Comment 16 Aug 12

Time to Look Beyond Macedonia’s Ohrid Agreement

More than a decade after its adoption, the Ohrid Framework has become a part of history and it is time now to start a debate on the future.

Harald Schenker

When the Ohrid Framework Agreement was adopted under extremely delicate and difficult circumstances, the international community hailed a victory of international diplomacy.

Local communities in Macedonia were more down to earth. For many among the majority Macedonians, the agreement imposed a limit beyond which it was impossible to make more concessions.

Many in the ethnic Albanian community considered the deal an acknowledgment of their struggle for more rights and equal treatment and a necessary step.

The other, smaller communities felt they got something out of it, but were wary of being marginalised by the ethnic Albanians when it came to the issue of minority rights.

Today, more than a decade later, much has changed and much has remained the same. The statements above can remain almost unaltered, although the reality has evolved.

Some eulogised the agreement on its tenth anniversary one year ago and I will not repeat that now, beyond saying that it has fulfilled its purpose. It stopped a conflict.

It changed the face of Macedonia, turning it legally into a multi-ethnic state, governed with elements of power sharing. And it impacted on its citizens’ reality. Most state institutions reflect to a large extent this multi-ethnic reality and the monopoly of only one language has gone.

A lot of questions about implementation of the agreement remain. The one with most impact is the political postulate of quantity before quality. Following this logic, it seems better to fill up numbers of party-affiliated persons in the administration in order to reach the quota of “equitable ethnic representation” rather than to uphold professional and educational standards.

Macedonia’s administration is paying the price for this policy; the absorption capacity of EU funds being still at a very low level. But the higher goal of short-term ethno-social pacification is at least achieved for now.

The agreement is undergoing yet another review, pushed by the EU, and the conclusions from this are likely to be included into future planning. But these remain administrative matters. And the fact that the two guarantee powers of the agreement, the EU and the US, will continue to play their role is an insurance policy that these administrative matters will receive appropriate attention. The political work, however, is done. There is no more to achieve there.

Now Macedonia faces other essential problems, which need to be solved this decade, if possible. A provisional list would include:


From the onset of Macedonia’s independence, a paradox has existed between the need of ethnic Macedonians to canonise their ethnic identity and the need to find a formula of citizenship that attracts all the country’s inhabitants.

The constitution and legislation try to combine the concepts of individual-based citizenship and group-based ethnic identity with elements of power sharing, such as the double majority principle, or so-called “Badinter majority”, which means that a majority among ethnic community MPs is needed in addition to the parliamentary majority for legislation impacting on ethnic communities. While this may function at the level of day-to-day business, it does not solve the paradox.

The multi-ethnic setup as defined by the constitution has received little more than the lip service required by protocol. Political and intellectual elites, which are too little distinct from each other, have not invested intellectual or political capital in seeking a distinct Macedonian (cross-) national identity that transgresses the narrowness of ethnic definitions and the mythology surrounding them.

On the contrary, the national discourses have been accentuated. The powerful process of creating a new, distinct and antique Macedonian identity is in full flow. It calls for a total change of paradigms. Its success can be measured in opinion polls and partially relates to the immense financial means and political capital invested in pushing this process forward, as well as the collective subjective need to address the identity question.

While pursuing this process, the political and intellectual elites driving it must be aware that it is not countering the strong group identity of the Albanians, who define themselves as part of a larger, cultural nation. Little is on offer for the ethnic Albanian group or the other, smaller minorities to add a layer of collective Macedonian patriotism to the catalogue of multiple individual identities.

Thus, Macedonia’s nation-building process does not cover the entire population and actually opens the way for strengthening existing distinct collective identities, or forming new ones. For examples of this, look at the way that some Macedonian Muslims are striving to become an ethnic community.

To make things worse, the academic debate on the abovementioned issues is marred by an almost Babylonian confusion of terminology. Terms like multiculturalism, multi-ethnicity, multilingualism, etc. are thrown around without reflection, adding to the confusion. When media and politicians pick up the phrases and build them into their discourses, the damage is difficult to undo.

