Introduction / Definiton

As with so many states born out of empires and larger federations, the Republic of Macedonia has inherited complex demographics coupled with competing claims for self-determination. Macedonia’s population of some two million is divided both along ethnic and religious lines with ethnic Macedonians making up 64.2% of the total population. The largest minority, ethnic Albanians, constitutes 25.2 % of the population, whereas other minorities include Turks (3.9%), Roma (2.7%), Serbs (1.8%), Bosniaks (0.9%), as well as small numbers of Vlachs, Montenegrins, Slovenes and Croats.[1] Ethnic Macedonians are predominantly Orthodox Christians whilst the vast majority of Albanians are Muslim. The numerical size of Macedonia’s ethnic groups has been a source of contention since the early 1990s. Following an Albanian boycott of the 1991 population census, the European Union and the Council of Europe agreed to supervise the next census, carried out in 1994. Particularly delicate was the question of the size of Macedonia’s Albanian population: statistical data generated during the 1990s raised fears amongst the Macedonian majority of a possible population explosion in the Albanian community, which would alter the proportion of Albanians to Macedonians, thus undermining Macedonian dominance in the state. Although Macedonia’s Albanian population has continued to grow over the past two decades, there is little to substantiate Macedonian fears of a sudden Albanian population explosion. The central conflict during Macedonia’s first decade of independence was that between the country’s Macedonian and Albanian communities and revolved around the political and cultural character of Macedonia. Whilst ethnic Macedonians defended their right to national self-determination in the form of a Macedonian nation-state, the Albanian community rejected their minority status, arguing that their population was greater than official statistics reported. Hence, they claimed a right to self-determination as a constituent nation, on a par with the Macedonian nation.[2] A core issue was – and still is – the ownership and character of the state. Whose state was it and should Macedonia be constituted as an ethnic nation-state, as a bi-national state, or as a civic multiethnic state? [1] Official statistics of the 2002 population census. Source: CIA World Factbook and [2] Alice Ackermann, Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia (Syracuse: NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), pp. 61-62.

Historical Evolution

The recent conflict involving Macedonia was to some extent a continuation of what is known as the Macedonian Question, born in 1870 when Russia, acting on behalf of the Bulgarian nation, pressured the Ottoman Empire into allowing the creation of a Bulgarian Orthodox Church separate from the Greek Orthodox Church. Macedonia, then an Ottoman province, was to fall under the authority of this new Exarchate. Greece and Serbia, however, saw their national interests threatened by this development and began competing with the Bulgarians in extending their influence over Macedonia. Following the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, geographical Macedonia[1] was divided, with Greece and Serbia claiming most of the territory, leaving Bulgaria with the rest. Resenting the loss of the bulk of Macedonia, Bulgaria allied itself with Germany in both world wars in order to seek to regain Macedonia, which it saw as being in essence part of greater Bulgaria. The emergence of communist governments in Eastern Europe and the incorporation of Macedonia as a republic into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), settled the Macedonian Question for the time being. With the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the independence of Macedonia in 1991, however, the Macedonian Question resurfaced. Without the protection of the Yugoslav federation, a newly independent Macedonia found its security weakened and as a response to Bulgarian and Greek attitudes, a more assertive and uncompromising strand of Macedonian nationalism emerged, which would have a significant impact on Macedonian-Albanian relations in the new state.[2] As Yugoslavia crumbled, Macedonia voted for independence in a national referendum on 8 September 1991. Boycotting the referendum, the country’s Albanian population instead organized their own unofficial vote in which an overwhelming majority voted for territorial autonomy within Macedonia.[3] Although they favored an independent Macedonian state in principle, Albanians objected to the question put forth in the national referendum, which sought Macedonian independence but with the option of re-joining some federate arrangement with Yugoslavia in the future. Albanians in Macedonia, however, wanted to avoid being ruled once more by a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Albanian refusal to participate in the referendum could also be seen as a protest against the failure of the Macedonian leadership to clarify the legal status of the Albanian population in an independent Macedonian state. Ahead of the referendum, the leading Albanian political party at the time, Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), had issued a Declaration for the Equal Status of Albanians in Macedonia, and had made Albanian participation in the referendum contingent on Macedonian consideration of this Declaration. The Macedonian leaders, however, refused to concede to Albanian demands.