Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia Holds Back on Reforms

The Macedonian authorities are dragging their heals over promised democratic reforms
By Adelina Marku

Hopes that Macedonia was on the brink of a new era have proven to be unfounded. An amnesty for political prisoners, the election of ethnic Macedonian Boris Trajkovski to the presidency on the back of Albanian votes and anticipated constitutional reforms prompted many foreign analysts to predict that this year would see significant political changes.

In truth, however, little has changed. Macedonian and Albanian are as divided as ever.

The country is still struggling with the key question of establishing democratic institutions, which function for the benefit of both communities.

Following independence in 1991, Macedonia adopted the old 1974 Yugoslav constitution with a few amendments. This new constitution presented the Albanian community with several problems, some of them very familiar. Government became heavily centralised and the Albanian community was reduced to the status of an ethnic minority, subject to considerable discrimination.

University education is a good illustration of where things have gone wrong. Following independence and the adoption of the new constitution, the Albanian language was not recognised as an official language. Opposed to their students having to study in Macedonian, the Albanian community established their own ‘illegal’ university in Tetovo.

Now there is a proposal to create an official Albanian language university under European Union sponsorship. But despite over 50 visits from the EU special envoy Max van der Stoel in 1999, nothing concrete has been achieved to date. Albanian politicians' failure to press for the new institution has damaged their reputation.

The election to the presidency last year of the ruling coalition’s candidate, Boris Trajkovski, depended on votes from the Albanian community.

With all the Albanian candidates knocked out in the first round, voters had two Macedonian candidates to choose from in the run-offs. Trajkovski appeared most conciliatory to the Albanian community, leading it to believe that a vote for him would guarantee real improvements in Albanian rights.

The amnesty law was directed at political prisoners and two prominent Albanian detainees, Alajdin Demiri and Rufi Osmani, were released in February 1999 under the terms of the legislation. The two politicians had been given long prison sentences in 1997 for raising the Albanian national flag over the town halls in Gostivar and Tetovo.

Demiri is expected to take up the post of Macedonian ambassador to the United Nations. Osmani, however, has since withdrawn from political life on health grounds.

The main Albanian political party, the ADP, stands on a manifesto of consensual, multi-ethnic democracy. But it is part of the government that has failed to deliver promised constitutional changes and comprehensive improvements in the rights of Albanians. The ADP, for example, was very reticent in pushing for the release of Osmani and Demiri under the terms of the amnesty law.

Frustration at the lack of progress has eroded the Albanian community's faith in multi-ethnic democracy. So much so that it is now increasingly calling for a federal-based system of government.

Proposed changes to the law on local government offer Albanians some degree of devolution. For the first time, towns and muncipalities where Albanians form the majority will enjoy control over local affairs. But there's little else for the community to be optimistic about.

With elections approaching, Albanian political parties appear to have nothing new to offer their electorate. Their manifestos look set to contain the same old policies - a new constitution, equal rights in higher education and the creation of functioning democratic institutions.

For a decade now, these policies have been collecting dust, with Macedonian and Albanian political parties dutifully polishing them up for show on election day.

Adelina Marku is an Albanian journalist for the Macedonian magazine Forum in Skopje.

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