Macedonia, independent since 1991, is comprised of an ethnic Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority (among others). Despite years of discrimination against ethnic Albanians, the Macedonian national media has shied away from objective reporting of these issues. This media misrepresentation has led many ethnic Macedonians to question why a conflict, led by ethnic Albanian rebels calling for liberation of their ethnic group, broke out in 2001.
While the country’s ethnic Albanians fought for grievances relating to socio-economic discrimination, a lack of equitable political representation, and rights to an education in a minority language, the prevailing narrative among ethnic Macedonians is that the 2001 war was fought for greed. Instead, ethnic Albanians hark back to the words of Stojan Andov, then speaker of the parliament, who said, “the only way Albanians will get their rights is by the barrel of a gun.”
An internationally-brokered peace deal called the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) brought the conflict to an end, and 14 years later, ethnic Macedonians in power assert that the agreement has been fully implemented. Meanwhile, ethnic Albanians see that the agreement is no longer the government’s priority and that the OFA is inconsistently implemented through the affirmative action quota system, decentralization, and language laws it created.
By deriding or dehumanizing ethnic Albanians, ethnic Macedonians attempt to delegitimize ethnic Albanian human rights claims. Many ethnic Macedonians do not see how ethnic Albanians or other minorities have contributed to Macedonia’s existence, and believe they should not benefit from affirmative action. This mentality can only be opposed by rigorous inter-ethnic peacebuilding courses starting in elementary school. The state’s education system must teach about the mosaic of Macedonia’s citizens, and show that Macedonia’s citizens share equal basic rights and responsibilities.
As recently as 2010, David Phillips, Director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University noted the following, “Per capita expenditures for education and health care to Macedonian communities is more than double expenditures for Albanian communities. The teacher-pupil ratio is three times greater for Macedonians than Albanians. Infrastructure investment is four times greater in Macedonian communities. The employment rate of Macedonians is double that of Albanians.”
Macedonia’s government, via the media they control and expensive ad campaigns, reinforce the idea that Macedonians are disappearing and under attack. This due to a growing Albanian minority and the governments of neighbouring countries refusing to recognize Macedonia’s constitutional name (Greece) and distinct history & language (Bulgaria). The government has also significantly raised the stigma of abortion and implied it is a patriotic duty to grow the population with ethnic Macedonian children. By weaving declining population numbers with genuine concerns about the country’s relationship with its neighbours, there is a heightened sense of ends justifying means to preserve ethnic Macedonian ethnicity.
In February 2015, Macedonia’s lack of democratic integrity was exposed by Zoran Zaev, leader of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) opposition party, who revealed government-wiretapped conversations. Prominent members of the government and ruling party, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE; thus forth VMRO) are recorded: influencing judges, stifling the media, rigging elections, and intimidating VMRO party members. Prime Minister Gruevski claims that Zaev is instigating a coup against him, and, with foreign forces, Zaev is attempting to destabilize Macedonia. Macedonia’s ally, Turkey, has employed similar narratives to tarnish anti-government protesters in 2013.
Two European Union envoys have noted the blatant discrimination in leaked conversations. The calls reveal government officials’ use of the derogatory term for Albanians –shiptari–and equivalent insults to the Roma ethnicity. The Minister of Interior is recorded saying that it is all right to keep a particular 11 ethnic Albanians in jail, despite there being no evidence of their guilt (and the head of secret services saying they signed confessions because they were tortured), because, “anyway, the jails are full of shiptari.” Occasionally, an ethnic Macedonian politician advocates for equality between the ethnic majority and minority but even in ethnic Macedonian opposition parties, minority rights are not a priority.
Two officials in Zaev’s tapes have verified the accuracy of transcripts in which they appear, but there have been no high-profile public defections from the government. The government remains Macedonia’s largest employer in a country where more than a quarter of the population is unemployed. Citizens depend on connections with the party in power, so despite corruption being exposed at all levels, up to PM Gruevski himself, the revelations have not led to protest.
Despite growing tension, few Macedonian organizations employ a peacebuilding lens to bring narratives together to counter conflict. Praise for war criminals and nationalist myths must be retired, by acknowledging the history of all peoples of the country; and narrative must reflect the reality of all Macedonian citizens. Since the government has underfunded civil society, the organizations left to make change are either foreign NGOs or local ones with foreign grants. Even then, many grant recipients struggle to remain active between funding cycles. Inter-ethnic and peacebuilding issues are dealt with by functioning professional associations, student and womens’ organizations, but they have other priorities.
Macedonia’s civil society is enfeebled in part due to VMRO claiming that many who defend United Nations (UN)-enshrined human rights are “Sorosoids”—followers of George Soros that are part of a global conspiracy against Macedonia. The opposition wants reform, often along the lines of what foreign NGOs support, so VMRO accuses the opposition of working in foreign interests. This is similar to Russia‘s approach to NGOs, and Tajikistan‘s new stance. By closing NGOs, governments quash their citizens’ attempts to form interest groups that advocate for their rights.
For reasons mentioned here, Macedonia has dropped from 34th in the world for media freedom in 2009, to 123rd in 2014. A headline in Vecer, a government mouthpiece newspaper, reads, “Rejected by the citizens, Zaev incites religious jihad on the streets,” and features an inflammatory report that SDSM, with Kosovar political parties, is plotting incidents in Macedonia. Slandering Zaev also serves to remind Macedonians that ethnic Albanians (in popular discourse) are “Muslim terrorists” or uneducated villagers. This is perpetuated in online narratives as “internet patriots” bog down video comments sections and forum boards with what equates to hate speech.
Divisive narratives are a distraction from the deep political and economic crisis Macedonia is facing. Macedonia’s political decline could exacerbate political polarization across the Balkans although Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are experiencing their own versions of negative peace. Results-oriented peacebuilding could derail cycles of physical and structural violence through monitoring and evaluation. It will be difficult for Macedonia to restore confidence in its government institutions, so to do so, it must implement rule of law without selectivity.
Macedonians should become more politically active in their communities and hold their government accountable for its attempts to delegitimize dissenters. Coalition building, within society and political parties, will help identify priorities for the country moving forward. This could start with a re-structuring of the country’s political parties and basing them on political ideology rather than ethnic affiliation. Concurrently, as said in 2013, Macedonia must lead by example to the region by protecting its minorities—rather than falling prey to internal and international inter-ethnic squabbling.
Sign up here for the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s May conference, “Peacebuilding and Democracy in a Turbulent World” which will explore the global struggle between civil society voices and government repression that is giving rise to violence, extremism, and toxic politics.
(Feature Photo Credit: “Ohrid Town (as seen from Car Samoil’s Castle)” by fabulousfabs Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY 2.0). Accessed 04/28/2015.)