[4] Following Macedonia’s declaration of independence, Albanian political leaders opposed the new constitution on the grounds that it relegated Albanians to the status of second-class citizens by treating them as a minority, which in turn went against the Albanian community’s perception of itself as constituting not a minority but a part of another, Albanian, majority within the borders of the Republic of Macedonia.[5] To the Albanians, the Macedonian constitution of 1991 thus represented a step backwards in terms of their legal status, in contrast with the 1974 Yugoslav constitution, which granted equal rights to all ethnic units of the Yugoslav federation, including the Albanians. Macedonia’s Albanian community particularly opposed the wording of the preamble to the 1991 Macedonian constitution, which explicitly declared the right of the Macedonian people to a state, envisaging the Republic of Macedonia as foremost a Macedonian nation-state, in which ethnic minorities, including Albanians, were granted full rights. Furthermore, article 7 of the constitution established that the Macedonian language (using the Cyrillic alphabet) was the only official language, and article 19 made special reference to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which again asserted ethnic Macedonian ownership of the state. Yet at the same time, the bulk of the new constitution embraced a liberal, civic concept of citizenship, providing for equal rights for all citizens of Macedonia irrespective of ethnic and/or religious affinity. According to the 1991 constitution, the Republic of Macedonia was thus constituted as a unitary state, and from the outset the Macedonian majority rejected Albanian demands for some form of autonomy in the political sphere. Over time, a working relationship between Macedonians and Albanians nonetheless developed, which could be seen as a confirmation of the Albanian community’s commitment to a unified Macedonian republic, whilst continuing to call for non-territorial autonomy in the political sphere. The relationship between the two communities remained tense throughout the 1990s, resulting in occasional outbursts of inter-communal violence. In recognition of the importance of inter-ethnic collaboration in the political arena, every government since Macedonia’s independence has been constructed as a coalition between one Macedonian party (either the left-leaning SDSM[6] or the nationalist-conservative VMRO-DPMNE[7]), and at least one Albanian party. For much of the 1990s, the two largest Albanian parties were the PDP and DPA[8]. Following the peaceful end to the 2001 conflict, former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, rebranded himself as a politician and founded a new Albanian party, the DUI[9]. Relations between the Albanian parties have generally been tense and, especially at election time, there has been outright hostility between them. Not infrequently, the friction among the Albanian political parties has been more acute than the conflict between Albanian parties on the one hand and Macedonian parties on the other. In the two decades following Macedonian independence, domestic politics and inter-ethnic relations were further complicated by the unresolved status of Kosovo. During the Yugoslav era there had been a constant movement of Albanians between Kosovo and Albanian-dominated western Macedonia because no international border existed. When Yugoslavia collapsed and Macedonia declared independence, Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo suddenly found themselves separated by an international border. Furthermore, given the interconnectedness between Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo, there was a real fear in 1999 that the Kosovo crisis would spill over into Macedonia and destroy the fragile peace that prevailed there.[10] Against expectations, however, Macedonia was able to maintain sufficient inter-ethnic peace during the Kosovo war, despite the refugee flow that severely strained Macedonia’s material and psychological resources. Kosovo eventually declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008 and in October that year, Macedonia formally recognized Kosovo’s independence. Given the close links between Kosovo and Macedonia, the stability of the former continues to have a bearing on the inter-ethnic stability of the latter. Regional Issues and Influences Macedonia also experienced tension with some of its neighbors during the 1990s. Bulgaria was the first country to extend diplomatic recognition to the Macedonian republic in 1992 but, reminiscent of the old Macedonian Question, refused to accept ethnic Macedonians as constituting a distinct nation, separate from the Bulgarian.[11] Greece, in turn, continues to deny the existence of a Slavophone Macedonian nation, maintaining that the only people with a right to call themselves ‘Macedonian’ are the Greeks themselves. Although Greece does not deny the existence of a separate Slavic people in the territory known as Republic of Macedonia, it objects to the application of the name ‘Macedonian’ to this people.