Albanians in Macedonia:
Facts and Fictions
Diana Johnstone

The Washington-based National Albanian American Council (NAAC) has circulated a short "Summary Fact Sheet" on Albanian discontents and demands in Macedonia. [For full text , see Appendix A, at the end]

The paper lists eight "changes" which "must be made immediately if Macedonia is to prevent a wider war." The threat is clear. The demands are impossible to satisfy "immediately" some of them have been met already and others involve social and political processes that take time, as well as mutual good will which is not fostered by the threat of "a wider war." The stated objective of this "fact sheet" is to get the United States to intervene along the pattern of previous U.S. intervention in Kosovo. By justifying the armed insurgency as a defense of "human rights," the NAAC hopes to exert U.S. power on behalf of the same violent Albanian nationalists to whom NATO delivered Kosovo.

To start with, one must keep in mind that the central fallacy behind disastrous "international community" intervention in former Yugoslavia over the past decade has been the assumption that "human rights" are the central issue. This assumption has been vigorously promoted by Albanian lobbies in the United States and Europe, such as the National Albanian American Council. As a result of the single-minded focus on "human rights," complaints couched in human rights terms and echoed by such lobbies enjoy an instant credibility denied the accused governments, which are under constant suspicion of bad faith.

It is certain that in very many countries in the world, statistics can show marked differences in wealth and social position between different sectors of the population, depending on race, religion or national origin. This is most famously the case in the United States of America, where income and participation in the administration of wealth, government, the media, academia and the judicial branch are far from equally distributed between citizens of European, African, Native American and Hispanic origin, for instance.

In light of the well-known inequality within American society, why do Albanians appeal to the United States to "do something" about inequality in Macedonia? This must have less to do with the proven ability of the United States to provide its own citizens with the total equality sought by the Albanians in Macedonia than with two other factors: (1) the proven power and willingness of the United States to interfere in the Balkans on behalf of its Albanian clients; and (2) the effort to equate the demands of Albanians in Macedonia with similar demands of minorities in the United States. To clarify this second point: in the United States, the demands for equality of African-Americans have not, in recent times, been in any way tinged with the slightest suspicion that such demands are merely a step toward achieving territorial autonomy to be followed by secession. This differentiates demands for equality in the United States very sharply from Albanian demands in Kosovo and Macedonia. Those Albanian demands are broadly understood in both Serbia and Macedonia, by all sides, as steps toward territorial autonomy and even secession, changing borders to create a "Greater Albania."

There is a crucial difference between seeking equality and complaining about inequality in order to achieve separation. In Macedonia, there is strong suspicion that the Albanian demands are being used to build separate Albanian power rather than to improve the condition of Albanian citizens. This is the major reason for reluctance to make concessions that Macedonians fear would be used primarily to undermine the existing state. Thus the main obstacle to improvement of the overall situation of Albanians in neighboring countries is not lower standards of human rights, requiring lectures from enlightened Westerners. It is, rather, an uncertainty about the loyalty of Albanians, and fear that every concession made to them will be used eventually to break up the existing country already small into still smaller pieces. Ignoring this factor cannot help solve the problem.

Now, in regard to the NAAC "Summary Fact Sheet" on Macedonia, the first observation to make is that to "summarize" an extraordinarily complicated situation in a few words would be misleading, even if the "facts" presented were impeccably accurate. But that is not the case here.

"The fundamental problem in Macedonia is the view there – which is embedded in the Constitution that Macedonia is essentially a state of Slavic Macedonians. This has perpetuated systematic and institutionalized discrimination against ethnic Albanians who make up between 33 and 40 percent of the population of the country.".. These opening lines of the NAAC paper are already misleading and, in part, inaccurate.

  • To say that Macedonia is "essentially" a state of Slavic Macedonians distorts a complex historical situation.
  • The figures given are without foundation and contrary to the results of the 1994 census conducted by the "international community," which roughly confirmed the 1991 census conducted by Macedonia itself.

