MACEDONIA: ‘Our Biggest Problem is the Perception of Instability’
The breakup of Yugoslavia, a state cobbled together from a mix of nationalities and ethnic groups after World War II by Josep Broz Tito and his authoritarian communist government, resulted in many of the nationalist and religious passions that had been submerged beneath totalitarian rule rising to the surface as Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians and ethnic Albanians clashed over territory, economic assets and national identity.
Most of the strife between and within the former Yugoslav states took place in the 1990s, and that fighting and subsequent agreements brought a resolution of sorts to most of the major border and administrative issues of the region.
The exception was Macedonia. It waited until this century to settle ethnic differences with a fight. A mosaic of ethnic groups, two thirds of the country’s population is made up of Macedonians, while another quarter is ethnic Albanians. Influenced by the success of neighboring Kosovo’s Albanians in driving out their Serbian overlords, and with their minds overexcited by the vision of a greater Albania including Kosovo and part of Macedonia, in 2001 Macedonia’s Albanians, with help from their neighbors, rose against the central government in Skopje.
Fortunately, “thanks to the good reasoning of our people and leaders, and with the help of the United States and European Union, we managed [to find a peaceful solution],” says Macedonia’s ambassador to Washington, Nikola Dimitrov. Essentially, the central government broadened the rights of the Albanian minority, increasing its representation in political bodies and expanding opportunities for education and communication in Albanian.
Implementing the framework agreed by the parties to manage this process has been a primary occupation of the government since 2001. But now, the ambassador says, the government is ready to focus on development issues: in particular promoting investment and trade.
The fighting in 2001, a decade after independence, marked a serious setback for the country. Several of the progressive steps taken in the latter part of the 90s, such as banking reform and the creation of a sales tax to boost government income, were overshadowed by national crisis. The national economy shrank by 4.5 percent in 2001, and recovery since has been slow. GDP grew just 0.9 percent in 02, 3.4 percent in 03, and 1.3 percent last year.
At the same time, unemployment has been extremely high, with official figures estimating some 37.7 percent of the working population unable to find employment last year, and some 30 percent living below the poverty line.
Ambassador Dimitrov points out that his government’s macro economic policy has focused on keeping inflation low. But, he notes, decision-makers are now debating the advantages of stimulating growth to cut unemployment and reduce poverty. The IMF and World Bank are assisting in a three-year development plan, part of which includes bringing the gray economy (which no doubt accounts for some of the high unemployment figures) into the official economy.
Key to this strategy, though, is attracting new investment. To date, there are no major US companies present in Macedonia, the ambassador says. Most foreign investment has come from European countries, in particular Germany and neighboring Greece.
“The biggest obstacle for Macedonia and our region is the perception of instability,” ambassador Dimitrov notes. “The Balkans have an image problem,” he adds bluntly. Indeed they do. In fact stability is a blessing that has descended upon the former Yugoslav states in a slow-moving wave that began in Slovenia, which broke from Belgrade quickly and cleanly, and then slowly moved east and south, taking in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro (where the Kosovo issues appears close to resolution) and finally reaching Macedonia, a process that has taken 14 years.
Macedonia has been working to make its laws investor friendly, its judiciary efficient and trustworthy and its infrastructure suited to modern business and commerce. As with all the former East and Central European countries, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist governments that had thrived in its shadow (including Yugoslavia) opened the way to establishing two primary foreign policy objectives for Macedonia: entry into NATO and the European Union.
Both these institutions demand certain levels of transparent government and the rule of law, with the EU digging deep into the machinery of government of would-be members to be satisfied that it meets Community criteria. Thus EU and NATO demands add external pressure to the inside forces pushing for reform and modernization of government.
Macedonia has already gone through an initial round of responding to EU questioning, and hopes later this year to be given a date for the start of official accession negotiations. At the same time, it is part of a troika of countries (the other two being Albania and Croatia) seeking entry into NATO, a target the ambassador says might be reached by the end of 07 or beginning of 08.
