- by International Crisis Group
Ten years after signature of the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) that ended fighting between the country’s ethnic Albanians and Macedonians, much of the agreement has been implemented, and a resumption of armed conflict is unlikely. Macedonia is justified in celebrating its success in integrating minorities into political life, but inter-party and inter-ethnic tensions have been growing for five years.
While this part of the Balkans looks to eventual EU membership to secure stability, it remains fragile, and worrying trends – rising ethnic Macedonian nationalism, state capture by the prime minister and his party, decline in media and judicial independence, increased segregation in schools and slow decentralisation – risk undermining the multi-ethnic civil state Macedonia can become.
Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who has just formed a new government, should work closely with his Albanian coalition partners and opposition parties to pass and implement the measures needed for more democratisation, inter-ethnic reconciliation and a solution to the name dispute with Greece.
On 5 June Macedonia held elections that international observers assessed as generally positive and whose results political parties accepted quickly. The opposition Alliance of Social Democrats in Macedonia (SDSM) coalition increased its presence in parliament from 27 to 42 seats. Re-elected to lead the government, but with ten less seats, Gruevski and his Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) will now have to cooperate more closely with their Albanian coalition partner, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
Albanian parties should strengthen their loyalty to the state and engage more substantially in policy and decision-making. The new more pluralistic and balanced 123-seat parliament should foster greater cooperation among political elites and help overcome the highly polarised environment that was exacerbated during the SDSM’s four-month parliamentary boycott.
A more balanced legislature should also temper the prime minister’s state-sponsored nationalism, most evident in the hugely expensive and divisive urban renewal program in Skopje, built around a nationalist vision of ancient Macedonia that is offensive to the country’s minorities and Greece alike. The failures to secure NATO membership in April 2008 and to begin negotiations over membership with the EU in 2009, four years after obtaining candidate status, helped Gruevski secure support for his “national renaissance” policy line. The resulting increased emphasis on nationalism, however, is dividing Macedonians unhealthfully between “patriots’ and “traitors”, irritating Albanians and discouraging Macedonia’s friends in the EU.
The previous government coalition captured many state institutions, especially the parliament that it dominated. Political dialogue broke down, and Gruevski and the SDSM leader attacked each other in highly personal terms. Legislative boycotts and laws passed under emergency procedures undermined democratic debate. VMRO-DPMNE and DUI party members were favoured for public jobs, without regard for merit. The government reduced criticism in parts of the highly politicised media by buying favours through advertising. Selective fiscal investigation into and subsequent forced bankruptcy of the opposition-leaning television station A1 and detention of its owner were viewed at home and abroad as silencing criticism. As under past administrations, the judiciary lacked independence.
Relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians also suffered. The government was criticised for not doing enough to ensure equitable representation, implement the law on languages and oppose cultural exclusion. At the same time, segregation in the education system was becoming more entrenched. Although a good institutional framework exists to promote and encourage inter-ethnic dialogue, relations suffered from weak central government support. The prevalent view among much of the Albanian political elite is that the DUI must be more forceful in articulating the needs of ethnic Albanians than it was in the previous coalition.
Albanians are especially frustrated at successive governments’ inability to resolve the name issue. As Crisis Group has repeatedly argued, the dispute risks derailing the strategies of the EU and NATO to stabilise Macedonia and the wider region through integration and enlargement. Years of UN-mediated negotiations have made little progress, and further talks have not been scheduled. Macedonia in particular appears to be waiting for an International Court of Justice (ICJ) verdict in the case it brought for alleged violations of the 1995 Interim Agreement that regulates bilateral relations in the absence of a name agreement. The financial crisis in Greece and popular resentment of austerity measures there do not make it easy for the Greek leadership to focus on resolving the dispute. Nevertheless, Macedonia should seek decisive progress so as not to miss the opportunity to get the go-ahead for membership negotiations when the EU makes new enlargement decisions in December.
Citizens of all ethnic backgrounds and political persuasion have reason to celebrate Ohrid’s tenth anniversary. The OFA has done much to reduce discrimination and inequality and maintain unity. It is still needed to forge a common understanding of the civic state. During his immediately preceding term as prime minister, however, Gruevski sought to build a strong state identity based on Macedonia’s ancient history, from which ethnic Albanians feel excluded. They are more focused on advocating a highly decentralised federal and bilingual state that ethnic Macedonians see as threatening to the country’s survival. The two concepts have little in common; managing and shaping them so that they can provide mutual support or at least coexist constructively is difficult. But bringing Macedonia’s political and ethnic elites and ordinary citizens closer together around a shared vision of a unified multi-national state is a challenge that the new government cannot avoid.