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Thursday, May. 31, 2001

Since February, ethnic Albanian guerrillas and government forces in Macedonia have engaged in armed clashes that some observers fear will escalate into an all-out civil conflict. Already, the threat of massive displacement and associated humanitarian ills is very real. With Macedonian army troops shelling the northern villages that they believe harbor the rebels, thousands of civilians have had to flee their homes.

As in Kosovo previously, rebel forces in this former Yugoslav republic claim to be fighting for the rights of ethnic Albanians. But unlike Kosovo, Macedonia is ruled by a unity government, albeit a fragile one, that includes ethnic Albanian participation.

Over the past few days, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses committed by government forces in their ongoing offensive against the Albanian insurgency. Civilians have been badly beaten, their houses burned.

While the abuses reported are not remotely comparable, either in scale or severity, to those that were committed by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, they still risk radicalizing Macedonia's ethnic Albanians. Indeed, in recent weeks, the country's broad coalition government has come dangerously close to collapse because of disagreements over the proper response to the crisis.

Despite the coalition's efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, the possibility of a brutal and disproportionate government crackdown can never be entirely dismissed (if only because the history of Yugoslavia's disintegration, of which this may be a final chapter, does not encourage optimism).

But aside from their understandable fears for the future, what is the situation of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians now? More specifically, what is their constitutional status – is it, as the rebels claim, a form of second-class citizenship?

Ethnic Identity and Population Counts

In its constitution, Macedonia is officially described as the "national state of the Macedonian people." The constitution makes clear, moreover, that its reference to the Macedonian people means something quite different from what Americans, for example, mean in describing the American people. The Macedonian people are not simply the whole of the Macedonia citizenry. They are, instead, a subset of the country's citizens: those who belong to the ethnic Slav majority.

Like their Serb brethren, ethnic Macedonians are mostly Orthodox Christians. Albanians, who are primarily Muslim, are only mentioned in the constitution as one of several other nationalities that live in the country.

As in other regions of the former Yugoslavia, the competing claims of Macedonia's ethnic Slavs and ethnic Albanians are grounded in past history and current population figures – and there are sharp disagreements over both.

Visiting Macedonia's capital last November, I met a Macedonian Slav woman and, a few days later, an ethnic Albanian man. Both, without any prompting, launched into a description of the country's ethnic troubles.

The woman said that Macedonia's Albanians – which, by her estimate, made up only 20 percent of the population – wanted to break up the country and, short of that, to cause havoc for Macedonia.

The man, a taxi driver, demurred. He said that Macedonia was no less than 40 percent Albanian, and that "Macedonians," as an ethnic group, did not even exist. The notion of a Macedonian nationality was an artificial one, he claimed: all the so-called Macedonians were in fact Serbs and Bulgarians.

According to the 1994 census, ethnic Albanians made up 23 percent of the population, while Macedonian Slavs were 67 percent (with other ethnicities making up the remainder of Macedonia's two million people).

But, unsurprisingly, these numbers are forcefully contested by Albanians, who claim greater proportions. Most independent observers agree that Albanian numbers are higher than the official estimates, with Albanians constituting a third or more of the country's total population.

The numbers debate has high stakes. From the Albanians' perspective, as they approach numerical parity with the Macedonian population, their treatment as a national minority becomes harder and harder to justify.

Although the rights of national minorities are protected in the Macedonian constitution, they do not enjoy full equality. The Macedonian language is still enshrined as the sole national language, and Macedonians outside of the national territory are granted special protection not extended to any other ethnic group.

Self-Determination and Other Yugoslav Myths

The differences in the constitutional status of Macedonians and ethnic Albanians cannot be fully appreciated by reading the Macedonian constitution and examining its provisions, however. To understand the constitution's conceptual framework, one must refer back to the earlier constitution of socialist Yugoslavia and, in particular, the idea of national self-determination reflected in it.

Under Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution, the country was a federation of six republics, each corresponding to a different Slav group, all six of which the constitution identified as "nations." Thus, Croatians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs and Slovenes each had a separate republic named after them, a republic in which their group was the majority. The sixth constituent nation was the Bosnian Muslims, who constituted a numerical plurality in the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Yugoslav constitution also recognized ten official "nationalities," among them the Albanians. The difference between the rights of nations and those of nationalities was significant, at least in principle.

While nations and nationalities were both considered to be "free and equal," only nations enjoyed the right to self-determination. What that implied, in theory, was that only nations enjoyed the right to secede.

