotion of civil rights in general, those of the members of ethnic minorities inclusive. The pretext for any interruption was the difficult economic and social situation the country was in; the transition took the blame for everything.

In the second half of the nineties, two incidents in which the police and ethnic Albanians were involved raised some noise of international proportions. In February 1995, in Tetovo village called Mala Recica, the police prevented by force the manifestation occasioned by the opening of the unrecognized university in Albanian language; one demonstrator was killed, several were wounded. After a trial that caused certain problems in the international community for the authorities, the heads of the controversial university went to prison for a long time. Two years later, during demonstrations in Gostivar, while the Albanian flag was illegally hoisted, three ethnic Albanians were killed in a skirmish with the police. The mayor of Gostivar, Rufi Osmani, who was believed to have been the initiator of the hoisting of Albanian flag, was sentenced to a long sentence in prison. His colleague from Tetovo who hoisted the Albanian national symbol on the municipality seat building out of solidarity, fared slightly better. In both cases the international human rights organizations assessed that the authorities had manifested a lack of flexibility in resolving delicate inter-ethnic problems through dialogue.

In 1998 elections, roles changed: the parties in power moved into the opposition, and the former, sometimes very belligerent opposition parties, both among ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, took over the offices in government buildings. Analysts prophesized a quick end of the formerly mutually very intolerant and opposed VMRO-DPMNE headed by populist Ljubco Georgievski and Democratic Party of the Albanians headed by Arben Xhaferi whose ethnic disposition varied from a very radical to extremely cooperative one. Developments in Mala Recica and Gostivar and their protagonists were granted amnesty; this was accepted as the first gesture of detente in interethnic relations. But, mutiethnicity still came down to the relations between majority Macedonians and minority Albanians. It became increasingly conspicuous that what the authorities were most concerned about was the form, not the essence of the problem which was not simple at all.

The armed appearance of the National Liberation Army in spring 2001 could have surprised only those who had for years deliberately chosen to close their eyes to the truth. Unfortunately, it turned out that there are not just few of them among neither ethnic Macedonians nor among ethnic Albanians, but nor in the international community. Members of National Liberation Army claimed that they were fighting for greater rights of their people; international officials at first called them terrorists and then accepted a milder vocabulary and terms such as guerilla fighters, extremists, rebels. Ethnic Macedonian political parties, regardless of whether they were in power or in the opposition, were united in the assessment that they were terrorists who attempted to destroy the state. In ethnic Albanian political corpus in the establishment considerable confusion was evident - an undisguised inclination towards the National Liberation Army , but also fear that it would go too far and put the historical blame on the Albanian people.

After several hundred victims on both sides, the international community represented by the European Union, the United States and NATO, decided to make a radical move. Political leaders of two leading ethnic Macedonian and two ethnic Albanian parties, were pressured to sit down at the negotiating table, but not the representatives of the National Liberation Army. After several weeks of negotiations, in August 2001, Ohrid Agreement was signed, as a compromise, with no doubt. Ethnic Macedonians unwillingly agreed to remove from the Constitution most of the attributes that defined the state as solely Macedonian. Ethnic Albanians accepted the solution to be treated as an ethnic community, like the members of all the other ethnic minorities, and to negotiate in the future on the rights of ethnic communities and not just of the Albanians.

Ohrid Agreement in fact made official many rights ethnic communities had once already enjoyed. Albanian language was also, with certain limitations, made official in the Assembly; in regions where an ethnic community forms more than one fifth of the population its language became official (in majority of cases this also refers to the Albanians); personal documents, again with certain alterations, could be issued in Albanian language; improved access of ethnic minorities to state-controlled media was warranted; proportional ethnic representation in state institutions was provided, etc.

Analysts disconcertedly assessed that the state had in fact born the consequences for its unreadiness to implement the reforms for a whole decade in the sphere of local self-administration, the media, democratization of the society. To put it briefly, had the reforms been carried out quickly and without fear that some people would be given something they had not been entitled to, Ohrid Agreement would not have been painful as it seemed to the majority of ethnic Macedonians. Indeed, perhaps it would not have even been necessary.

Western officials charged with its monitoring consider the implementation of the Agreement unjustifiably slow. After Constitutional reform which made the solutions from Ohrid Agreement official, its implementation did not make much progress. Rules of procedure of the parliament were passed, which prescribed the use of Albanian language in the highest national legislative authority, education of the members of security forces from the ranks of ethnic communities began, the media space on state television was broadened. But, despite everything, lagging behind cannot be concealed. Many cannot help feeling that both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians act as if the compromise was imposed on them. Therefore, it is assumed that several years will be needed to carry out everything that was agreed in Ohrid.

In October parliamentary elections, Social Democratic Alliance with reformed communists as its backbone, came back to power. Thanks to the will of ethnic Albanian voters, the coalition partner of Social Democratic Alliance became the Democratic Union for Integration, which is the successor of National Liberation Army. By a skilful political maneuver, Social Democratic Alliance managed to attract into the coalition the members of Serb, Bosniac, and Turkish community, each of which was entitled to one seat in the Assembly and a certain number of posts in the government. The presence of the Democratic Union for Integration in government agencies caused considerable ill will among ethnic Macedonian public. The oppositionist VMRO-DPMNE did not shrink from using the animosity of citizens to make political points, calling the political pact of Social Democratic Alliance and Democratic Union for Integration a "communist-balista coalition".

Between November 1 and 15, after several postponements, a new population census took place, in the preparation of which the highest international standards were respected, multilingual forms were applied, multi-lingual interviewers and international monitors participated. There is fear that the results of this demographic check could lead to certain nervousness within ethnic communities.

The government headed by the leader of Social Democratic Alliance Branko Crvenkovski, announced for the near future a specific program of the fulfillment of the obligations resulting from Ohrid Agreement. In his inauguration speech to the deputies in the assembly, Prime Minister himself stated his personal credo concerning interethnic relations in the country: "What we, the Macedonians, must be aware of, whether somebody likes it or not, is that Macedonia is not the state of just the Macedonian people, and that all the others are here as an inevitable evil, God's evil destiny that must be accepted because there is nowhere to go. We should also realize and accept that Macedonia belongs equally to all and that nobody has the exclusive right to consider it his property". These words, at least in the international community, sounded as if a visionary had uttered them. However, it is not quite clear whether Crvenkovski was addressing the international sponsors or his own voters. It is not clear either whether deeds will follow the words. In any case, there is no time for hesitation.