[12] In 1991, Macedonia picked the Star of Vergina – a sun with sixteen rays and a symbol dating back to the ancient Macedonian kingdom – as the emblem on the new Macedonian state flag, provoking fervent opposition from Greece who saw it as a direct violation of Greek cultural heritage. Furthermore, wordings in the new Macedonian constitution suggested to the Greeks that the new republic made claims to part of Greek territory. In response, Greece imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia in 1994, and severed diplomatic relations. Although Greece’s actions were criticized by most EC/EU states as well as by the United Nations, it nonetheless delayed international recognition of the new Macedonian state. As a result of diplomatic intervention from the United States, an Interim Accord was eventually signed in 1995 between Greece and Macedonia, in which both countries expressed mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity, and in return for Greek recognition of the Macedonian state, Macedonia agreed to change its flag and remove any wording in the constitution that might be interpreted as a violation of Greek territorial integrity. The conflict over the name ‘Macedonia’ however remained unresolved, leading to Macedonia becoming internationally recognized under the name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Despite UN-led diplomatic efforts, the name dispute remains unresolved to this day, prompting Greece to exercise its veto right to prevent Macedonia being invited to apply for NATO membership. UN intervention in Macedonia has been of the diplomatic and military kind. UN mediators helped bring an end to the diplomatic crisis between Greece and Macedonia in the first half of the 1990s, and today the UN continues to be involved in diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute between Macedonia and Greece over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’. In December 1991 the Macedonian President, Kiro Gligorov turned to the United Nations and requested the deployment of a preventive force. Although such a force would be unable to fill the defence vacuum arising from the withdrawal of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) from Macedonia on the latter’s secession from the Yugoslav federation, the Macedonian president hoped that it would help deter any potential act of aggression against Macedonia.[13] Initially the UN Security Council authorised an extension of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), deployed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, to be stationed in Macedonia in 1993. Two years later, it was replaced by a separate United Nations Preventive Deployment Force (UNPREDEP), the first of its kind to be set up by the UN. UNPREDEP’s mandate was to “monitor and report any developments in the border areas which could undermine confidence and stability in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and threaten its territory.”[14] Although not explicitly part of its mandate, UNPREDEP also became, informally, involved in the monitoring of the internal political situation. The UN mission’s mandate was terminated after 1999, following Macedonia’s decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan in exchange for Taiwanese investments, to which China responded by using its veto in the Security Council to prevent UNPREDEP’s mandate from being prolonged.[15] For most of the 1990s, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities played a significant role in mediating issues arising between the Macedonian and Albanian communities, particularly in the area of higher education. The OSCE also deployed a modest ‘Spillover Mission’ to Macedonia in September 1992, whose mandate was to monitor internal developments as well as Macedonia’s borders with Serbia and Albania, with the ultimate aim of preventing a spill-over of the conflict in former Yugoslavia into Macedonia. Over the years, the OSCE came to oversee efforts aimed at increasing Macedonia’s capacity for local self-government, and the OSCE also played an important part in the monitoring of parliamentary, presidential and municipal elections in Macedonia throughout the 1990s. [1] Historically and geographically Macedonia is divided into three parts: Vardar Macedonia (today’s Republic of Macedonia), Aegean Macedonia (northern Greece) and Pirin Macedonia (south-west Bulgaria). [2] For a more in-depth analysis of how the Macedonian Question came to influence interethnic relations in Macedonia after 1991, see: Jenny Engström, ‘The Power of Perception: The Impact of the Macedonian Question on Inter-ethnic Relations in the Republic of Macedonia’, The Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol.1, no.3, March 2002, 3-17. [3] Duncan Perry, ‘The Republic of Macedonia: Finding its Way,’ in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott (eds), Politics, Power and the Struggle for Democracy in South-Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 253. [4] Jenny Engström, Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp.112-113. [5] Alice Ackermann, pp. 61-62. [6] Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia [7] Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party [8] Democratic Party of Albanians [9] Democratic Union for Integration [10] International Crisis Group, ‘Macedonia: Toward Destabilisation? The Kosovo Crisis Takes its Toll on Macedonia’ (Brussels, ICG Report no. 67, 21 May 1999). [11] In 1992, the Bulgarian President Zhelyu Zhelev explicitly stated that Bulgaria recognised the Macedonian state but not the nation. Source: ‘Greeks Fear Bulgaria’s Backing for Macedonia’, The Independent, 17 January 1992, p. 11. [12] Evangelos Kofos, ‘Greek Policy Considerations Over FYROM Independence and Recognition’, in James Pettifer (ed.), The New Macedonian Question (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), p. 232. [13] Ackermann, p. 84. [14] [15] Abiodun Williams, Preventing War: The United Nations and Macedonia (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000), pp. 173-174.