(1) The status of peoples in the Macedonian Constitution:

Like all the Constitutions of former Yugoslavia, the Macedonian Constitution is a complicated and ambiguous document, reflecting the complications and ambiguities of the country itself, which is famous for the inextricable mixture of numerous contrasting ethnic populations. The territory was part of Serbia since 1913 and as "southern Serbia" became part of Yugoslavia after World War I. During World War II, the Axis Powers detached Macedonia from Yugoslavia and divided it between Bulgaria and Albania. The Republic of Macedonia was established within communist Yugoslavia as a solution to ethnic conflicts that had been particularly violent there. In so doing, the Tito regime recognized a "Macedonian" nationality, distinct from that of either the Bulgarians or Serbs, who had both claimed the Macedonians as their own in the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. The Macedonian language was recognized as distinct from the related Slavic languages of Bulgarian and Serbian. Proclaiming Macedonia as "the national state of the Macedonian people" was a way to end both Bulgarian and Serbian claims, and, incidentally, to give the Macedonian people a "mother state" of their own.

This notion of a mother state is hard to grasp outside the Balkans, but for compelling historic reasons has its importance in both Balkan and Middle East countries formerly under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The most extreme case is of course Israel, which is the mother state of all the Jews in the world. The Constitution of Greece also establishes Greece as the mother state of Greeks. The underlying idea is that peoples who for centuries were deprived of a state should henceforth have one they can consider their own. This does not imply that the state should cover all the territory where people of that nationality reside. Nation-state territorial boundaries are based on other criteria, such as natural geographic features, particularly relevant in the mountainous Balkans, determining transport routes, economic viability and military defense.

The "mother state" of Albanians is, of course, Albania. From the Macedonian (as well as from the Serbian or Greek) standpoint, since Albanians already have their own mother state, Albania, they do not need to have a second one at the expense of neighboring peoples.

The communist Constitution defined the Republic of Macedonia as "the national state of the Macedonian people, and the state of the Albanian and Turkish nationalities in it, based on the sovereignty of the people." The 1991 post-communist Constitution went further in celebrating the Macedonian element, describing the country as "the national state of the Macedonian people" based on "the historical, cultural, spiritual and statehood heritage of the Macedonian people and their struggle over centuries for national and social freedom, as well as for the creation of their own state." This passage may rightly be criticized as excessively nationalistic; it is the excess of a numerically small nationality that has been officially recognized for little over half a century and thus feels the need to assert itself.

The Macedonian Constitution also guarantees "full equality as citizens and permanent coexistence" to Albanians, Turks, Vlachs, and Roms (Gypsies), in that order. While Macedonian is the official state language (Article 7), the nationalities may use their own language in local affairs where they constitute a majority or "a considerable number" of the inhabitants. Articles 8 and 48 ensure the right to express national identity, including the right to primary and secondary education in the mother tongue, with the stipulation that Macedonian must also be taught in such schools. These rights are in conformity with human rights norms in Western countries, and indeed exceed the rights granted minorities in many countries.

(2) The census and population distribution in Macedonia

The NAAC "fact sheet" claims that ethnic Albanians "make up between 33 and 40 percent of the population of the country."

This has long been the standard claim of Albanian nationalists in Macedonia. It is interpreted by non-Albanian citizens of Macedonia as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at eventually taking over part, or even all, of Macedonia as part of a future "Greater Albania."

The known facts do not support this claim.

In Yugoslavia, a regular census was held in the first year of each decade. In 1991, ethnic Albanians boycotted the census, on the pretext that they would be deliberately undercounted. The census officials were thus obliged to establish estimates of the Albanian population on the basis of previous polls and other scientific statistical parameters. They arrived at the following result:

1991 Census Results for Macedonia
67.0 %
21.7 %
3.8 %
Roma (Gypsies)
2.6 %
Egyptians (Gypsies)
0.2 %
2.1 %
1.5 %
0.8 %
0.4 %
0.1 %
0.1 %
1.6 %

The situation is even more complicated than shown by this. The Serbs, incidentally, are not accorded the rights of minority nationalities in the 1991 Constitution, although they are more numerous than the Vlachs, who are (but the Vlachs, peacefully dispersed through the Balkans, have no "mother state" and seem to get along very well without one). The "other" category includes over 30 more nationalities.

