Visit the blog
announces a new imprint

Search Articles

Search Authors

Advanced Search

Join our Mailing List
Monday, October 15, 2001


Whither Macedonia?

As NATO troops complete the collection of weapons voluntarily turned in by Albanian rebels and the parliament of the republic of Macedonia finishes debating a package of measures to expand Albanian civil rights, the international community is congratulating itself for having averted one more Balkan conflict, at least in the short term. The complex agreement worked out between political leaders representing the Macedonian Slavs and the Macedonian Albanians is indeed a tribute to the persistence of such international bodies as the EU, the UN, and NATO. All parties, both local and international, have publicly touted the agreement as a major step (although still only a first step) toward creating conditions for a functioning, multiethnic Macedonian republic. The question I would like to ask here is not so much whether the agreement can be made to stand up in its initial phases, but whether what has been agreed upon can indeed lead to a functioning, multiethnic state.

Before beginning this analysis, a quick review of some facts is in order. The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia achieved independence in 1991, having been previously (since 1945) one of the six federal republics that composed the second Yugoslavia. This landlocked country of 25,000 square kilometers is home to approximately two million people. Sixty to seventy percent of the population are Macedonian Slavs, mostly Orthodox Christians, who speak a South Slavic language quite close to Bulgarian. Twenty to thirty percent are Macedonian Albanians, almost all Muslim and speaking Albanian, a language unrelated to Macedonian. The exact percentages of Slavs and Albanians in the population is a matter of much dispute, however, and a census that was to be held this year to resolve the issue has been shelved for the moment. The populations are distributed unequally in the country, with Albanians dominant close to the borders of Albania and Kosovo in the north and northwest (including the city of Tetovo, the country’s second largest), and Slavs dominant in the south and east. Skopje, the capital, is an ethnically mixed city at the border of Albanian-dominated territory. This rough distribution of population suggests comparisons with similarly sized Belgium. Over the past three decades, Belgium has evolved into a federal state, with Flemings making up a bit over 60% of the population, Walloons making up around 30%, and the multiethnic city of Brussels accounting for most of the remainder.

Since independence, Macedonia has been a relatively peaceful enclave in the midst of the general post-Yugoslav implosion. Still, Albanians in Macedonia have never felt equal to Slavic Macedonians, despite explicit constitutional prohibitions against ethnic- or national-based discrimination. In particular, Albanians have found it unacceptable that Slavic Macedonians regard themselves as the sole constituent people of the country, and consider Albanians (as well as smaller populations of Turks, Roma, and Serbs) to be minorities, rather than equal partners. Albanian disaffection became more open after 1999, when international intervention gave their Kosovar brethren de facto independence from Serbia. The Kosovo model, as well as direct help from Kosovo and Albania, led Albanians to resort to violence in order to force the Macedonian state to consider their demands. As was the case in Kosovo, although much earlier in this instance, the international community rewarded the turn to violence by forcing the parties to negotiate a compromise that, if ratified, will give the Albanians most of what they desire, at least on paper.

As noted above, however, I am less interested in whether the short-term compromise forged with international strong-arm tactics will be ratified than with the implications of this compromise for the future of Macedonia. So let us examine some possible scenarios for Macedonia.

Scenario A: Disaster
Parliament passes the legislation proposed. NATO troops collect weapons for thirty days. Some kind of military force stays to protect international monitors, but they don’t do much. Over the next few years, no hot war breaks out, but refugees don’t return and, in time, Albanians gradually force Slavs to leave Albanian territory and vice versa. The two sides drift farther and farther apart until a political but non-violent Albanian secessionist group (like that of Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo) appears. The country, which has now been divided into two more or less ethnically pure regions, breaks up but not before the Macedonian Slavs attempt to reassert control. This leads to civil war of uncertain outcome.

Scenario B: Not quite so bad
Everything goes as described above, but with the eventual appearance of a political but non-violent Albanian secessionist group, it becomes clear to the Macedonian Slav leadership that the “political” Albanian separatists are backed by enough firepower to be unstoppable. The country, which has now been divided into two more or less ethnically pure regions, breaks up peacefully on the model of Czechoslovakia, although what happens to Skopje is unclear. The Macedonian Albanians either go it alone or, more likely, join up with Kosovar Albanians and those from Albania in some form of federation or United Albanian States. The Macedonian Slavs also either remain independent on a smaller scale or decide that their continued existence can only be safeguarded by federating with one of their neighbors: Bulgaria, Serbia, or Greece.