Resolution / Status

Although Macedonia managed to avoid outright armed conflict during its first decade of independence, tensions between Macedonians and Albanians were palpable, and finally came to a head in the spring of 2001, when the country suffered a six-month armed confrontation between the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) and Macedonian security forces. The immediate cause of the Albanian insurgency appears to have been the accord signed by Serbia and Macedonia in the spring of 2001, which settled the border between Macedonia and Serbia-controlled Kosovo.[1] Initially it was unclear what the objectives of the NLA were but eventually their demands “came to echo those of Albanian politicians – insisting that Albanian become an official state language and that Albanians fain equal status with Macedonians.”[2] There is little doubt that NATO’s failure to disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and adequately police the border between Kosovo and Macedonia to prevent a spill-over of arms, also contributed to the Albanian insurgency. According to Western intelligence, former members of the KLA were in fact part of the planning of the insurgency in Macedonia.[3] After six months of fighting, diplomatic intervention by the United States and the European Union resulted in the signing of the (Ohrid) Framework Agreement by the main Macedonian and Albanian political leaders on 13 August 2001, putting an end to the armed conflict. The Framework Agreement laid down a series of constitutional amendments aimed at enhancing the power-sharing mechanisms of Macedonia’s political system. The overall objective of these measures was to eliminate any structural, institutional and practical discrimination of Albanians in the social and political spheres. The Agreement reaffirmed Macedonian as the official language of the Republic, whilst also establishing that any other language spoken by at least 20 percent of the population is also an official language. This effectively makes Albanian a second official language. Meanwhile, the use of other languages, such as Serbian, Turkish and Rom in municipal public affairs are subject to decision by the local authorities. In an effort to promote power-sharing arrangements, the Framework Agreement also established that the passing of certain laws and constitutional amendments relating to the law on local self-government (which itself was revised in favour of the Albanian community as part of the Framework Agreement) as well as issues affecting culture, language and education would require a majority of the votes of members of parliament not belonging to the majority population of Macedonia. The signing of the Framework Agreement was followed by the deployment of Operation Essential Harvest, a NATO force, whose 30-day mission was to disarm the NLA and destroy the weapons as part of the peace agreement. A small NATO force, Operation Amber Fox, subsequently took over, tasked with protecting OSCE and EU personnel who were overseeing the implementation of the Framework Agreement. In March 2003, an EU military mission – the first of its kind – replaced the NATO mission and was itself subsequently replaced by an EU police mission in December 2003. Although the Framework Agreement succeeded in bringing an end to the armed conflict, and did go a long way towards meeting the demands of the Albanian community, many ethnic Macedonians voiced their resentment towards an agreement, which they saw as having been undemocratically imposed on them by outside powers (the US and EU).[4] The Agreement further fell short of protecting the rights of smaller minorities in Macedonia, an omission not lost on Macedonia’s Turkish minority, which had backed the ethnic Macedonian side during the conflict.[5] In 2004, the World Macedonian Congress – a non-governmental organisation aimed at uniting Macedonians around the world – called for a referendum on whether to overturn the changes made to the municipal boundaries as part of the Framework Agreement. Macedonians feared these would give Albanians an advantage over Macedonians in many municipalities. The initiative was supported by VMRO-DPMNE, then in opposition, whereas the prime minister, Hari Kostov, supported by the EU and the US, urged voters to reject the referendum scheduled for 7 November 2004. In a bid to bolster the SDSM government’s stance against the referendum, the US announced just days before the vote that it would start using the name Republic of Macedonia instead of FYROM. The referendum eventually failed, and Kostov resigned shortly afterwards. [1] Henryk Sokalski, An Ounce of Prevention: Macedonia and the UN Experience in Preventive Diplomacy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003), p.232 [2] Duncan Perry, ‘Macedonia in Crisis’, Meeting Report no. 237, (Washington, DC: East European Studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2001). [3] John Phillips, Macedonia: Warlords and Rebels in the Balkans (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 166-167. [4] Biljana Vankovska, ‘The Role of the Ohrid Framework Agreement and the Peace Process in Macedonia’ (Lund: Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, 2006),… (accessed 29 September 2010) [5] ‘Macedonian Disappointments and Fears’, RFE/RL Balkan Report 5 (60) (24 August 2001).