The unsolved conflict with Greece about the name of the country, the dormant conflict with Bulgaria about the Macedonian language and with Serbia about the recognition of an independent church also do their part to keep the identity issue in limbo.

Administrative reforms:

A hurried process of decentralisation and a variety of administrative reforms have failed to produce a sustainable model, balancing the central level and a variety of regional and local levels of interest.

These processes have produced a large number of municipalities that are not going to be able to raise the resources to sustain themselves. It is only natural that as they cease to try and find funds that will never be sufficient at the central level, they will start gravitating around the larger urban centres. This process is ongoing and pooling of resources and expertise is something that every donor will encourage.

All this is unproblematic - until the realisation comes that a de facto regionalisation is under way, which may give rise to discussions about a different administrative setup that would take into account the different and differing interests of the respective regions. This poses two threats to the central level: one is the loss of political leverage and the other is the partially ethno-linguistic dimension of these processes.

In a general context, in which there is a clear push among the ethnic Albanians to establish Albanian as a second, fully equal official language, and if this push succeeds, it would be naïve to think that this would have no political implications for the whole of Macedonian society.

A more open society:

Macedonia’s constitutional and legal frameworks stipulate inclusiveness and guarantee a wide range of rights and freedoms. The debates on the anti-discrimination law and on the de-criminalisation of libel have shown political limitations but have also started processes that will eventually lead to results that are in sync with European reality.

Nevertheless, the social and political developments of the last two decades have produced at least two parallel societies with little interaction and high levels of segregation. Ethnic distance is growing and tolerance towards non-mainstream groups, be they religious, based on sexual orientation, etc. is decreasing.

This in itself is a worrying development, which, combined with a crisis in the education system, offers a platform for the manipulation of generations of young people entering society. Critical thinking is not on the agenda, and young people are educated to obey rather than use their reasoning.

With ethnic and social gaps widening, there is a need for structured communication among citizens, whatever their background. There is need to create a social glue as well as a philosophical and possibly even ideological one, to help bridge these gaps and avoid further separation.

The only feasible path Macedonia can take is towards an open and inclusive society. But for that to happen, the culture of talking and listening to each other has to be nurtured. This culture has to take into account that we are living in the 21st century, in a period of urban concentration. It is not enough to know each other’s folklore and history.

In order to co-exist, it is necessary to know each other’s modern reality. The only way to achieve this is through communication, not spontaneous encounter, left to hazard, but structured communication, which has as its target the construction of a joint narrative for this society.

This list is by no means comprehensive, I simply touched some of the more visibly burning subjects. Others, to which I shall come back later, include arts and culture, economy, regional integration, and, of course, EU accession.

These issues all need to be talked about across society. The results of dealing publicly with them are difficult to predict. On the other hand it is safe to say that the lack of public discourse as well as their taboo status will not have a positive effect on the wellbeing of the society.

By keeping these issues out of the public realm, political elites nurture an illusion that these processes can be controlled and steered. It remains an illusion. Policy planning has to take into account the opinion, interest and wellbeing of the sovereign people. The times of “cabinet policies” have long passed and it is time for Macedonia’s policy makers to take this reality into account.

Party politicians and strategic thinkers need to understand that debate does not pose a threat to policy-making. On the contrary, it democratically legitimises decision-making, when both the process and the contents of public debate are taken into account by policy makers.

This is the moment also for the intellectual elites to step up and get beyond narrow personal or group interests and show the real grandezza of intellectual work: to look beyond the day-to-day administration of reality and realise the need for a vision for Macedonia as a whole: a joint narrative that takes into account all particularities but integrates them for a common aim.

In this respect, the Ohrid Agreement was a first, necessary step. Treating it like the Holy Grail is ignoring the fact that the work has just begun. Or rather, it is about to begin.

Talk about it!

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