Albanians’ integration in North Macedonia remains complex 20 years after Ohrid Accords

Albanians and Macedonians engaged in 2001 in a low-intensity conflict in the former Yugoslav country · Two decades of peace later, political integration of the Albanian community is a reality, but social segregation and mistrust prevail

The Albanian heroes' wall in Skanderbeg Square, in Skopje's  Albanian-majority district of Çair, reflects the recent visibility of the Albanian national narrative in North Macedonia.
The Albanian heroes' wall in Skanderbeg Square, in Skopje's Albanian-majority district of Çair, reflects the recent visibility of the Albanian national narrative in North Macedonia. Author: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez
This year marks the 20th anniversary of a low-intensity conflict in North Macedonia that was the last in a string of wars ravaging the Western Balkans at the end of the 20th century. The conflict lasted less than a year, in 2001, and pitted the Albanian and Macedonian communities —25 per cent and 65 per cent of the population— against each other. The spiral of violence was halted because the US and the EU promptly intervened and helped broker an agreement that, while ambiguous, satisfied the actors involved. The Ohrid Accords thus granted basic rights to the Albanians, and allowed the Macedonians to avoid a war they could lose. In return, the deal left a bitter aftertaste in one of the parties: the Macedonian people, who despite being the country’s majority, could not find a formula that helped them enforce their vision of how the rest of the communities in Macedonia should be integrated. Fuelled by politicians who continue to profit from the ethnic divide, the gap between the two communities resonates in and is widened by stereotypes circulating in segregated neighbourhoods, bars, and schools in the country’s main cities.

“Expectations that the communities would eventually come together were wrong: they live peaceful parallel lives, accepting each other, without forcing integration. Rational and peaceful cooperation exists, but prejudices created over decades cannot be eradicated in a short period of time,” says Ljubomir Frckoski, advisor to former Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski at the Ohrid negotiations. “What we need to avoid is active prejudice, which is the mobilisation [violent or otherwise] caused by such prejudice. In Macedonia, maybe 12% of people act on the street [guided] by prejudice, while in Serbia it could reach more than 40%. Despite prejudice —which exists— we in Macedonia are not ready to use force,” he adds.

Boshko Stankovski, a member of the Pool of European Young Researchers, regrets “the lack of interaction between communities.” He blames politicians for it: “Some people are prejudiced, and view integration with mistrust. If the administration worked, the reflection of ethnicity in society would be different, and mistrust would be overcome.”

“Which fears do Macedonians have now that they did not have before? True integration: now they hear Albanian in the streets, they see them in courts, in the police, in the schools. Albanians have been institutionalised, they raise their voices, they have social movements. That’s why integration exists, but this also brings competition between communities,” argues Veton Zekolli, Executive Director of the Nansen education programme in Macedonia.

“We have been trying for 20 years to tell Macedonians that, as Albanians, we want to contribute to the development of this country and its institutions,” says Arbana Pasholli, chairwoman of the Macedonian Parliament’s Inter-Community Relations Committee. Pasholli acknowledges that “the most difficult thing for a part of the society is to digest the Ohrid Accords”: “They are afraid because they are uninformed. If they were objective, they would understand that Macedonia has not ended up being divided, contrary to what nationalist sectors predicted 20 years ago.”


To understand this complex country and the position of its two main communities we need to understand each of them separately, and their confluence in Macedonia, which peacefully gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

The Macedonian people has a compromised identity. Its identity narrative, which was the last to develop in the Balkans in the 19th and 20th centuries, argues that Macedonians are linked to the historical region of Macedonia, now divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and North Macedonia itself, and that they are heirs to a part of the legacy of Alexander the Great —which is also claimed by Greece— and of revolutionary Goce Delčev —which is also claimed by Bulgaria. Under Euro-Atlantic interference, Macedonians recently rejected in a referendum to boast any connection with antiquity, and reaffirmed their Slavic identity, as well as they accepted to change the name of their country to North Macedonia. After that, Greece lifted its veto on Macedonia’s membership of NATO and the EU. However, the dispute with Bulgaria remains unresolved. Although it was the first country to recognise Macedonia’s independence, Bulgaria considers the Macedonian nation to be an artificial creation of Tito’s Yugoslavia, and argues that until one century ago Macedonians were Bulgarians. Sofia fought four wars in the 20th century to control the region. It lost them all, but it now wants to impose its historical narrative, and thus hinders Macedonia’s EU integration.