The issue of self-determination in the case of Macedonia is complex and involves both internal and external interests. On the one hand, the country’s ethnic Macedonian population seeks to assert what it considers to be its right to national self-determination, against claims not only by the ethnic Albanian population, but also by Bulgaria and Greece, who both continue to question some aspect of Macedonian identity. Ethnic Albanians, on the other hand, seek to assert their own right to self-determination, albeit within the borders of the Macedonian republic. Ultimately, both communities are defending their right to determine their own futures. For all its problems, however, independent Macedonia has proved remarkably resilient, despite its precarious location and in a turbulent part of Europe. While there are no immediate threats to the current peace between Macedonia’s two largest ethnic groups, immature politics, elections often marred by violence, corruption and organized crime coupled with high unemployment, continue to hold Macedonia back, as does the unresolved name dispute with Greece, which if not resolved could undermine Macedonia’s chances of becoming an EU member. 

References / Further Reading

Ackermann, Alice. Making Peace Prevail: Preventing Violent Conflict in Macedonia (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000). Engström, Jenny. Democratisation and the Prevention of Violent Conflict: Lessons Learned from Bulgaria and Macedonia (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009). Engström, Jenny. ‘The Power of Perception: The Impact of the Macedonian Question on Inter-ethnic Relations in the Republic of Macedonia’, The Global Review of Ethnopolitics, vol.1, no.3, March 2002, 3-17. ‘Greeks Fear Bulgaria’s Backing for Macedonia’, The Independent, 17 January 1992, p. 11. International Crisis Group, ‘Macedonia: Toward Destabilisation? The Kosovo Crisis Takes its Toll on Macedonia’ (Brussels, ICG Report no. 67, 21 May 1999). Kofos, Evangelos. ‘Greek Policy Considerations Over FYROM Independence and Recognition’, in J. Pettifer (ed.), The New Macedonian Question (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), pp. 226-262. ‘Macedonian Disappointments and Fears’, RFE/RL Balkan Report 5 (60) (24 August 2001). Perry, Duncan. ‘Macedonia in Crisis’, Meeting Report no. 237, (Washington, DC: East European Studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2001). Perry, Duncan. ‘The Republic of Macedonia: Finding its Way,’ in Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott (eds), Politics, Power and the Struggle for Democracy in South-Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 226-281. Phillips, John. Macedonia: Warlords and Rebels in the Balkans (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004). Sokalski, Henryk. An Ounce of Prevention: Macedonia and the UN Experience in Preventive Diplomacy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2003). Vankovska, Biljana. ‘The Role of the Ohrid Framework Agreement and the Peace Process in Macedonia’ (Lund: Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, 2006),… (accessed 29 September 2010) Williams, Abiodun. Preventing War: The United Nations and Macedonia (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000). Further Reading Brown, Keith. The Past in Question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003). Gallagher, Tom. The Balkans in the New Millennium: In the Shadow of War and Peace (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005). Poulton, Hugh. Who Are the Macedonians? (London: Hurst & Company, 2000). Shea, John. Macedonia and Greece: The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008). For continuous updates on Macedonian politics and the name dispute with Greece, see reports by the International Crisis Group (ICG),