Scenario C: Pretty good
Parliament passes the legislation proposed. NATO troops collect weapons for thirty days. Some kind of military force stays to protect international monitors, but they don’t do much. Over the next few years, no hot war breaks out. Gradually, the country evolves into a federation with a multinational capital on the model of Belgium. The two sides don’t particularly like each other, but decide that they are nevertheless better off together than separately.

Scenario D: Ideal
Parliament passes the legislation proposed. NATO troops collect weapons for thirty days. The international military mission is extended and ensures that all refugees return to mixed ethnic communities. Macedonian and Albanian leaders recognize that ethnic-based political parties are destructive and that the only path to a truly stable multinational state is full bilingualism and elimination of the notion of constitutive peoples altogether. Massive foreign aid allows the Macedonians to get their economy rolling, and they become so prosperous that ethnic divisions become meaningless.

Which of these scenarios is most likely? I think that we can quickly eliminate Scenario D. There is, unfortunately, nothing in the agreement that would lead to the creation of robust supranational institutions. Under its provisions, Albanians will have even less incentive than they do now to learn Macedonian, especially if the government fully funds an Albanian-language university in Tetovo, and Slavs will have no incentive to learn Albanian. At best, the agreement will produce separate but equal populations that see themselves as dual constitutive peoples. It would take political leaders far more visionary than any on the scene in Macedonia or in the international community to convince Macedonia’s citizens to try to eliminate the concept of constituent peoples altogether in favor of a citizenship-based state. Prosperity is a long way off and there is no indication that the international community is ready to provide the kind of assistance that would jump-start Macedonia’s economy.

The other three scenarios are all, in my view, plausible. Which of them transpires will depend not only on internal developments in Macedonia but on regional and European-wide developments as well. We will examine them one by one, but first it will be instructive to think about the case of Belgium.

The Belgian Parallel
Belgium was formed as a unitary state in 1830. According to Michael O’Neill, it “drew initially on a manufactured sense of national identity, manipulated to its own advantage by a francophone elite which adopted a strategy of assimilation” (“Belgium: Language, Ethnicity and Nationalism,” Parliamentary Affairs 53, 1, January 2000, pp.114-134). Tensions between the two main linguistic groups were, however, always apparent; by the 1970s, it was clear that change was necessary if Belgium was to survive. An evolutionary series of reforms has been ongoing since then; it led to the recognition in 1993 that Belgium had become a truly federal state. It is by no means clear, however, that federalism has improved the long-term survival of the country. As O’Neill notes: “[F]ederalizing the Belgian state has confirmed the everyday experiences of citizens inhabiting two distinct communities: it has not enhanced a common national interest, and without countervailing forces the affective solidarity that sustains federal states elsewhere may become so diminished as to threaten the very continuance of the body politic” (p. 130). At the moment, the Belgian bargain is holding, but the balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces is extremely delicate, and even the most sanguine commentators believe that the country might still break up into two independent states.

It is the instability of a country such as Belgium that leads one to believe that Scenario C is fairly unlikely for Macedonia. For the “countervailing forces” holding Belgium together are far stronger than in Macedonia. First, Macedonians, and Macedonian Albanians in particular, have much less to lose from divorce than do their Belgian counterparts. Per capita income in Belgium was on the order of $22,000 annually in 1999, while it was approximately $3,800 in Macedonia. Second, the group that has historically been culturally dominant in Belgium (the francophones) is economically in worse shape. Thus, the cultural power of the minority is balanced to some extent by the economic power of the majority. The situation is far more asymmetrical in Macedonia, where the Slavs have been both culturally dominant and economically better off. Third, the Belgian compromise has held, at least for the moment, because Belgian politicians have been inclined to moderation and compromise, something that can hardly be said for most of the political actors on the Macedonian scene. Fourth, Belgium has a 170-year history as a state to fall back on, as well as supranational institutions (the monarchy, most obviously) with some prestige. These are almost entirely absent in Macedonia.