Albanians, for their part, have had a recognised country since the early 20th century — Albania. However, much of what they considered to be their ancestral lands ended up in the hands of Greece (the Epirus region) and Yugoslavia (southern Montenegro, southern Serbia, Kosovo, and western Macedonia), where they became marginalised: the regions they inhabited were the most economically depressed, and their relationship with Belgrade was marked by tensions in Kosovo, a territory with a 90% Albanian population.

The former flag of Macedonia, with the Sun of Vergina, that the country had to change following the dispute with Greece. / Photo: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez

In Yugoslavia, the social and political tension of the 1980s eventually triggered wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. In 1999 it was Kosovo’s turn, which gained de facto independence after more than 70 days of NATO intervention. Unabashed US support encouraged Albanians and their Kosovo Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare i Kosovës, UÇK), which continued its struggle in the Serbian region of Presevo and, under the acronym of the National Liberation Army (Ushtria Çlirimtare Kombëtare, UÇK) in Macedonia too, a country where the Slav majority had thwarted the freedom of Albanians since independence in 1991 by restricting their educational rights and by preventing them from using their symbols in public. Memories of that repressive, pre-conflict decade, continue to shape the present.

In this context, in 2001 the UÇK launched a low-intensity war in Macedonia. Its leader, Ali Ahmeti, would later become the most influential Albanian politician in Macedonia. The UÇK first demanded secession of Albanian-majority regions, but later agreed to coexist with the Slavs within the same state if rights and decentralisation for Albanians were obtained. Macedonians began to worry when UÇK guerrillas surrounded Aračinovo, a few kilometres away from the capital city Skopje. Until then confined to the northwestern Albanian-majority region, the conflict could now spread to the whole country. Negotiations thus started and, in the town of Ohrid, the parties drew up an agreement in August, although isolated hostilities continued until 12 November. The agreements contained dozens of clauses to be implemented, by which Albanians were guaranteed representation quotas in the administration, education in their mother tongue, decentralisation, and the use of their own symbols in public spaces. In order to further protect the Albanian community, a double majority was required to amend key clauses.

“The Ohrid Accords are different from others signed in the Balkans in the 1990s. A veto system had to be developed in a way that, while protecting minorities, it did not block the system’s efficiency. Bosnia is an example of inefficiency: the Dayton Accords put an end to the war, but they led to an institutional blockade exercised by the three territorial and ethnic units. Macedonia, on the contrary, is a double-majority functional system: in recent years there has not been one single example of veto rights being used for partisan purposes,” says Ljubomir Frckoski, a jurist who was Interior Minister from 1992 to 1995 and, together with Vlado Popovski, a member of the Macedonian delegation that drafted the Ohrid Accords.

“At first, the Agreements did not meet with the approval of the Macedonian community, which saw the Albanians as gaining rights that did not even exist in the EU. But those rights even existed in Yugoslavia: the linguistic rights contained in the 1974 Constitution were similar to those in the Ohrid Accords; minorities could use their language in parliaments, even if they did not do so in practice. In 2001, in Ohrid, we didn’t carry out any revolution, but the accords simply restored the rights that we took away [from the Albanians] in the 1990s because of the nationalist wave,” Frckoski recalls. “The agreement could not be sent to a referendum because it would not have been passed. We were regarded as traitors to the national interest. Although the same prejudices still exist, as of today 62% of Macedonians support the agreement,” he continues, stressing that “cultural and quota participation rights in Macedonia are more advanced than in the EU, except in the Hungarian part of Romania.”

The ambiguity with which the Ohrid Accords were drafted helped speed up their social acceptance at a time of heightened tension. As in Kosovo, the Constitution does not talk of “minorities” but of “communities” and, in the Macedonian case, the most important rights are aimed at those groups accounting for more than 20% of the population, without needing to mention the Albanian nation —which is the only one, along with the Macedonian nation, that exceeds such threshold. This ambiguity has led to confrontations that have continued to this day. The preamble of the Constitution, last amended in 2019 as a result of the agreement with Greece, has been one point of conflict. Another contentious issue has been, and remains, the Law on Languages: Albanians seek to expand the use of their language to the entire public administration, including the regions where they barely inhabit. In 2018 and 2019, the then president, from pan-Slavic VMRO party, refused to sign the Law on Languages, which had the support of the Parliament, as he considered that it exceeded the Ohrid Agreements. However, the act was recently passed.

