The Conflict between Macedonians and Albanians

By | November 3, 2021

The peace agreement after the short-lived battles in 2001 has been implemented on paper but has been more difficult to put into practice. The conflict between the ethnic groups is close below the surface, and Macedonians and Albanians do not live together without side by side. New outbreaks of ethnic violence occur from time to time, but all parties are careful not to lead to real conflict. Today, the political contradictions have become greater than the ethnic ones.

The issue of the status and rights of the Albanian people had long been a source of conflict and controversy escalated when Macedonia (as it was then called) declared its independence in November 1991 in connection with the collapse of the Yugoslav state. According to constructmaterials, Macedonians make up almost two thirds of the population, while the Albanian minority make up about a quarter. Macedonians are slaves and Orthodox Christians, while most Albanians are Muslims.

Albanian nationalism grew after independence, and the Macedonians were afraid that the Albanians would break away so that the country would fall apart. However, Macedonia was the only Yugoslav republic to survive the 1991-1995 Yugoslav civil war.

Six years later, in 2001, fighting broke out between Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian government troops. Part of the guerrillas were believed to be Macedonian Albanians, who fought alongside the Albanian guerrillas in Kosovo and have now returned to Macedonia. The guerrillas said they were fighting to strengthen the Albanians’ position within the country, not to connect Albanian-speaking areas to Kosovo or Albania. Fighting lasted all spring alternating with ceasefires that were immediately broken.

The guerrillas’ actions were unanimously condemned by the outside world. Representatives of the EU, NATO and the United States used shuttle services to prevent pure war from breaking out. In July, they also managed to reach an agreement on a ceasefire, and after peace talks in the city of Ohrid, a peace agreement was signed in August 2001 – despite severe disagreements and strong suspicions between Macedonians and Albanians.

Peace agreement during protests

Under the agreement, Albanian would become the official language alongside Macedonian in areas with at least 20 percent Albanians, and new Albanian police would be trained (at the time of the agreement, there were only a few percent Albanians in the police force).

The agreement further stipulated that formulations in the constitution that could be interpreted as meaning that Macedonia belongs only to the Macedonians would be revised. More resources would go to education in Albanian-speaking areas.

At the same time, the Albanian guerrillas were to be disarmed and NATO sent troops to Macedonia to help collect guerrilla weapons. According to the agreement, the guerrilla members would avoid punishment for a long list of crimes.

Violent protests and demonstrations were held among Macedonians against the agreement. At the same time, representatives of the Albanian guerrillas said they intended to respect the agreement. The guerrillas later declared themselves dissolved, after which the government announced an amnesty for former guerrilla members.

Implementation of the peace agreement

In September 2001, the framework for the Ohrid Agreement was approved by Parliament, and despite many setbacks and incidents along the way, all points of the agreement were eventually adopted. But getting the agreement to work in practice has not been easy.

Perhaps the most difficult and important part of the agreement was the so-called decentralization package, which greatly reduced the number of municipalities through mergers and new demarcations. This was done mainly by including Albanian-dominated rural areas in urban areas where the Macedonians were in the majority. This meant increased influence in local issues such as education, local economy and health care for the Albanians, who came to control 16 of the 84 municipalities.

Remaining ethnic problems

Although most Macedonians and Albanians now largely live peacefully with each other, mistrust has remained between ethnic groups since the conflict in 2001.
Many Albanians believe that even if the Ohrid Agreement has meant improvements for them, more needs to be done. Some Albanians also want Northern Macedonia to become a decentralized federation. The Albanians were also annoyed that the Macedonians did not want to compromise with Greece on the name issue so that the country could become an EU and NATO member, but that issue was resolved in 2019 (see Conflict with Greece ).

Many Macedonians, on the other hand, feel squeezed between the demands of the Albanians and what they perceive as external threats to their identity. There is also concern that the Albanians, after all, want to break out of northern Macedonia to merge with Albania and Kosovo in a Greater Albania.

