Political Rights: 3
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Partly Free
Population: 2,100,000
GNI/Capita: $1,690
Life Expectancy: 73
Religious Groups: Macedonian Orthodox (67 percent), Muslim (30 percent), other (3 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Macedonian (64 percent), Albanian (25 percent), Turkish (4 percent), Roma (2 percent), Serb (2 percent), other (3 percent)
Capital: Skopje


The nature of Macedonian statehood continued to be precarious throughout 2003. During the course of the year, three of the five signatories to the 2001 Ohrid Accords – which had barely averted a civil war in the country – repudiated the agreement, and two of those parties calling for an outright partition of the country into Macedonian and Albanian sections. Tensions in Macedonia also increased significantly in late summer as a government hunt for an Albanian criminal threatened to again spark intercommunal violence. Nevertheless, there were some significant positive developments: in January, a paramilitary group was disbanded, while in June, the government agreed to legalize the long-disputed Albanian language university in Tetovo.

Macedonia, a republic in the former Yugoslav Communist federation, was recognized as an independent state in 1992. Parliamentary elections in 1998 resulted in the first transfer of power from the left-of-center governmental coalition that had ruled Macedonia since independence to a grouping of right-of-center parties led by former prime minister Ljupco Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE).

Relations between the country's two primary ethnic groups – Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians – deteriorated precipitously after the 1999 Kosovo war. By 2000, Albanian guerrillas who had participated in the Kosovo conflict were operating in Macedonia, often using NATO-occupied Kosovo as their base. Among the guerrillas' political demands were changes to the Macedonian constitution, greater use of the Albanian language in official institutions, and an increase in the number of ethnic Albanians in the civil services. In August 2001, an agreement reached in the town of Ohrid produced a temporary lull in the conflict, which was estimated to have cost the fragile Macedonian economy more than $800 million.

In mid-September 2002, the latest set of parliamentary elections were held. The elections returned to power the left-of-center Social Democratic Party of Macedonia (SDSM), led by Branko Crvenkovski, which succeeded in ousting Georgievski's right-of-center coalition. As in previous governments, ethnic Albanian parties were included in the governing coalition. After the 2002 elections, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) became Crvenkovski's coalition partner. The elections, however, were not interpreted as a significant change in the ideological mood of the population, but rather as a vote against the corruption of the incumbents; indeed, government corruption has become a recurring theme in post-1991 Macedonian politics.

Implementation of the 2001 Ohrid Accords has proceeded in fits and starts. On the negative side, three of the five signatories to the 2001 agreement repudiated it in 2003, and two of those three have called for an outright partition of the country. Nevertheless, some progress has been made. In January, the government disbanded a paramilitary group, the "Lions," after a two-day standoff with police north of Skopje. The Lions were a purely ethnic-Macedonian paramilitary group composed largely of criminals and ethnic extremists.

In late August and early September, a return to fighting was barely averted when ethnic Albanian extremists kidnapped two individuals. The extremists belonged to the so-called Albanian National Army (AkSH), which has been active in attempting to create a "Greater Albania" throughout the region; in April, UN officials had declared the AkSH a terrorist organization. Although an escalation of violence was prevented when the two hostages were released the same day, the military mobilization that followed and a series of bomb attacks in the capital indicated how unstable the situation remains.

Since gaining independence, Macedonia has suffered from disputes with most of its neighbors over a number of issues: the name "Macedonia," with Greece; the status of the Macedonian language, with Bulgaria; and Macedonia's northern border, with Serbia and Montenegro. Most of these external disputes have been successfully resolved. The international community has tried in a number of ways to support Macedonia's fragile existence, most notably in April 2002, when the European Union (EU) signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (considered the first step toward full EU membership) with Skopje.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Macedonia can choose their political representatives in free and fair elections. The September 2002 parliamentary elections were deemed by international organizations to be "largely in accordance with ... international standards for democratic elections." Voter turnout was approximately 70 percent of the electorate.

