Macedonia: The Future
After many years of waiting to visit Lake Ohrid, the “pearl” of Macedonia, my wife Margaret and I arrived there in early June 2005. We had already visited Skopje (the capital) and Prilep. It was a special pleasure for us to visit the country as our former student, Goran Neskoski, was coordinating the trip. He now lives in Macedonia.
The cool breeze refreshed us as we lunched on the shores of this beautiful lake. The lake itself was so peaceful looking. I thought of all the memories of centuries of civilization going back to a time before Christ.
The lake is on the border: Albania on the other side of the Lake and Greece just around the corner. This beautiful corner of Europe was for centuries only known to a few, but in the past century with the breakup of Yugoslavia and other events Macedonia ended up on the side of Europe where more westerners and Americans could visit.
The sweep of independence following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 opened up Eastern, Central Europe and the Balkans to the world. The transition to independence in the former Yugoslavia followed several difficult years of civil warfare for most of the countries, but not for Macedonia. This country was the exception. Macedonia declared its independence in November 1991 and not a drop of blood was shed at the birth of this new state.
Overview of History and the Economy
With its independence in September 1991 from Yugoslavia and (being the youngest state) economically the least prosperous region of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonia found itself facing many challenges. The early years were especially hard for Macedonia from the economic point of view, since the United Nations (UN) had imposed economic sanctions on its largest trading partner, Yugoslavia. In addition, trade was further slowed down until 1995 because Greece imposed economic sanctions on Macedonia due to a dis-agreement over its constitutional name. After the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, a steady economic recovery followed until 2000.
In 2001, Macedonia faced another test: the ethnic Albanian revolt, which increased instability and government spending on security, frightened investors. Like most of the countries of the Balkans, Macedonia has a high unemployment level. This remains a big challenge. Its economy started to recover slowly in 2002. Macedonia’s largest trading partners are: Germany, Serbia, Greece and the United States. There are other aspects of the challenges of the Albanian community that I will discuss at the end of this opinion piece.
Macedonia is located in Southeastern Europe, north of Greece. It is slightly larger than Vermont. Its climate has warm, dry summers and autumns and relatively cold winters with heavy snowfall. The country is covered with deep basins and valleys and three large lakes.
On September 8, 1991, a referendum by registered voters endorsed independence from Yugoslavia. The Constitution was proclaimed in November 1991. In November 2001, a decade later, the Macedonian Assembly approved a series of new constitutional amendments strengthening minority rights. Macedonians account for approximately 64 percent of the population. Albanians constitute around 25 percent and are the largest minority. The rest of the population of the Republic of Macedonia includes: Turks 3.9 percent, Roma 2.7 percent, Serbs 1.8 percent and others 2.2 percent. The Macedonian population is overwhelmingly Orthodox-Christian, whereas the largest minority is Muslim.
The Founding President
Every state has one leader who played a significant role in its founding. Kiro Gligorov is the George Washington of Macedonia. I had the privilege of meeting with him. He was a leader in the movement that brought independence to Macedonia.
He was first elected President in 1991, and he negotiated the departure of the Yugoslav National Army. Having been the only leader in a former Yugoslav state that was able to guide his country to independence without violence, Kiro Gligorov emerged as a hero and was reelected with a landside majority in October 1994.
Now retired, the founding President, who survived an attempted assassination, remains an active elder statesman. In his late 80s, Kiro Gligorov is still offering guidance to the current leaders of Macedonia. In my meeting with him, it was clear that he had a broad long ranged view of Macedonia’s future. Macedonia also has young effective leaders in its service. The Ambassador of Macedonia, Nikola Dimitrov, is the youngest and has been highly successful in representing the interests of his country.
Macedonia is in the southern part of the Balkans. The history of Macedonia through the centuries has frequently been violent. While the historical record is not totally clear, the 20th century seems to have been one of the most brutal in Macedonian history.
Following the Illinden Uprising in 1903, thousands of Macedonians were killed. This was soon followed by the two Balkan Wars—the 1912-1913 war and the First World War. It was only at the end of the century in the 1990s that Macedonia seemed to be entering a period where it was not involved in war.
Religion plays a major role in the life of Macedonia. With about 2.1 million inhabitants, approximately 67 percent of the people declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. Around 25 percent belong to the Islamic faith, and they are predominantly Albanian. Roman Catholics and others constitute the remainder.
The Constitution of Macedonia guarantees freedom of religion. I met with Dr. Kiro Stojanov, Bishop of the Catholic diocese of Skopia. Catholics are a small minority of around two percent of the population. While there were problems in the 19th century, the Catholic minority in the Republic of Macedonia now enjoys total religious freedom.
The President and Chief of State is Branko Crvenkovski. He was elected by a popular national vote and assumed office in May 2004. In December of the same year, Vlado Buckovski was named Prime Minister and Head of Government.
