The mocking of Muslims by men dressed in burqas at a carnival in the village of Vevcani in Macedonia last month, and the reprisals and counter reprisals it provoked, illustrate the dangerously frail state of ethnic relations in Macedonia.
By George Vasilev
Despite more than a decade since the conception of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, OFA — the peace treaty that formally ended a brief conflict between Albanian insurgents and state security forces in 2001 — interethnic disagreements continue to be overshadowed by the spectre of civil war.
Responsibility for transgressions are too quickly judged to lie not with the individuals who carry them out, but with everyone linked to those individuals through some marker of ethnicity.
This functions as a constant source of instability and erodes the basis through which Albanians and Macedonians can imagine a constructive future together, as the hostilities of the few are taken to be those of the ethnic many.
A great deal of Macedonia’s ethnic tensions stem from the failure of the country’s institutionally oriented path of conflict resolution to address the sense in which each group feels wronged by the other.
When Albanians took up arms over a decade ago to gain greater collective entitlements, they did so on the grounds that this would put them on an equal footing with Macedonians.
Although Albanians already enjoyed collective freedoms that were the envy of other minorities in the Balkans, they felt they were being treated as second class citizens by Macedonians, who were significantly overrepresented in positions of influence in society and benefitted from political and cultural hegemony over the territory.
As such, the provisions of the OFA, involving power-sharing, the constitutional codification of Albanians as a constituent nation, the granting of official status to their language, along with a host of other measures designed to boost Albanian representation in state institutions, were supposed to rectify Albanians’ sense of social subordination by elevating the standing of their identity in public life and allowing them to make decisions important to their community without the fear of arbitrary interference by the Macedonian-controlled state.
While the implementation of collective measures politically empowered Albanians, it did not earn them the respect they were seeking from wider society.
In fact, the violent birth of their collective freedoms functioned to reinforce the negative preconceptions Macedonians already had of Albanians. Macedonians have long considered the Albanian minority a fifth column that is treacherously planning to partition the western part of country and link it up with their ethic kindred in Kosovo.
Against this backdrop, Macedonians have failed to interpret the Albanian quest for collective entitlements as a matter of collective dignity, and have instead regarded it as an instrument for bringing Albanians closer towards realising irredentist aspirations.
This sentiment is made all the more acute every time Macedonians remind themselves that their ethnic kindred in Greece and Bulgaria have historically been denied the freedom to self-identity, let alone to have access to the generous entitlements enjoyed by Macedonia’s Albanians.
By using the situation of minorities in neighbouring states as a yardstick for judging the merits of minority rights claims at home, Macedonians have come to regard Albanians as unappreciative of ‘how good they have it’ and insatiable in their demands for special privileges.
The recent acts intended to degrade people on the basis of ethnicity and religion reinforce these preconceptions and play into the hands of extremists.
The image of Macedonian men clad in burqas amusing themselves and their audience by simulating sexual acts at a nationally significant carnival sends the contemptuous message that Macedonians view Albanians (along with the country’s Muslim Macedonians, Turks, Roma and Bosniaks) as backward and care little if this should cause them offence.
When Albanians burn a Macedonian flag in an ethnically mixed town, they are sending the subversive message that they reject the legitimacy of the state that flag is supposed to represent and that Macedonian inhabitants are powerless to do anything about it.
Such displays of religious and ethnic debasement afford occasion for each community’s bigots to demonstrate they were right all along about their prejudices and to pour scorn on anyone wishing to defend a multicultural future for the country.
If Macedonia is to become a society where ethnic insult and disagreement do not repeatedly bring into question the legitimacy of the state, the sense of wrong each community feels at the hands of the other must be confronted so that it ceases to define relations into the future.
The current reactive strategy of leaders condemning hostilities after they have occurred does not achieve this. It might disrupt a cycle of hostility, but only after a further hardening of negative feelings has already followed.
To disrupt this race to the bottom, a proactive approach is required. This is not a simple matter of browbeating people into getting along. It requires a deeper level societal transformation where dehumanising attitudes are publicly exposed for what they are and people who persist in expressing them are shamed out of doing so.
At one level, this would be facilitated by a civic education program that socialises citizens into holding values that are consistent with respect for a person’s dignity, regardless of one’s ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
At another more immediate level, in a deeply divided society like Macedonia, it would be stimulated by influential members of each community compelling co-members to place themselves in the shoes of outsiders to better understand why they behave the way they do.
Such individuals would encourage fellow Macedonians to consider how they would react if they (like Albanians) were subjected to systematic disrespect by a majority that impaired their ability to achieve a positive understanding of themselves.
They would encourage fellow Albanians to consider how they would react if they (like Macedonians) were a majority contending with a numerically significant and unruly minority perceived as disloyal towards the state.
Such enlarged thinking cultivates a sense of civility and restraint in the face of disagreement. It also nurtures awareness towards the reality that each community’s well-being is unavoidably tied to that of the other’s.
The realists among us might dismiss such a transformation of Macedonian society as a naïve hope.
Yet they would be ignoring the way ethnic identities in the Balkans have been shaped and reshaped in dramatic ways by the emergence of new states, the spread of new ideologies, and regrettably, the onset of violent conflicts.
While such changes have not always been cause for celebration, the fact that they occur tells us we do not have to accept animosities as pre-given, but surmountable through our own efforts.
Dr. George Vasilev is a Humanities and Social Sciences Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Melbourne and the 2012 Australian European University Institute Fellow, Florence.