The three would-be NATO members are completing a seventh year in the Partnership for Peace program, and the ambassador says that the US-Adriatic Partnership, established in 2003 by Washington and the three NATO aspirants, sends the signal that Macedonia and its neighbors are ready to demonstrate cooperation in place of the conflict that has characterized the Balkans in the past. The three countries have also just sent a joint medical team to Afghanistan, where they are serving with a Greek unit, and earlier sent soldiers to both Afghanistan and Iraq to demonstrate support for the US war on terror.
Part of Skopje’s strategy for economic development has been to establish free trade agreements with neighboring countries, as well as others nearby, including Turkey with its 70 million people, and Ukraine, with 47 million. After all, with a population of just 2.1 million, Macedonia is hardly an attractive location for major manufacturing investments. As a regional base with good access to a market of some 150 million, and with a well-educated but inexpensive workforce, it hopes to attract the serious attention of major investors.
The ambassador notes that while there are many political parties in his country, all of the significant ones (some 10 out of 40) agree on a common national agenda, including entry into NATO and the EU and a program of economic development.
One of the unusual difficulties Macedonia has faced lies in its name. Greek governments have protested the use of a name that is used for a region of Greece and is laden with sentimental associations with a glorious Hellenic past. Most of the world stood by Greece for years, and to this day the EU and United Nations know only of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, FYROM. But last year the United States joined over 100 other nations in accepting Macedonia, and The Republic of Macedonia as official names.
Ambassador Dimitrov heads up negotiations with a Greek counterpart at the UN seeking a compromise. He points out that for Macedonia now it is an issue of stability and credibility to keep its name. He believes a solution might be found in which Greece and Macedonia agree on a terminology that is mutually acceptable for their bilateral communication, while the rest of the world adopts Macedonia. The difficulty of finding a solution has been greatly exacerbated by the use of this nationalist issue by Greek politicians, who through their strident declarations of undying commitment to their position on the name have allowed no room for compromise.
Nevertheless, a 1995 change to the Macedonia constitution, accepting its national boundaries as permanent, as well as a modification of the national flag to mollify the Greeks, did lead to the lifting of a Greek embargo, and resumption of commerce between Macedonia and Thessaloniki, the nearest major seaport to the landlocked country.
The ambassador, who is trained in international law and minority rights, is one of a new generation of young Macedonian leaders who want to see their country take its place as a modern European nation. He is looking forward to his move from rented offices to a new embassy building on Wyoming Avenue in the Kalorama area of Washington this fall. He sees this as one important, if symbolic, step forward for his country as it leaves behind an uncertain and unstable past and prepares to embark on a period of sustained growth.
“We have very good chances of success,” the ambassador says of his country’s prospects for development.
Curriculum Vitae of Ambassador Nikola Dimitrov
Date of birth: 30 September 1972
Place of birth: Skopje, Republic of Macedonia
Marital status: Married
Master of Law Degree (L.LM), King’s College, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, Courses: Law of Peace, International Human Rights Law, History and Theory of International Law, Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes
Thesis: “The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities: Historical Background and Theoretical Implications”
First Degree in Law, Faculty of Law, St. Cyril and Methodius University,
Skopje, Republic of Macedonia
Best Student of Generation Prize “26th of July” established by the Frank Manning Foundation (London, United Kingdom) and administered by the Rector of the St. Cyril and Methodius University (Skopje, Macedonia)
Human Rights Officer, Human Rights Directorate at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Macedonia
National Security Adviser to the President of the Republic of Macedonia
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Macedonia to the United States of America
Special Envoy of the Republic of Macedonia in the talks between the Republic of Macedonia and the Hellenic Republic to overcome the difference over the name under the UN auspices
Professor Assistant at the Faculty of Law, “St. Cyril and Methodius” University – Skopje (1996/97 Finance and Financial Law; 1998/2001 International Law and International Human Rights Law)
Advisory Board Member, Open Society Institute, Skopje, Macedonia
Dimitrov, N. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities: Historical Background and Theoretical Implications (Matica Makedonska Publishing, Skopje-Melburn, 1999)
Has published many essays and articles on International Law, Human and Minority Rights and has written in a weekly column: The Exhumation of Buried Antagonisms for the daily newspaper Dnevnik (Skopje, 1998)
English and Serbo-Croatian language.