Summary of the East European Studies discussion with Gregory Michaelidis, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Maryland, MD, and an EES Short-term Scholar.
Gregory Michaelidis was mildly optimistic concerning Macedonia and its future. Today, the fact that Macedonia is generally peaceful is remarkable. The young nation has experienced a hard road to independence, starting out ten years ago with a meager army, depleted coffers, and little direction. Border issues, a large (if temporary) influx of refugees from Kosovo during NATO's air war in 1999, and last year's violence as armed Albanian paramilitary forces seized control of much of northwestern Macedonia have also presented significant challenges to the government. Yet, despite last year's violence, Macedonia has progressed to the point where there are few overt signs of the tensions and hostilities between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians that escalated into violence one year ago.
Mr. Michaelidis discussed four areas of concern that deserve significant attention over the next six to twelve months. 1) Politically, he is concerned that politicians (both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians) will try to derail the peace process that was initiated to stop last year's violence, such as the amnesty for ethnic Albanian fighters. Michaelidis identified the gradual return of Macedonian police to ethnic Albanian areas, called for in the accords, as having the largest potential for conflict. 2) He is also worried that splinter groups of the National Liberation Army will take up arms again and continue the violence. 3) Defense of Macedonia's borders remain a problem. The border between Macedonia and Kosovo has some of the most rugged, uncharted territory in the world and facilitates both the infiltration of weapons and a robust, growing black market between the ethnic Albanians who predominate on both sides of the border. 4) Backlash against NATO and the U.S. is a real concern, especially if the NATO enlargement process appears to become even more politicized than it already is and Macedonia, as expected, is not included in NATO's anticipated membership "big bang" this fall. Michaelidis described a strong but ambiguous anti-U.S. sentiment among a segment of the Macedonian citizens and politicians, who view America as biased in favor of the Albanians.
To improve the situation in Macedonia, Mr. Michaelidis identified five areas on which to focus: 1) Initiate a national effort of ethnic reconciliation and understanding. Because the percentage of the Albanian population is at least 25% and growing in relation to that of the Macedonians, the issue is not a clear cut one of minority rights, but in fact signals that Albanians must be recognized as another constituent group. 2) Generate a national dialog about terrorism and what terrorism is. Many ethnic Macedonians think that the 2001 violence was terrorism and that the Albanian rebels are terrorists. 3) Greater political security is needed. If not admitted into the EU and NATO this year, some sort of arrangement must be created to assure Macedonians that their future is linked to Europe's. 4) More effective uses for foreign aid must be found; and, 5) A full normalization of relations with Greece should occur, including a resolution of the long-standing problem of Macedonia's official name.