Challenges of multiethnic states prevail in the Western Balkan

Questions related to ethnicity and nationalism has hindered the development of Western Balkan since early 1990’s.  A conference ”Supporting democracy in multiethnic democracies – sharing experiences” organised by Progres Institute for Social Democracy, Kalevi Sorsa Foundation and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung on the 15th of November in Skopje aimed to raise discussion on the development of multicultural democracy and best practices to support it. The real state of ethnic relations in Macedonia and Kosovo was elaborated with academics and politicians. The conference was a closing event of a cooperation project Political and Intercultural Dialogue – From Conflict to Common Interest (2010-2012).

Legal framework does not solve ethnic segregation

Macedonia and Kosovo have been following legal frameworks known as Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA) and Ahtisaari plan in order to improve their ethnic relations and ensure the political and cultural rights of minorities. The aim of the OFA and Ahtisaari plan is to go beyond the conflicts and open up new possibilities.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement put an end to a conflict between ethnic Macedonians and the largest minority Albanians in 2001, ten years after the independence of Macedonia. The Ahtisaari plan instead implied statehood for Kosovo. According to Shpend Kursani from Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, the Ahtisaari plan can be seen as a model that sets key benchmarks or areas for the state of Kosovo.

Implementing these frameworks has generated a situation, in which the mechanisms and norms are not anymore a problem, but the institutional amendments have not been able to create inclusiveness and integration of society. Too many times the spirit of an agreement is forgotten, and according to Kursani the focus is on technicalities like numbers and percentages. The OFA and Ahtisaari plan regulate the share of different ethnic groups for example in public institutions.

Kursani claims that integration doesn’t depend only on the depth and extent of the rights offered. Albanians as a minority in Macedonia are better integrated than Serbs in Kosovo, even if they have less rights guaranteed in the agreement.

The real state of ethic relations in Macedonia and Kosovo

The first problem in Macedonia and Kosovo is that between different ethnicities there is no shared vision of society. According to professor Petar Atanasov from the Institute for Sociological, Political and Juridical Research, Macedonia doesn’t proceed, because Macedonians focus on question of whose country it is and who controls the space. What would be needed is forming social consensus.

The second problem is the lack of responsible political elite and intercultural dialogue. In Kosovo the situation is of course more problematic, but even after 20 years of experience of building ethnic relations, Macedonia is now witnessing a reversal in the development.
Professor Atanasov accused current government of Macedonia of not being interested on supporting multiculturalism, but building ethnic democracy instead. Professor Ljubomir D. Frckovski (who participated in drawing up the Ohrid Framework Agreement) stated that among political elite there is a tendency toward ethno-centricity and lack of political consensus, in which their policies are based.

The government invests in projects like Skopje 2014, which rather lead towards deeper divisions. Skopje 2014 is a project initiated by the government of Prime Minister Nicola Gruevski (of the ruling party VMRO-DPMNE), and it contains construction of monuments of historical figures from the ancient Macedonia as well as museums and buildings of government. The project has been criticized for being mono-ethnic, for one nation (Macedonians) and excluding other ethnicities.

MP Ermira Mehmeti Devaja, Chairperson of Inter-Community Relations Committee said that populism is a common nominator of the political culture in Macedonia today. Rhetoric is focused on questions of who is a patriot and who defended the country. According to her, the political elite should take responsibility to reflect intercultural dialogue, since they have the power. However politicians do what is needed to gain votes.

MP Radmila Shekerinska, Chairperson of the National Council for EU Integration asked if the political parties are the problem or if they are just reflecting what people want to hear in regard of ethnic relations. Shekerinska reminded that people in Macedonia used to say they are tolerant, but when they are asked what they think for example about mixed marriages, they are not ready to accept those.

What can be done to support multicultural democracy?

Elena B. Stavrevska from the Central European University in Budapest asked what kind of democracy it is that is talked about. Are ethnically separated spaces ok? How should the political system look like? Should it be based on ethnic political parties or is there any civic option?

It is difficult to think that a society is really democratic, if it is deeply ethnically divided. With ethnically based political groups, politics is about bargaining and struggling for resources.

As Mehmeti Devaja mentioned, there is a need of extensive dialogue and communities to know each other better. One way to enhance contacts of young people would be to gather the students of different ethnic groups to study together, because school segregation is a problem.  Another way would be to get young people in joint activities on the field of civil society. Dialogue can be supported for example by common trainings.

Baskim Bakiu from the Institute for Good Governance and Policy Research sees that the only way to save multicultural society lies within functioning NGOs. However this requires funds. In Macedonia there is a real danger for the existence of civil society as the international donors are leaving the country. The NGOs have crucial task to prevent a situation, in which everything is decided by politics.

EU integration is often presented as a salvation to the transition counties like Macedonia and Kosovo. Aspiration for EU membership may work as a common goal, which will have integrating effects in multiethnic society. It will also maintain hope for the better future. But EU membership alone is not an answer.

Multiethnic societies must take responsibility to find ways to live together and form social consensus of best policies to promote development. In this work their efforts can be supported by international actors in various ways, but it demands funds and commitment.

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