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Macedonia Still Has Much Work Ahead to Overcome Ethnic Divides - 2004-03-16

Macedonia still has much work to do to fully overcome the ethnic divides that led to conflict between the Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority a few years ago. That's the assessment of Balkans experts who met for a Voice of America forum in Washington on Tuesday to discuss the future of Macedonia after the death last month of the country's president.

Macedonia's ambassador in Washington, Nikola Dimitrov, says his countrymen are now recognizing that President Boris Trajkovski stood for ethnic reconciliation and national unity.

"The tragic death of President Trajkovski, in a way - and this is a personal observation - brought us a lesson to be learned, to the Macedonian nation," he said. "I think Macedonians are not the only people in the world who don't really know how to appreciate their leaders well [when they're alive]."

Mr. Trajkovski died February 26, when his plane crashed in bad weather in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A special election to choose his successor is scheduled for April 14.

Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for the Balkans, says Macedonia has registered successes in recovering from an ethnic Albanian insurgency nearly three years ago.

But she says there is much more that needs to be done to establish the rule of law and democratic institutions. Ms. Stephens says the United States and the European Union are cooperating fully in Macedonia.

"Notwithstanding our differences on many issues, the U.S. and Europe have worked very closely in Macedonia, with common goals, with close consultation and with a sense of common purpose," she said.

Ed Joseph, a non-governmental Balkans specialist who spent two years in Skopje, the capital, believes Macedonia can hold together as a multi-ethnic state, following a 2001 peace accord. But he believes further efforts are needed to improve relations between Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians, who comprise nearly a third of the population.

"Unfortunately, Macedonians and Albanians are still at local levels and too many places unable to really converse with each other and share their concerns with each other in an open way," he said. "And until that happens, I think implementation of what has been agreed [at the Ohrid peace agreement of 2001] will be difficult."

Mr. Joseph addressed the forum by phone from Croatia.

Macedonia, like its neighbors in the southern Balkans, hopes to eventually enter both NATO and the European Union.