Macedonia: Flag-Waving Stirs Passions

The ethnic Albanians' two-headed black eagle emblem is causing fresh tension in the run up to the Macedonian elections.

Macedonia: Flag-Waving Stirs Passions

The ethnic Albanians' two-headed black eagle emblem is causing fresh tension in the run up to the Macedonian elections.

Friday, 6 September, 2002

Flag-waving has become a major issue in the Macedonian general election with bitter arguments over whether the minority Albanian population should be allowed to fly their own standard.

Macedonians strongly opposes the use of the two-headed black eagle on a red background that they say is the flag of a foreign country, the neighbouring Republic of Albania.

During the last decade of Macedonian independence, the ethnic Albanians have always flown the black eagle. They say this was allowed in communist Yugoslavia, and that it was established as a community banner long before the Albanian state existed.

Conciliatory noises were heard from the Albanian camp at the end of August, when Abdurahman Aliti, leader of the Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, was quoted as saying, "I think it would have been better if the Albanian parties gathered together and agreed to use the (Macedonian) state flag."

Any soothing effect this might have had was wrecked a few days later when the interior ministry sent police into mostly-Albanian western Macedonia to tear the eagle banner down from poles and public buildings.

The action stung the four largest ethnic Albanians parties - PDP amongst them - into accusing the Macedonians of deliberately trying to unsettle them in the run-up elections on September 15.

They urged the international community "to use its authority in overcoming the tense situation and the risk of escalating conflict".

This episode, however, was only the latest in a series of disputes over national symbols that have increased tensions between the two communities.

The authorities had tried to resolve the problem through legislation in 1997, when parliament ratified a decision by the constitutional court forbidding the flying of anything other than state and local government flags.

While the law was later abolished, it was still in force on July 7, 1997, when police in Tetovo and Gostivar tore down black eagle flag from poles in front of local administration buildings.

Around 10,000 ethnic Albanians turned out in protest. There were three deaths and hundreds of injuries during the Gostivar incident, with the police accused of violating human rights.

The mayors of Tetovo and Gostivar, Alajdin Demiri and Rufi Osmani, and the chairmen of the municipality councils, refused to take down the flags and were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison terms.

At the beginning of 1999, the new government led by the VMRO-DPMNE and Democratic Party of the Albanians, DPA, approved an amnesty for political prisoners and the men were released.

A year later, the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg threw out an appeal by Rufi Osmani, who claimed his human rights had been infringed. The Strasbourg judges ruled that the Macedonian police and judiciary had acted within their rights.

The flag issue, inextricably linked to prejudices and stereotypes about Albanians and their loyalty to the country in which they live, received only superficial attention in the Ohrid framework agreement that ended last year's violent conflict in Macedonia.

Unfortunately, neither the Ohrid process nor its laws were used to settle the conflict over national symbols, which is expected to rage on long after the elections have been decided.

Iso Rusi is editor-in-chief of the Albanian weekly Lobi

Macedonia, Albania
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