Occasional violence

From time to time, new outbreaks of ethnic violence occur, but without this then spreading. In 2012, many people were injured in clashes between Macedonian and Albanian youth gangs in Skopje. The triggering factor was the police shooting death of two ethnic Albanians. At one point, five Macedonians were killed on a lake outside the capital. Later, 20 suspected Islamists, most of them Albanians killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, were arrested for the act.

When Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski appointed the ethnic Albanian and former rebel leader Talat Xhaferi as the new Minister of Defense in early 2013, violent demonstrations broke out in the streets of Skopje. Ethnic Macedonians attacked ethnic Albanians, many people were injured and riot police intervened. The controversial decision was also met with protests from the Social Democratic opposition.

The most serious incident to date took place in May 2015. Fighting broke out between heavily armed people and police in the ethnically mixed city of Kumanovo in the north, near the border with Kosovo. Twenty-two people, including eight policemen, were killed in what the government described as an attempted attack on the regime by Albanian-rooted terrorists. The political opposition said it was a provocation by the government to divert attention from an ongoing wiretapping scandal (see below).

Political concerns

The political problems today have overshadowed the ethnic differences.

Six parliamentary elections have been held since the adoption of the Ohrid Agreement. The first four could largely be carried out without extensive cheating and violence. Following the 2014 election, the Social Democratic opposition, SDSM, accused the ruling center-right party VMRO-DPMNE of widespread electoral fraud. SDSM believed, among other things, that the ballot papers contained large numbers of people who did not exist and that the government completely controlled the media, which made it difficult for others to reach out with their messages. The opposition therefore boycotted the parliament and demanded that the elections be re-run, which the government refused.

Only a year later, with the help of EU mediators, was a settlement reached. According to this, new elections would be held in April 2016 and before these, a transitional government would be appointed to prepare the elections and fix the problems with media access and incorrect ballot papers. And although a transitional government was appointed, the opposition was not happy with how it tackled the other problems. The elections were therefore not postponed until June, but were then postponed again and could not be carried out until December.

The election result was very even between SDSM and VMRO-DPMNE and the contradictions persisted. The Albanian parties were given the role of wave leader, and they now joined forces and demanded mainly the strengthened status of the Albanian language.

First, the incumbent Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, as leader of the largest party VMRO-DPMNE, was instructed by President Gjorge Ivanov to try to form a government, but he failed. SDSM leader Zoran Zaev succeeded better and gained a majority in parliament. But Ivanov refused to give Zaev the job, citing the risk that Albanian demands would break the country. As head of state, the president will be free from all party politics, but Ivanov has on several occasions still supported VMRO-DPMNE.

Social Democratic-led government

When the parliament, despite opposition from the VMRO-DPMNE in April, elected an ethnic Albanian as its president, party supporters stormed the parliament building and several members were injured. But after pressure from the United States, among others, President Ivanov finally gave the government mandate to Zaev in May, who formed a government with two Albanian parties.

The new Social Democratic-led government launched a reform program that has led to a couple of important breakthroughs. In January 2019, Albanian was granted official status throughout the country, and thus the last remaining condition of the Ohrid Agreement was considered fulfilled. In addition, the government succeeded in resolving the name dispute with Greece, with the result that in February 2019 the country formally changed its name to Northern Macedonia (see The Conflict with Greece ).

Despite the name change, it took some time before the EU finally decided that Northern Macedonia should be allowed to start membership negotiations. The reason was opposition within the EU to the continued enlargement of the Union. As soon as the green light came from the EU, Northern Macedonia formally became a member of NATO, in March 2020.

VMRO-DPMNE has continued to strongly oppose the government’s policy, without being able to hinder development. Former party leader and prime minister Nikola Gruevski has been sentenced to prison for abuse of power but has managed to leave the country and has been granted asylum in Hungary.

At the same time, northern Macedonia is suffering from a number of other problems, such as poor economic growth and constant high unemployment, problems exacerbated by the political crisis. The undeveloped judiciary, together with a crippling bureaucracy, means that foreign companies have previously been reluctant to invest in the country. Corruption is widespread. The administration is politicized and unprofessional. All this, however, has its origins mainly in the long communist rule from the end of World War II until the 1990s, not in ethnic conflicts.

The Conflict between Macedonians and Albanians