It hasn’t been plain sailing but Macedonia is surely now closer than its neighbors to creating a genuinely multi-ethnic society.
Commentary by Ana Petruseva in Skopje for IWPR (24/08/06)
Several years ago, few would ever have imagined that they would one day see the double-headed eagle of neighboring Albania fly on a flag next to the Macedonian flag on government buildings.
But five years after the peace deal that ended a severe bout of ethnic warfare, the sight of an Albanian flag hardly surprises anyone anymore.
Back in 1997, the display of an Albanian flag on the streets of Gostivar, in western Macedonia, led to a massive police raid and hundreds of arrests.
What changed matters was the conflict in 2001, when Albanians obtained the kind of civil rights by force that no Albanian party in government since independence had been able to deliver.
Almost all the demands that Albanians parties had made since independence were granted as part of the 2001 Ohrid peace deal.
Albanians gained greater inclusion in all state institutions; the Albanian language acquired official status in many parts of the country; and a once controversial - indeed, illegal - Albanian university is now paid for out of taxpayers' money.
Is Macedonia now out of the woods, having overcome all the challenges facing this small republic? That would be going too far. But it would be fair to say Macedonia has now moved further than any other country in the region towards the creation of a genuinely multi-ethnic society.
Five years after the eruption of a crisis that threatened to lead to the country's violent dissolution, or to its division along ethnic lines, Macedonia is in the process of reshaping its identity, based on the Ohrid peace deal, which is now widely accepted as a working formula to keep the country together.
To fully understand the changes that have taken place in Macedonia since Ohrid, one has to take in account the events prior to the conflict.
In 1999, most Macedonians sighed with relief when the Kosovo crisis came to an end, enabling about 300,000 Albanian refugees to go home. They believed they had witnessed the last bloody chapter in the fall of the former Yugoslavia.
The year 2001 was supposed to be a good year for Macedonia. Talks with the European Union were underway and there were solid chances for the economic revival of the impoverished republic.
That all ended when the minority Albanians suddenly began an armed struggle for greater civil rights against a state they saw as oppressive.
Initially, NATO described the Albanian gunmen as “murderous thugs” who had lured the authorities into shelling villages through their violent campaign.
But as the Macedonians proved unable to handle the crisis, the international community became increasingly involved, determined to prevent another hotspot from developing in the Balkans. The result was the Ohrid peace deal, signed on 13 August 2001.
The government, led by Social Democrats and former rebels-turned-politicians, in 2002 put the realization of Ohrid at the top of its agenda and pushed most of the provisions through parliament in spite of the disagreement of many Macedonians.
Today, an accord that in 2001 most Macedonians denounced as an act of treason, is no longer disputed. Once loud calls for Ohrid to be revised or abolished have faded.
The only people still disputing the agreement are fairly marginal extremists that attract little attention. The big political players all stand behind it now.
One of the reasons for its acceptance is that most of the obligations foreseen in the framework agreement are now in place.
The last big challenge involved the re-drafting of local government borders in 2004 to create 84 new municipalities of which 16 would have an Albanian majority.
The law caused uproar and about 150,000 people signed a petition for a referendum that could have prevented the law from being put into practice.
The referendum's failure cemented the Ohrid agenda and defused claims that the deal was only postponing all-out confrontation between the two communities.
Inter-ethnic relations have gradually improved since.
That does not change the fact that Macedonians and Albanians in general do not like each other.
The communities remain divided and have little knowledge of each other's language, culture and religion.
Macedonians still fear the eventual rise of a “Greater Albania," linking the west of Macedonia to Kosovo and Albania, or becoming a minority in their own country. The fear is founded on the fact that the Albanian birth rate is far higher than the Macedonian.
Albanians, on the other hand, believe Macedonians will always try to keep Albanians down, as second-class citizens.
But there is little danger now of these stereotypes touching off a new war. Most Macedonians and Albanians are content to complain about each other each before getting on with business as usual, which is not so different from the pattern in many ethnically mixed societies in Europe.
And Europe is where Macedonia sees its future. The ambition to join the EU has been crucial in mobilizing support for the full implementation of the Ohrid deal.
As a reward for adopting the Ohrid package of reforms, the EU granted Macedonia candidate status in December 2005.
To actually get into the EU, Macedonia still needs to show it is capable of creating a fully functional state for all its ethnic communities, and one that does not require frequent high-level visits by finger-wagging diplomats.
Moreover, two major pieces of legislation linked to Ohrid are still to be adopted, one regulating the use of languages and the other dealing with the police.
As both have the potential to stir nationalist emotions, the new right-of-center VMRO-DPMNE led government and its Albanian partner, the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, will have to tread carefully with these tricky issues.
VMRO-DPMNE will have to resist the temptation to pay on nationalistic populism, as the party did in the failed 2004 referendum.
Ironically, VMRO DPMNE and DPA were in power when the conflict started in 2001. Now it seems likely that during their mandate Ohrid will be finalised and fully implemented. The DPA's rivals in the Albanian camp, the Democratic Party of Integration, DUI, has openly threatened the government, saying if they are left out of the cabinet, Kalashnikov machine-guns could appear again on the streets.
Such outrageous statements come as a reminder that political parties still have the power to seriously damage the Ohrid peace deal, undermining the entire peace process.
But the DUI notwithstanding, Macedonia appears unlikely now to swerve markedly from the course established five years ago at the Ohrid talks.
Ethnic issues no longer top the agenda in Macedonia. Indeed, one sign of this was the fact that the new administration has pledged to make the economy its number-one priority.
Ethnic issues have not been swept under the carpet, as they were during the Nineties. But there is now an ongoing process at work in Macedonia, and mechanisms in place, to create a multi-ethnic society for all Macedonians, regardless of their ethnicity. In that sense, there has surely been progress.