Finally, there is no external pressure on Belgium. The Dutch are not interested in amalgamating with the Flemings, nor are the French enchanted by the idea of absorbing the Walloons. The Macedonian Slavs are similarly not drawn to consider amalgamation with their neighbors (particularly since each of them has at times laid claim to Macedonian territory). But the same cannot be said of the Macedonian Albanians. It is obvious that the inspiration for the current unrest came from the success of the Kosovar Albanian uprising, and it is also clear that many of the weapons and some of the people who carried out the uprising came from Kosovo or Albania. Although Albanian military and political leaders deny any desire to secede from Macedonia, such denials must be taken with a grain of salt, for all these leaders realize that, given the international community’s mantra of “no border changes in the Balkans,” even to hint of this long-term desire would doom their chances of international support.

All of this almost guarantees that Macedonia will not see the kind of federalist compromise that has been worked out in Belgium. At the moment, the only glue available to holding together separatist tendencies in Macedonia is the oft-stated unwillingness on the part of the international community to contemplate changing borders in the Balkans. However, this claim is being severely undercut by the open-ended NATO mission in Kosovo. Until and unless the international community is able successfully to force a reintegration of Kosovo with Serbia, Macedonian Albanians will be unconvinced that they need to work seriously on a formula that will allow them to live with Macedonian Slavs. It is, however, extremely doubtful that Kosovo will ever be reunited with Serbia. Whatever the international community says, borders will eventually change in the Balkans, if only because the desire for change on the part of many of the region’s inhabitants will outlast our willingness to stay and prevent such changes.

The Other Options
This, then, leaves the dissolution of Macedonia as the most likely long-run scenario. It is difficult to predict whether this can be achieved without major violence, however. Will future Macedonian Slav politicians recognize that they simply cannot control territory that is almost 100-percent Albanian and hostile to them? Will the international community allow some future Macedonian Slav government to use whatever force is necessary to stop secession? Will the idea of a unitary or federalist Albanian state have purchase or not when Macedonian Albanians are ready to make their move? These questions simply cannot be answered now, and the resolution of the Macedonian situation cannot occur until these answers become clear.

Assuming the divorce happens, it is also unclear what the fate of the Macedonian Slavs will be. If the security and economic climate in Europe are such that they can feel safe in a rump state, the Slavs may elect to remain independent in a smaller territory. If, however, they are worried by the presence of a greater Albania on their immediate borders, they may decide that their only long-term hope for survival is to join a neighboring state. On the face of it, Bulgaria would be the logical choice for partnership, since the Macedonian and Bulgarian languages are extremely similar. However, the Macedonians might well believe that in time they would lose any distinctive national identity in a Bulgarian/Macedonian federation and would therefore prefer one of their other neighbors. Historically, relations with Serbia were excellent in communist Yugoslavia, so at least the present generation of Slav political leaders might find such a federation comfortable. Serbia is poor, however, while Greece is rich. And while relations with Greece were terrible in the first five years of Macedonian independence, they have improved dramatically in recent years and it is by no means inconceivable that Greece could be the choice if a federal partner is sought. How any of these three neighboring countries would react to such a desire is, of course, unclear.

In any case, this review of possible scenarios gives some indication of why Macedonian Slavs have been, in general, extremely unhappy with NATO intervention. For whatever the outcome (even if it is the less-likely but still-possible Scenario C), the dream of a unitary Macedonian state dominated by its Slavic population is over. The Albanians are simply too numerous and powerful to be Macedonianized (as they can and are being Hellenized in neighboring Greece). Albanians will either become equal partners in a federal state or, more likely, eventually become strong enough to secede.

For NATO and the international community, however, the limited intervention makes sense. Although it will not create the conditions for a successfully multiethnic state, the agreement being rammed down the throats of the Macedonian Slavs has averted major war for now (a war that, for all their bluster, the Slavs would probably not have won). And there is a good chance that when the country finally does break up, it will do so in a less violent manner than would have been the case otherwise. While this might not seem a cause for rejoicing, compared to the outcomes in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, it isn’t bad.

Andrew Wachtel is Herman and Beulah Pearce Miller Research Professor in Literature at Northwestern University. He is also director of the consortium on southeast European studies at Northwestern and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Page 1 of 1 pages