In practice, of course, the constitutional rights of national self-determination and secession meant little under the rule of Josip Broz Tito. Tito, whose enforced creed was "Brotherhood and Unity," regarded any manifestation of nationalism as criminal.

But with Tito's death and, a decade later, socialism's collapse, the rights of national self-determination and secession suddenly became extremely meaningful. They were, in fact, deemed crucial, as Yugoslavia's constituent republics rushed to exit the federation.

Nationality and Nationhood in the Former Yugoslav Republics

Macedonia ditched Yugoslavia in 1991, following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia. The new constitutions of all three countries, to varying degrees, recognized the special status of their majority ethnic groups.

The Slovenian constitution, for example, even while acknowledging that Slovenia was "a state of all its citizens," declared the country to be based on "the permanent and inalienable right of the Slovenian people to self-determination."

The new Croatian constitution, the most exaggerated in this respect, opened with a long preamble that celebrated the "millenial national identity" of the Croatian people. As a sort of ode to Croatian nationalism, the constitution deeply offended Croatia's large population of ethnic Serbs, who found themselves demoted to the status of national minority. Signaling Croatian dominance to a Serb minority that had good historical reasons to fear for its existence, the constitution helped propel the country into civil war.

Macedonia's 1991 constitution constructed a similar, if less florid, conception of Macedonian national identity. In doing so, it papered over a plethora of historical arguments. For Macedonia, perhaps even more than Yugoslavia's other constituent republics, has been contested territory.

Part of a powerful Bulgarian state in the ninth and tenth centuries, Macedonia was later under the rule of Serbia, and then, for centuries, the Ottoman Empire. The territory was briefly ceded to Bulgaria again in the late nineteenth century, and, in the early twentieth century, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece each had claims on it.

Although Macedonian nationalism asserted itself in a late nineteenth century independence movement, the idea of a distinctly Macedonian ethnic identity was strongly disputed. The Slav inhabitants of Macedonia, rather than being recognized as a separate Macedonian nationality, were (depending on the viewer's perspective) seen as southern Serbs or western Bulgarians.

Tito, as part of his ethnic balancing strategy, granted the Macedonians formal status as a Yugoslav nation. Nonetheless, at the time of Yugoslavia's breakup, the Macedonian majority had only been recognized as such for half a century.

They also faced, even then, a sizeable and potentially restive Albanian minority. Little wonder that when the Macedonians drafted their constitution, they enshrined themselves as the country's dominant ethnic group. Ethnic insecurity in Yugoslavia has, paradoxically enough, proven to be a powerful engine of ethnic nationalism.

A Greater Albania or a Fairer Macedonia?

What does all of the above suggest for Macedonia's present predicament? Significantly, it means that Macedonians are likely to continue to oppose granting ethnic Albanians equal status in the constitution. The right of national self-determination implied by full recognition will be hard for them to accept.

Despite Albanian protestations to the contrary, demands for equal rights are still understood in Macedonia as steps in the direction of territorial autonomy and, in the end, secession. It seems to ethnic Macedonians, particularly in light of the Kosovo precedent, that their country's territorial integrity is at stake.

Not only are ethnic Albanians a sizeable minority in Macedonia, by any count, they are also concentrated in the region of the country that borders on Albania. The spectre of a "Greater Albania," made up of western Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo, haunts the current conflict.

But if the Kosovo precedent troubles Macedonians, the differences between the two situations should not be ignored. First, whatever the merits of their cause, the Albanian rebels will have a difficult if not impossible time convincing powerful western countries to support them.

To date, the NATO member states have been unanimous in condemning what they view as ethnic Albanian extremism in Macedonia. Already uncomfortable with their grant of de facto Albanian control over Kosovo, none of them wants to encourage further changes in national boundaries.

Second, and equally important, the Macedonian government is a far cry from Milosevic's Yugoslavia. Although incidents of violent retaliation against Albanians have been reported, there have been no massacres.

Whether the current conflict develops into a real war may be decided soon. If the country's Albanian and Macedonian political parties continue to work together toward a peaceful solution, one that guarantees the rights of all, support for the armed insurgency will likely dissolve. Freed of the fears that drive nationalist furies, the ethnic Albanian minority will be able to reconcile with the majority Macedonians. If, however, government forces take a heavy-handed and brutal approach to crushing the rebellion, then Albanian hardliners could become dangerously popular.

Joanne Mariner is a deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Her previous columns about Kosovo can be found in's archive. The views expressed in her columns are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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