During the visit of Serbian President Boris Tadic to Macedonia in June 2005, I was able to meet briefly with President Crvenkovski. The Macedonian leader is taking the leadership in the promotion of good bilateral relations with Serbia and its other neighbors.
My wife Margaret and I, both former university Presidents, were favorably impressed with the environment of Saints Cyril and Methodius University, which we visited. Classes were in session, and it was refreshing to observe the vitality of the campus. The university has a very good international exchange program that is attracting students from other countries.
As already noted, there are now universities where classes are taught in either Macedonian or Albanian. Separate language schools also exist at the elementary and secondary school levels. Educational authorities now should plan for an elementary school system where the language of instruction of Macedonian and Albanian is integrated. This would be a major step forward in the development of a bi-cultural community.
Challenges for the Future
While the weak economy and some drug trafficking remain as challenges, I believe that the two major issues are:
- Greek opposition to the name of the Republic of Macedonia; and,
- Implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement* that ended the 2001 ethnic Albanian insurgency.
The question of the name will, in my opinion, be resolved in the next few years. While relenting from its insistence that Macedonia should be known as the former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, Greece now proposes the name of the Republic of Macedonia-Skopia. The people of Macedonia have a right to the name they want for their country. It remains an emotional issue for Greece. Several years ago, while in Rome, I was invited to the Pope’s New Year’s presentation to the diplomatic corps at the Vatican. Pope John Paul II expressed his best wishes to the people of Macedonia as he did to all countries of the world. I was standing next to the Ambassador of Greece. He abruptly left as soon as he heard the papal remarks.
Most European leaders with whom I spoke on my recent visit were sympathetic to Macedonia for wanting its own name—not the one proposed by Greece. One serious European leader said to me that the Greek position approaches being “silly.” It is believed that in time the Greek government will accept the name of the Republic of Macedonia as a contemporary reality. The determination of Macedonia to secure its own name is an assertion of its national identity.
The more serious challenge is the Albanian community. Now around 25 percent of the population, the Albanian community is contiguous to Albania and Kosovo. The Albanians initiated an insurgency in 2001. It was considered to be a potentially explosive situation endangering not only Macedonia, but also the neighboring countries.
Other western countries in the past several decades have had similar challenges from their significant minority communities. They include: Canada and its relations with the French Canadian community in the province of Québec and the French and Flemish communities in Belgium. More recently, Romania has worked out an equitable arrange-ment with its Hungarian minority.
Soon after Czechoslovakia overthrew its Communist government in 1989, it became evident that the large Slovak community was not comfortable in the one nation-state. On May 1, 1993, there was a total separation, and the Slovak Republic became a sovereign state. The separation was peacefully carried out. In the spring of 2004, Slovakia joined both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
There are, on the other hand, two situations in Europe that are less agreeable. The two major communities in Northern Ireland have again in 2005 had several clashes.* Additionally, an uneasy peace now exists with the Basque community in Spain.
The question remains: Can Macedonia, located in southeastern Europe, guide its two communities to be one state while maintaining its diversity?
The Albanian minority challenges of 2001 in Macedonia were regarded as more serious because they involved violence. The agreement with the Albanian community first focused on the employment problem. While no quotas were set, the government agreed to take steps to increase the number of Albanians in government employment. The second agreement included making the Albanian language the other official language in the Parliament. The authority of local governments was increased. One aspect of this was evident when I was there in June 2005. Many flags of the Albanian state were displayed in the towns of Western Macedonia. Although it has been explained to me, I remain slightly concerned as the same flag, i.e. Albania’s, was almost the only flag that I saw in Kosovo. Could this be an indication of sympathy for a Greater Albania?
At around the same time, a state university where Albanian is the language of instruction was initiated. The efforts by the leadership of Macedonia to formalize the existence of a bi-cultural community in the Republic of Macedonia have been praised by the leaders of the West including the United States.
The next ten years will probably be the critical time for the 2001 Ohrid Agreement. Unfortunately, Macedonia, like all countries, has extremists who are not sympathetic to the advocates of understanding and dialogue. The United States should remain firmly on the side of the Macedonian leadership that is implementing these agreements. Macedonia, in 1991, entered the family of independent states without violence. Now more than a decade later, as it undertakes an effort to establish a cohesive bi-cultural community, the United States should support these efforts with all possible assistance.
* Editor’s Note: The Ohrid Framework Agreement, signed by Macedonia’s four main political parties on August 13, 2001, provides for a staged reshaping of inter-ethnic relations and power-sharing arrangements. The document lists some basic principles of the Macedonian state and includes provisions on: the cessation of hostilities and the voluntary disarmament of ethnic Albanian armed groups; devolving centralized power to local administration; and, reforming minority political and cultural rights.
* Editor’s Note: On September 27, 2005, General John de Chastelain and his Decommissioning Commission certified that the Irish Republican Army had put all of their arms certifiably “beyond reach.” According to the BBC, Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom said that the completion of decommissioning was “an important step in the transition from conflict to peace in Northern Ireland.”