Monday, September 04, 2006

Macedonia:: Edging Beyond Ethnicity

Five years on, despite the overall success of the Ohrid agreement, peace in Macedonia is less than robust.

In August 2001, after a brief civil war, the Macedonian government signed a peace agreement with representatives of the Albanian community in the town of Ohrid that enshrined the role of the Albanian minority – around a quarter of the population – in Macedonian politics. Five years on, just days after a new government has been sworn in, how has the Ohrid agreement held up?

Overall, Ohrid has been a remarkable success. The fighting has stopped, rebel groups have been disarmed to a tolerable level, relatively peaceful elections have been held. The parties representing Macedonia’s ethnic Albanians have become an integral part of the political process; municipal boundaries have been re-drawn to give greater autonomy to Albanian communities. NATO peacekeepers were replaced by a lightly-armed European Union force in 2003, and both have seen uneventful deployments. Finally, Macedonia was made an EU membership candidate on 17 December 2005, a status it shares with Croatia and Turkey.


Despite these successes, the peace in Macedonia is still somewhat fragile. The ugly wrangling over the new government has shown that certain parties are only waiting for an opportunity to stoke inter-ethnic tension, and that extremist language still finds resonance with some voters.

The July parliamentary election was won by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), a formerly nationalist party that is today mainstream center-right. When it became clear that it would invite the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) to join the government coalition – every government since the introduction of multi-party rule in 1990 has also included an ethnic-Albanian component – the incumbent Democratic Union of Integration (BDI), the largest party among Macedonia’s Albanians, reverted to its tried and tested approach of threat and blackmail.

A BDI deputy leader told the press, “The PDSh’s entry in the government would show disrespect for the election results and the will of citizens, which may lead to uproar and violence among the Albanian voters and the use of force and Kalashnikovs.” Protests erupted across the Albanian areas. The threat carried credibility since the BDI is the political successor to the Albanian rebels of 2000–2001.

It is worrying that five years after Ohrid, such rhetoric would still inspire parts of the population that seem to feel excluded from the “new Macedonia.” But perhaps the party’s threats also indicate that the ethnic question has been displaced by two other issues that are typical of transition societies more generally: the fight over government patronage and the lack of development in the country.

Its fiery rhetoric notwithstanding, the BDI understands its role to be primarily about channeling benefits to its constituents through the control of certain ministries. This may not be good governance but it means that the BDI has an interest, in principle, in a functioning and prosperous Macedonia. (It also has an interest in running largely autonomous local governments, of course, for which the central state is of much less importance.) But as soon as it is no longer able to dole out jobs and subsidies, it may well revert to ethnic politics in order to preserve its role as the leading party of Macedonia’s Albanians, which would make this a pivotal moment in the relationship between the central government and the Albanian minority.


The second major challenge is economic development, to which the incoming government of Nikola Gruevski – a former finance minister in his mid-30s – must turn all its attention. As long as Macedonia is unable to provide decent living conditions to its citizens (whether majority or minority), many Albanians will continue to fall for the rhetoric of the extremists.

All indications suggest that the new administration understands this. It wants to cut red tape and corporate profit taxes and introduce a flat personal tax rate. Gruevski has excellent credentials as a reformer from his time in a previous VMRO-led government. Together with the PDSh and smaller coalition partners, his government holds a majority of at least 65 in the 120-seat parliament – good enough, one would hope, to push through serious reform. The tangible prospect of EU membership will also provide incentives for reform, and for tackling corruption, a serious brake on the country’s development. (Corruption, of course, is closely linked to the attitude of viewing the government as a source for personal and parochial enrichment rather than generalized prosperity.)

Prosperity will not by itself reduce the considerable distance between the two communities, or indeed the numerous ethnic groups that call Macedonia their home. But it will defuse the potential for trouble created by this distance and give the country’s citizens some breathing space.

In the end, however, Macedonia’s viability as an independent and unified state also depends on wider developments in the region.

The situation in neighboring Kosovo helped touch off the 2000–2001 crisis; the province’s independence, which in one form or other is most likely to be decided by the UN Security Council later this year, could help or hinder the stabilization of the Ohrid system in Macedonia. Will an independent Kosovo satisfy the appetite of the region’s ethnic Albanians, or encourage them to ask for a second helping? In a sense, that question is moot. The major dynamic in the entire region is EU integration; since enlargement is the EU’s only strategy for the region, it cannot afford to let it fail. The EU’s resolute approach in 2000 and 2001, closely coordinated with the United States, is still a prime example of successful crisis management, and the EU will not hesitate to engage in robust action should it be necessary to salvage Ohrid, or indeed the stability of the Balkans.

However, the new government cannot simply trust that the EU will take care of the country’s problems. It will need to prove that it can effectively include the entire Albanian community and not just its coalition partner in the political process without alienating its core constituency among Macedonia’s majority. This will be a tall order, especially considering that the two key pieces of the Ohrid settlement that still need to be passed and implemented – police and language legislation – both present ample opportunity for nationalist posturing. Only by tackling these challenges will Macedonia prove that it is able to hold its part of the grand bargain with the EU.

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