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Macedonia Struggles To Progress Amid Ethnic Divisions and Corruption - 2004-01-09

Macedeonia, a landlocked country of a little over two million people, used to be called ‘an oasis of peace’ for managing to avoid the bloodshed that stained Yugoslavia as it broke apart. But by 2001 Macedonia was dogged by the same ethnic clashes that are the curse of the Balkans: more history, as it were, than they can handle. The fighting was over in a few months, but tensions persist, creating an unstable environment for investment and economic growth. The Macedonian political leadership faces many challenges in an effort to keep the peace and make progress. VOA's Lilica Kitanovska recently visited Macedonia and has this report.

The recently built Millennium Cross, huge, lit at night, standing tall on top of the Vodno hill above the capital, Skopje, was a shock for me when I visited Macedonia last summer. It faces the Islamic mosques on the other side of the Vardar River that divides the city almost perfectly in half. These opposing structures symbolize the rift and occasional outright warfare between Orthodox Christians, who make up the majority of Macedonia, and the minority Muslims, who are ethnic Albanians.

The fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo in 1999 produced a refugee crisis in Macedonia. More than 350 thousand ethnic Albanians poured into Macedonia, unsettling the population and creating additional tensions that led to an armed conflict in 2001. The fighting lasted several months and could have enveloped the region. With the help of international mediators and determined leadership within the country, the conflict was contained.

A peace agreement granting broader rights to the ethnic Albanian community was signed in the city of Ohrid in August 2001. An extensive package of measures addressed some of the ethnic Albanians’ grievances and provided the basis for a more integrated country. At the end of last year, departing NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson said that “Macedonia has gone through the worst of its troubles” and is “one of the success stories” of the Balkans. Daniel Serwer, Balkan Initiative Director at the United States Institute of Peace, says not quite yet:

“Albanians and Macedonians agree on some basic things. They agree, for example, that the name of the country should be Macedonia. That is important, and they need to agree, or at least come to understand each other, on many more levels. You have an opposition today in Macedonia, parts of which, both Albanians and Macedonians, seem to find it appealing to split up the country. I think that is a dangerous proposition.”

My visit to Macedonia revealed the divide between the two communities. As in a bad marriage, they live apart, barely having anything to do with each other. Their political representatives try to work together, but that does not involve ordinary people. However, Mr. Serwer says the government appears committed to keeping the country together. “The point is”, he says, “that in the period when its very existence was threatened by armed rebellion, the current government has had a hold of the situation, is implementing the (Ohrid) agreement as best it can and is clearly committed to the unity of the country.”

Eager to boost their country’s chances to join NATO and the European Union, the Macedonian leadership decided to end a ten-year period of a foreign military presence that has kept peace along the border with Kosovo. This is intended to show the international community that Macedonia can handle its own defense and that its internal conflict is cooling. A European Union civilian and police mission of some two hundred officers provides the only security in Macedonia today.

Martin Sletzinger, director of East European studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, is skeptical. He is convinced that “Macedonia would be much better off if there was some force there to show not only the continuing concern of the international community that intra-communal relations in Macedonia continue in a peaceful way, but also as a deterrent to any people who may have some ideas about causing insurrectionary problems of the sort Macedonia had”, points out Mr. Sletzinger. He adds that “we are dealing with the legacy of those problems which I think could break out any moment once the international community begins to seriously discuss future status for Kosovo.”

To achieve EU and NATO membership, Macedonia’s first priority is fully implementing the peace accord. Among the most sensitive issues is reform of the educational system. When the government tried to turn an ethnic Albanian university in the northwestern city of Tetovo into a state-funded institution, some 4,000 Macedonian university and high school students protested the decision.

Ethnic tensions are aggravated by a long stagnant economy, indicated by poor roads and dilapidated buildings. My son’s first question upon arrival was, “Why is Macedonia so broken?” The answer that Macedonians have other things to worry about never really satisfied a six-year old. Neither is this a good answer for ordinary people frustrated by poor services, lack of jobs and, increasingly, waning hope.

Slobodan Casule, former Macedonian foreign minister and now a member of Parliament, believes the key for dealing with ethnic conflict is eradicating poverty. He explains: “The lack of political stability and security prevents massive foreign investment. This lack of investment deepens the poverty and the poverty creates unemployment. Now this group of people, void of any value, void of any possibility to create value, is easily manipulated and mobilized behind irrational - for the 21st century - ideas. If they manage to obtain a job, that will allow them to live a better life, which probably means a steady three hundred dollars a month, and those people will never pick up arms.

The unemployment rate in Macedonia is close to 40 percent, and official statistics show between 25 and 30 percent of the people are poor. On top of that, corruption is out of hand. The European Union organization, The Group of states against corruption (GRECO), stated in last year’s assessment that corruption is a way of life in Macedonia. That led to establishing a Commission to fight corruption, whom some claim has not made much progress. Transparency International, a leading international non-governmental organization devoted to curbing global corruption, ranks Macedonia near the bottom, 106th out of 133 countries. Miklos Marshal, who directed the survey for Eastern Europe, says it could have been worse and “The very fact that Macedonia is included is good news. In earlier years we could not find three valid independent surveys to use for derivation of the index. They (Macedonians) have in fact implemented some good anti-corruption measures. There is a very strong and influential anti-corruption commission”, says Mr. Marshal adding that the work needs to be continued.

Macedonia is a country of contrasting images. Young people dress according to the latest Italian fashions. Vehicles like Land Rovers, Mercedes-Benz and BMWs can be seen everywhere together with the oldest models of Skoda and Fiat that are forgotten even by their manufacturers. Beautiful apartments occupy buildings covered with graffiti and surrounded with trash. Glistening Ohrid Lake with its picturesque monasteries and churches, has beaches covered with litter. Finding distraction is a main survival tool in Macedonia. One day a message appeared on billboards all over the capital saying, “Karolina, I love you”, signed “Grozdan”. That confession preoccupied the citizens and the media for several days. Somebody’s romance was fun, but then discussion turned to how much “Grozdan” did pay for the display. Minding other people’s business is high on the entertainment list for average Macedonians.

Being poor in Macedonia is not the same as in Third World countries. Snezana Andova is general manager of a Macedonian branch of ”Opportunity International”, which helps people start small businesses. She explains that most Macedonians own their homes and have additional property. What they need are jobs.

Andova says a farmer she has helped, known as “Cicko Stoilko”, typifies the Macedonian spirit.

With loans from ”Opportunity International”, Stoilko started a dairy farm in the village of Kadino, near Skopje. He says life is hard, especially after his wife died, but he would not give in to weakness. Everything he owns one day will be inherited by his son and his son’s children and grandchildren. He would not seek happiness anywhere else.

Snezana Andova says if other Macedonians show similar resolution, the country is sure to prosper.