Albanian political leaders complained that this census, which they had deliberately boycotted, did them an injustice. Albanians really accounted for up to 40% of the population, they insisted. These complaints reached the ears of officials in Germany, historically a protector of Albanian national interests in the Balkans, especially in opposition to the Serbs. Out of sensitivity to Albanian claims, Ambassador Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, head of the Working Group for Human Rights and Minorities within the International Conference on Former Yugoslavia, called for an extraordinary census to be held in Macedonia under supervision of the "international community." Thus in 1994 a second census was conducted and paid for essentially by the European Union on Macedonian territory an extraordinary intervention in the internal affairs of a nominally "independent" state.

The results of the second census were bound to differ somewhat from the first, if only because the criteria were slightly altered. While in the 1991 Yugoslav census, citizens living or working abroad for over a year were included, in the 1994 census only citizens living abroad for less than a year were counted, in accordance with standard international operating procedure. This produced a somewhat smaller total population.

1994 Census Results for Macedonia
66.5 %
22.9 %
4.0 %
Roma (Gypsies)
2.3 %
Egyptians (Gypsies)
0.2 %
2.0 %
0.8 %
0.4 %
0.4 %
0.1 %
0.1 %
0.1 %
0.4 %

A couple of comments. First, the results broadly substantiate the work of the 1991 Macedonian census takers, who estimated the Albanian population with a remarkably high degree of accuracy despite the refusal of that population to cooperate.

Second, these results illustrate the subjective nature of responses to questions concerning "national identity." People are free in such a census to describe themselves as they choose. Thus the dramatic collapse of the "Yugoslav" self-identification, obviously a result of the war and the discrediting of Yugoslav nationality, as well as the evident shift of part of the Muslim population (meaning Slavic Muslims) to the "Bosniac" label, which had gained in international prestige in the interim. Another indication of the subjective nature of self-labeling is the "Egyptian" category, recognized for the first time in the 1991 census. This concerns members of the large Gypsy population who are descended from Roms but do not speak Romany. The term echoes the same error about the origins of the Romany people as the English term "Gypsy."

This census data, and an excellent critique of the political nature of such census taking in the Balkans, are to be found as appendix to a very mainstream U.S. study sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations: Victor A. Friedman, "Observing the Observers: Language, Ethnicity and Power in the 1994 Macedonian Census and Beyond," in Toward Comprehensive Peace in Southeast Europe: Conflict Prevention in the South Balkans, the Report of the South Balkans Working Group, Twentieth Century Fund Press, New York, 1996; pp.81-105.

It is rather astonishing that one of the "changes Albanians would like to see" in the NAAC list is: "International oversight and involvement in the census to ensure it is free and accurate." The American public can apparently be presumed not to know that precisely such a "free and accurate" census was carried out in 1994 under control of the European Community (although the U.S. government is of course perfectly informed).

The Language Problem in Macedonia

The Albanian demand for equal language rights needs to be considered in context.

As professor Friedman points out, the ethnic mix in Macedonia is so great that it has long been customary for much of the population, including total illiterates, to speak two or more languages in order to communicate with their neighbors. This means that the mere question put by census takers, what language do you speak? may force a choice with political consequences.

Despite such habits of multilingualism, it may reasonably be argued that a country of less than two million inhabitants needs a single official language in order to carry out its business in an orderly way. It may be added that Macedonia is at present a very poor country, and having more than one official language entails huge expenses in interpretation and translation.

The insistent Albanian demand to put the Albanian language on an equal footing with Macedonia amounts to a squeeze on the other minorities. By claiming 40% of the population, the Albanian nationalists are serving notice that they are both the largest minority and a potential majority (the Albanian birthrate, known to be by far the highest in Europe, means that the Albanian population is growing much faster than that of neighboring communities). This claim, repeated after each census with a demand for yet another census, puts pressure on the smaller minorities to jump on their bandwagon by choosing the Albanian language over the Macedonian language (or their own), or risk the fate of ethnic minorities currently being driven out of Kosovo.

The disproportionately small number of Albanian university students in Macedonia is at least in part a result of the fact that the Albanians have indeed used their right to attend primary and secondary schools in the Albanian language. Schooling in Albanian leaves them poorly prepared to pass entrance exams, despite a program of "affirmative action" intended by the government to favor Albanians. The Albanians' demand that the government finance the Albanian language university in Tetovo suggests that Albanians would prefer their own university to admission in Macedonian universities. The Tetovo curriculum is described by international observers able to assess it as below standard and highly ideological, drawing its curriculum from Tirana and favoring a semi-mythical Albanian nationalism. The experience of the Albanian language university in Pristina, which with a similar emphasis on Albanian culture became the center of demands for the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, is obviously something Macedonians would prefer not to repeat. One conclusion that could be drawn from this controversy is that Albanian nationalist leaders are less determined to provide "a good education" for their children than to provide "an Albanian education," that is, one designed to strengthen Albanian national consciousness more surely than to prepare young Albanians for successful professional careers. This is of course a choice, but it is not one that can be expected to arouse great sympathy (and willingness to provide government subsidies) among fellow citizens of Macedonia who are not Albanian.

