Macedonia: Keeping Peace in the Balkans

In much of the former Yugoslavia, the response to Rodney King’s famous plea (“Can’t we all just get along?”) has been a bloodcurdling “No!” In multiethnic Macedonia, however, a chorus of “maybes” can be heard. And that’s about as hopeful as it gets in the Balkans.

Linguistic, religious, and cultural divisions between majority and minority communities are nearly as deep in Macedonia as in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. The 2.2 million inhabitants of the Vermont-sized republic officially are classified as 66 percent ethnic Macedonians, 23 percent ethnic Albanians, plus Turks, Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), and other groups.

But some estimates put the Albanian share of the population at close to 35 percent. The proportion increased markedly after last year’s influx of 200,000 Kosovar Albanians, an unknown number of whom have stayed.

The Macedonian-speaking Orthodox Christian majority worries that the growth of the Albanian-speaking Muslim minority will upset “the country’s delicate ethnic balance,” reports The Economist (April 3, 1999).

Since seceding from Yugoslavia in 1991, independent Macedonia has held its own in a highly dangerous neighborhood. And external relations further heighten the country’s internal tensions. Many Macedonians have ties to Serbia, while ethnic Albanians live close to their own compatriots across the borders with Kosovo and Albania.

Making Macedonia even more uneasy is a legacy of inequality. Following World War II, notes The New Internationalist (April 1998), Yugoslavia’s socialist ruler Josip Tito promoted ethnic Macedonian pride as a bulwark against Stalinist Bulgaria. Even longer-standing discrimination against ethnic Albanians has consigned them to the margins of contemporary Macedonian society. According to a report in London’s Financial Times (March 23, 2000), Albanians say they account for only 2 percent of Macedonia’s university graduates, 3 percent of its police force, and 7 percent of government officials.

At the top of the whole precarious social structure wobbles a “coalition of two seemingly irreconcilable parties: one ultranationalist and Macedonian, the other Albanian,” notes Yes! (Spring 2000).

“Miraculously,” observes Alice Ackerman in Peace Magazine (May 1998), “Macedonia has survived so far without major eruptions of ethnic violence.” Ackerman adds that “numerous players were responsible for this outcome: political leaders, international organizations, nongovernment agencies, individual citizens–all of whom formed a wall of prevention.” One of the most effective players, a Washington-based conflict-prevention group called Search for Common Ground, has worked in Macedonia since 1994 “to close this ethnolinguistic chasm.”

Writing in Yes!, Search for Common Ground president John Marks and Eran Fraenkel, its Macedonia project director, note that the reconciliation efforts have taken many different forms. The group organized a cross-ethnic reporting team that published more than 60 articles simultaneously in the country’s Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Roma press. Meanwhile, young members of the same communities were the target audience for an eight-part television series co-produced with Children’s Television Workshop, the creator of SesameStreet. Called Nashe Maalo (Our Neighborhood), the series stars children from various ethnic groups who live in a talking apartment building that helps them resolve conflicts arising from cultural, gender, and language differences.

Search for Common Ground also opened three multiethnic kindergartens, called Mozaik, in Macedonia. Even as war raged next door in Kosovo, the parents of Mozaik students issued a press release declaring: “Mozaik is indispensable for promoting mutual respect and understanding among all people in Macedonia. We urge other parents to join us and to send their children to Mozaik.”

Can peace actually prevail in this corner of a violent region?

Marks and Fraenkel suggest that Macedonians have heeded the bloodshed in other parts of the former Yugoslavia as a warning. “Macedonians of all ethnic groups, regardless of their mutual mistrust, recognize that everyone will suffer if their country follows the same path as their neighbors,” they write.

That understanding has been reinforced over the past seven years by the international military units in Macedonia. United Nations peacekeepers began patrolling the country’s borders in 1993 and were replaced last year by a NATO-led contingent that now includes some 5,000 soldiers. “Macedonia can continue to be a good example for the Balkans,” Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told the Financial Times in March.

Others are not so sure. “Albanians and Macedonians barely coexist,” Gilles de Rapper, a French anthropologist, tells G. Pascal Zachary in In These Times (July 11, 1999). But redrawing the region’s map won’t solve its ethnic problems. Encouraging the rule of law and respect for minorities within Slavic societies is viewed by influential Albanians as the only lasting guarantee of peace, writes Zachary.

Macedonia’s prime minister, meanwhile, regards integration with the European Union as an essential goal, according to the Financial Times. Many Macedonians believe that their future depends on increased aid from the United States, especially because the war against Serbia, a key trading partner, has brought economic growth in Macedonia to a standstill.

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.