“The Law on Languages is controversial. The problem is the interpretation of the term ‘official language’, which differs for Albanians and Macedonians: Albanian politicians consider Albanian on the same level as Macedonian, while Macedonians regard it to be a secondary official language. According to the Constitution, and following the Ohrid Accords, both Macedonian and any language spoken by more than 20% of the population are official. The controversy lies in which regions this law should be implemented in [the whole country or rather only where Albanians inhabit],” says Boshko Stankovski, author of the study “Peacemaking and Constitutional Change: Negotiating Power-sharing Arrangements and Identity Issues. The Republic of (North) Macedonia and The Ohrid Framework Agreement”. “On the practical side, a judicial process should have to be stopped in order to translate declarations and documents. But we still don’t know how it will be implemented on a day-to-day basis. It is important to stress that nobody rejects the right of Albanians to use their language; what is being discussed is how to implement it,” he adds.

Since 2001, politicians have used ethnicity for electioneering purposes. That is why, with every advance in the rights of the Albanian people, tension in Parliament and dissent in society are fuelled. Despite this public dispute, politicians are conniving with client politics from which only they benefit. Two years ago, Professor Zendel Abedin Shehi, president of the European Institute for Management, Law and Diplomacy, exemplified the political situation in his country through the image of a kafana (local tavern) full of MPs from different acronyms and nations eating at the same table. There, the wealth of the country was divided up, regardless of the peoples involved. Corruption in Macedonia is such that the country ranks 111th out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

On the Slavic side, two parties stand out: the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) and the pan-Slavic Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO). If Slavic politics is almost reduced to the SDSM-VMRO duo —with a recent rise of left-wing Levica—, the Albanian parties have shown a very interesting electoral dynamism. New parties have risen and fallen, new parties have emerged and old ones have languished, but the dominant party is still the Democratic Union for Integration (Bashkimi Demokratik for Integrim, BDI). Founded by Ali Ahmeti, leader of the Macedonian branch of the dismantled UÇK, it is broadly perceived as the most corrupt party in an extremely corrupt country. After the Ohrid Accords, the BDI swiftly overtook the two parties that had dominated the Albanian vote since independence. Then, fighting exclusively for Albanian rights, it allied itself with both the SDSM and the VMRO. As an indispensable part of the current post-election agreement with the SDSM, at the end of the current term an Albanian must be appointed prime minister —the first time in Macedonian history. A milestone for the Albanians, but one that might not materialise: at the end of October, a crisis of political legitimacy forced the resignation of Social Democrat Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and, as a result, an early election could be called.

BDI representative Arbana Pasholli highlights her party’s work: “They have misunderstood the BDI’s vision, which deserves credit for everything it has done since 2001, when it started demanding essential rights for Albanians. It achieved our rights, after a huge effort to implement them, and no one can deny that. Moreover, it is one of the most persistent parties in making North Macedonia a part of the EU.”

Stereotypes and segregation

In Macedonia, Albanians inhabit the north-western part of the country and are present in the main cities. After the 2001 conflict, those mixed cities underwent major demographic changes: Albanians regrouped in neighbourhoods that gradually swallowed up their rural compatriots, but in the last decade this migration has taken on economic overtones: rich Albanians now seek to settle in luxurious Slavic neighbourhoods, and conversely, Macedonians try to seize the opportunities that offer to them low-cost flats in Albanian-majority neighbourhoods. Apart from these exceptions, segregation reigns in these cities: in Skopje, the division begins when crossing the bridge over the Vardar River in Çair, and Albanians are rarely spotted in nightclubs such as Minus Eden or in bars in Partizanska Odredi and Debar Maalo.

“I will give you an example from my city, Kumanovo: in a multi-ethnic neighbourhood, Macedonians and Albanians do not know each other beyond a standard greeting. Furthermore, some people move to live in mono-ethnic neighbourhoods. Or there are bars, which despite being next to each other, are mono-ethnic. When I was a child, there was a square that Albanians occupied for a few hours, and then it was the turn of Macedonians. It was like a shift change at work,” recalls Boshko Stankovski.

Elders speak of a past coexistence, before the 21st century, which seems to have vanished. There are no spaces for interaction and, moreover, the gap is widening as a result of client politics full of ethnic tricks that unsettle citizens and generate mistrust which is nourished by stereotypes.