(4) "Human Rights" or Nationalist Ambitions?

The NAAC "Fact Sheet" is a political program masquerading as a defense of "human rights." It is not excessively precise or accurate.

Certain claims are demonstrably false, such as those dealing with the census (exaggerated population claims are present in four of the seven points in the first section, "Why Are Albanians Upset?"). The other points are biased or misleading. The last mentioned of the "changes Albanians would like to see" is the "freedom to use Albanian flag and other cultural symbols." However, only a short distance from the Albanian border, the Albanian flag is not just a "cultural symbol," it is a political symbol, and a highly provocative one.

The NAAC complains that: "Albanians have substandard schools, bad roads, poor health facilities, yet little local administrative control to address these and other problems."

Are these "substandard schools" the ones in the Albanian language, demanded by the Albanians themselves? The matter is unclear. Macedonia is a poor country, made much poorer by the collapse of Yugoslavia, and "bad roads" are a tradition. Contrary to what is implied here, Albanians do participate in local government, and dominate in the cities of Tetovo and Gostivar. They elect members of Parliament and the Albanian parties are included in coalition governments. Inegalities no doubt exist, but there is a difference between seeking equality for and with everybody, and single-mindedly seeking to promote one's own ethnic group, which can easily turn to oppression of others once the initial demands for "equality" are met.

In Macedonia, there is one population group that clearly suffers the most from poverty and discrimination: the large Romany minority. No concern is shown by the NAAC for improving their lot.

On the one hand, there are peaceful and democratic ways for Albanians to seek improvement of their situation in Macedonia without appealing to the United States to "do something."

On the other hand, if the United States really wants to "do something" to bring all ethnic groups up to high standards of equality, there are many other countries where the need is more urgent including the United States itself and certain of its closest and least criticized allies.

Appendix A

The following is a position paper issued by the National Albanian American Council (NAAC): "THE CONFLICT IN MACEDONIA Summary Fact Sheet"

Why Are Albanians Upset?

The fundamental problem in Macedonia is the view there – which is embedded in the Constitution that Macedonia is essentially a state of Slavic Macedonians. This has perpetuated systematic and institutionalized discrimination against ethnic Albanians who make up between 33 and 40 percent of the population of the country:

  • Despite representing only slightly over 50 percent of the population, Slavic Macedonians have over 90 percent of the public sector jobs, 90 percent of the police force, and 90 percent of the student population in the universities.
  • Macedonian is the only official language even in the Albanian part of the country.
  • Only Macedonian-language universities enjoy public funding.
  • Albanians have substandard schools, bad roads, poor health facilities, yet little local administrative control to address these and other problems.
  • 100,000 Albanians not being recognized as citizens.
  • 20 percent of Albanians in Macedonia were not counted in an earlier census.
  • Parliamentary districts are drawn so that on average, an Albanian deputy represents about 18,000 people, while a Slavic Macedonian represents about 7,000.

What Changes Would Albanians Like to See?

The following changes must be made immediately if Macedonia is to prevent a wider war:

  • Changes to the constitution to make them equal citizens.
  • Right to use Albanian as an official language.
  • Equal representation in the government.
  • Equal employment opportunities within the public sector.
  • Public financing for higher education in Albanian.
  • Meaningful local authority and public financing to address the problems of everyday life.
  • International oversight and involvement in the census to ensure it is free and accurate.
  • Freedom to use Albanian flag and other cultural symbols.

What Can the U.S. Do?

  • Call on all sides in the dispute to stop the violence and respect a unilateral cease-fire.
  • Call on Macedonia to make immediate and significant legal changes to end discrimination against Albanians.
  • Send a special envoy to help mediate a resolution of the problem.

[End of NAAC "fact sheet"]

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