Although the constitution provides for freedom of the press, Macedonian media are often aligned with particular political interests that render them less than independent. Many senior positions in state-owned media, from which the majority of the population gets its information, are filled by political appointees rather than by professional journalists. The media in Macedonia are frequently criticized for their lack of professionalism and unwillingness to uphold recognized journalistic standards. In November, three journalists were convicted of slander of government officials, with sentences ranging from financial penalties to three months' imprisonment. Journalists' groups claimed that the verdicts were a direct attempt to intimidate independent media outlets. There were no reports of restrictions of access to the Internet during the year.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice. A number of religious sites were destroyed or damaged in the fighting in 2001, although vandalism against religious sites has decreased significantly since then. Another blow to Macedonia's fragile unity occurred in June 2002, when at least one bishop of the unrecognized Macedonian Orthodox Church decided to break ranks with the Macedonian church hierarchy and accept the canonical authority of the Orthodox Patriarch of Serbia.

There were no reports of restrictions on academic freedom. In June, the Branko Crvenkovski government agreed to recognize the long-disputed Tetovo University, with a primarily ethnic Albanian student body, as the third state university in Macedonia. However, in an indication of the continuing volatility of the issue, parliament had yet to pass the accompanying legislation by the end of November. Ethnic Albanians have claimed that the university is needed to give them more access to higher education in Macedonia. Ethnic Macedonians maintain that the exclusively Albanian-language university will increase ethnic segregation in the country and become a hotbed for Albanian separatism.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly and association, and there were no reports that the government infringed on these rights in 2003. There are 64 registered political parties in Macedonia. The constitution also recognizes workers' rights to organize and for collective bargaining, although given the poor state of the Macedonian economy, workers generally have little leverage. Nevertheless, strikes and work stoppages are frequent occurrences. Over 50 percent of the legal workforce is unionized.

The judicial system has been criticized for not having a representative ethnic balance among its judges and prosecutors and for having a large backlog of cases. Judicial independence has been questioned, as judges are nominated by parliament in less than transparent procedures. International experts believe a thorough overhaul of the Macedonian criminal justice system is necessary to increase the pace of prosecutions and judicial efficiency. A number of international watchdog groups have charged Macedonian police forces with serious cases of ill-treatment and torture of prisoners.

Macedonia's most important political and societal problem remains satisfying the demands of the ethnic Albanian minority for a more privileged status within the country. In accordance with the Ohrid Accords, references in the constitution to Macedonia as the "land of the Macedonian people" have been eliminated, and the Albanian language has been made an "official" language in municipalities where Albanians comprise at least 20 percent of the population. The constitutional reforms envisioned by the Ohrid Accords include granting more self-government to local municipalities, increasing the number of ethnic Albanians in the police force, devolving some of the powers of the central government from Skopje to local municipalities, and granting amnesty to ethnic Albanian insurgents.

Enacting these reforms will be extremely difficult. Currently, 85 percent of the positions in the government bureaucracy are held by ethnic Macedonians, and only 11 percent by ethnic Albanians. In total, the civil service has 128,000 people on its payroll, while the IMF claims that Macedonia's civil service is bloated and should be cut to approximately 20,000 to 30,000 people. Consequently, any serious attempt to implement the IMF's recommendations would result in a huge number of dismissals for the Macedonian majority.

Ethnic Macedonians are afraid that these changes will possibly be the prelude either to the secession of ethnic Albanian-populated areas or to their annexation by a "Greater Kosovo." These fears are exacerbated by current demographic trends within the country; according to the recent census, Macedonia's ethnic Albanian population increased by 68,000 over the past decade, while the ethnic Macedonian population increased by only 2,000.

Women in Macedonia enjoy the same legal rights as men, although lingering patriarchal social attitudes limit women's participation in nontraditional social roles in the economy and in government. Twenty-two of the 120 members of parliament are women (21 ethnic Macedonians and one ethnic Albanian). Violence against women is considered a particular problem within the ethnic Albanian and Roma (Gypsy) communities. Domestic violence and trafficking of women from former Soviet republics remain serious problems. In Muslim areas, many women are effectively disenfranchised because proxy voting by male relatives is common.

Trend Arrow

Macedonia received an upward trend arrow due to the achievement of some progress in implementing the 2001 Ohrid Accords, including the legalization of Tetovo University, and the disbanding of an extremist paramilitary group.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.