Ethnic tensions are always close to the surface in Macedonia, as is shown by the angry disturbances following the outcry over the discovery of the bodies of five Macedonian men found shot dead in mysterious circumstances over the Orthodox Easter holiday. It followed a series of incidents, which led to rising tensions between the two main communities.
Given the weak political dialogue in Macedonia between the two communities - Macedonian and Albanian - it is easy for tensions to escalate. What’s very encouraging this time is that all the parties have called for calm,”
says Chris Langdon, ORG’s Managing Director, who has worked with the leaders of Macedonia’s parties in Parliament - Macedonian and ethnic Albanian - since 2007.
On May 2, following the announcement by Macedonian authorities that they have filed terrorism charges against five men over the shooting, alleging they were Islamic terrorists, the ethnic Albanian coalition partner in the government said: "The killers are simply killers by name and surname, regardless of their ethnicity and nationality."
In 2001, Macedonia, which had been one of the few parts of former Yugoslavia that had avoided war in the 1990’s, was on the verge of a war between an ethnic Albanian insurgency and Macedonia’s armed forces. It was stopped after personal intervention by the most senior figures in NATO and the EU - one of the few examples of the success of EU policy.
The agreement did do a great deal to reduce tensions and much needed reforms, but did not cover the key issue of parliamentary reform,
according to Chris.
Macedonia’s Parliament is the one place where there is engagement between the political parties; the Government coalition and opposition which engages all the parties representing the majority and minority populations. Chris:
However, Parliamentary exchanges tend to be very negative. We were invited to help MPs develop the Parliament’s capacity to be the national space for political contestation. But it’s not just the disagreement between the communities that have to be addressed. The most intractable political conflicts are often between the parties representing each community. We were asked to work on a facilitation by a senior EU official shocked after seeing on TV pictures of a fisticuffs in the parliament between deputies from rival Albanian parties in 2007.
The first facilitated discussion was held in January 2008 - now known in Macedonian political circles as “Wilton Park” - the place in Sussex where it was held - was led by Chris and former ORG colleague Ahmed Badawi. It engaged the Speaker of the Parliament and leaders of all the parties and led to agreement on a series of reforms being introduced over three years to unblock the unwieldy Parliament’s procedures which were stifling debate. The old rules made it easy to fillibuster and block any initiatives. Changes were made to the rules, allowing Albanian deputies to use the Albanian language at all times in the chamber and in committees.
Again, in November 2011, Chris Langdon was invited back to Macedonia with facilitator, Jonathan Dudding, of the Institute for Cultural Affairs, to facilitate a new round of discussions among Macedonia’s most senior MPs behind closed doors, at the request of the British Ambassador to Macedonia and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.
Now the political climate is much harder; the incentive to make reforms has gone with the continuing Greek veto on Macedonia joining NATO, for example, at the forthcoming NATO Chicago Summit on 20-21 May, and the long-standing Greek block on Macedonia beginning negotiations with the EU on accession - until it changes the country's name. Successive Greek governments have insisted that the Macedonian government should change the name of the country as there is a Greek province also called Macedonia. In response, the Macedonian Government has erected huge statues of the ancient Macedonian leader, Alexander the Great, in central Skopje.
The renewed discussions were held behind closed doors last November at a hotel in North West Macedonia away from the public gaze. A series of steps were agreed, covering issues such as measuring the impact of laws. According to Chris,
Such issues may seem anodyne, but they often cover the most contentious issues. In this case it addresses the fact that many laws proposed by the Government are poorly drafted, sometimes in collision with other laws. This is ultimately in no one’s interest.
MPs have continued the discussions and some progress is being made. Says Chris:
These delicate processes take a lot of time and political will. The “Wilton Park” process took nearly three years for all the agreed changes to be passed in Parliament. There are some committed Parliamentarians in Macedonia who never give up. It’s often a matter of patience. That is the nature of such work - step by step. The community tensions this year don’t help the situation. But the underlying problem is that the political situation in Macedonia is directly affected by the political crisis in Greece. Given the continuing Greek blockage on Macedonia joining NATO this month, or Macedonia taking steps to join the EU, there is currently little prospect of that external blockage being lifted - and this reduces significantly the incentive for internal political reforms in Macedonia.