The Macedonian community, despite being the majority, feels discriminated against. Two examples of this perception. Jovana Dimitrova —a fictitious name— is a kindergarten teacher. She teaches a subject we will call Maths. She is ethnic Turkish, but speaks Albanian, and the headmaster of her school has forced her to tell parents that she is Albanian, following the families’ requirement. In a different case, Valentina Todoroska, an archaeologist from Struga, is Macedonian. In 2020, she applied for a position at the city museum. Because of the ethnic representation quota, the place was reserved for an Albanian, but there were no qualified candidates, and the position was left open for a person of any ethnicity. However, the process did not go that far: Svetlana Naumoska, an ethnic Macedonian, considered herself Albanian in the documents and won the position. Todoroska feels discriminated against. She claims that Naumoska is close to the ruling SDSM and, like Dimitrova, believes that in Macedonia “it’s not about education, it’s about having powerful friends.”

Albanians, for their part, feel that their identity is despised. In the 21st century they are experiencing a resurgence as a nation. Perhaps it is Nexhmedin who best represents the exaggeration of such a rise, and also of this perception of rejection: “Young people don’t know Macedonian. It is a problem. In the future we will be more [because of the higher birth rate of Albanians], and Macedonians will need to learn Albanian. My brother has four children,” says Nexhmedin, 33, in Skopje’s Albanian-majority Çair neighbourhood. His words are defiant and blow the mind of our translator, a Macedonian. “Some Macedonians are afraid of us. When you tell them about Çair, they think we will mug them or beat them up. They don’t respect us, but we are ready to live together with them,” continues Nexhmedin, a divorced father of one, who runs an online platform that sells German products.

Nexhmedin, Albanian resident of Çair, in Skopje. / Photo: Miguel Fernández Ibáñez

Veton Zekolli believes that “the transition does not reflect well the ethnic and religious plurality of North Macedonia. In the cities there are opportunities for people to talk, but there is a general problem: it is what the father explains to the son, the teacher to the pupils, the politicians and the media to society.” Stankovski agrees, and adds, with some hope, that weariness could unite society: “A recent survey showed that 60% are dissatisfied with the political offer, as evidenced by declining vote turnout. Little by little, people are moving away from the ethnic discourse: young people, above all, are concerned about the lack of jobs and the deterioration of the healthcare system, about the economic crisis and corruption. This is something shared, and a starting point for unity across ethnic lines.”

Education as a solution to segregation and prejudice

In Macedonia, due to state passivity, civil organisations funded by international donors develop intercultural programmes or extracurricular classes targeting students and youths from all communities living in the country. They seek to create meeting points, if possible at the earliest ages, before stereotypes dominate them. Veton Zekolli, the Macedonian director of the Nansen educational programme, an initiative in 35 schools promoting intercultural activities and teacher training, believes that “the educational curriculum does not offer integration or interaction.” “There is no space for dialogue, and teachers are not well prepared, or at least not well prepared to build the relationships these students need,” he says.

In Macedonia, almost 100% of the Macedonian community and 97% of the Albanian community attend schools that teach in their mother tongue: they study in separate schools or school floors. Unless a person attends university or belongs to the civil service, he or she may not have much opportunity to interact with the other community. Moreover, Albanian youths are becoming less and less fluent in Macedonian: many of them speak it with grammatical errors, and others, still in the minority, do not even understand the language. Sometimes English becomes the lingua franca. Hanife, a 24-year-old Albanian nursing student, believes that “language is a barrier: we can’t communicate because some illiterate people don’t know Macedonian.” Besart, a 19-year-old Albanian, prefers to look at equality from the opposite side: “We speak Macedonian, but they don’t speak Albanian. It’s unfair.”

Older Albanians are proficient in Serbian and Macedonian, which reflects their social weakness during the Yugoslav era. However, the younger generation does not need to learn Macedonian: they have a life beforehand in which they can get by in Albanian alone. More nationalistic Slavs are clamouring for a return to a Macedonian-only education system, despite the democratic setback it would mean. For Zekolli, this is not an option. The problem is the system: “My generation had Macedonian as a subject twice a week, which was considered as important as Biology or Maths. The education system was strict, with a book and notebook. Our teacher did not speak Albanian, but he was an educated and respected person. Nowadays, the Macedonian language is also taught twice a week. You can surely learn a language in 15 years of education. What happens then? Well: the teachers are not prepared, the value of the Macedonian language is no longer so important, and school books are catastrophic.”