YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Macedonia torn between past and future

YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Macedonia torn between past and future
The office of the Union of Tito’s Left Forces in Skopje.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje June 20, 2016

Macedonians voted overwhelmingly for independence in 1991, but there are still some Yugonostalgics lamenting the former country of peace and fraternity, particularly now Macedonia has been hit by a severe political crisis.

One of those Yugonostalgics is Slobodan Ugrinovski, leader of the small Union of Tito’s Left Forces, and a great fan of former Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito.

The party’s office in Skopje is crammed with Tito’s photos, books and uniforms and - most noticeably - two relay batons, a symbol of Tito’s birthday on May 25, laid on a small table. Every year, Tito’s Left Forces marks both May 25 and May 4, the anniversary of Tito’s death. Now the party is looking for premises to set up a small museum to display its Tito memorabilia.

For Ugrinovski, Yugoslavia was a stable, well-developed country with a great reputation, which promoted peace, equality and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and had the fifth strongest army in the world. He believes the country’s strength was rooted in the personality of its charismatic leader Tito.

“Yugoslavians had a better life compared with citizens of the East European socialist bloc and maybe with Western developed countries, because ex-Yugoslavia developed a modern type of socialism,” he tells bne IntelliNews.

He also argues that life in Macedonia has deteriorated since the breakup of Yugoslavia. “We used to live in a cohesive society and now we are divided on an ethnic, religious and social basis,” he says.

Macedonia seceded peacefully from Yugoslavia and declared independence in 1991 following a referendum. It celebrates Independence Day on September 8. Despite a boycott by ethnic Albanians, the turnout of voters in the independence referendum was almost 76%, of which more than 95% voted in favor.

The international community recognised the tiny republic under the provisional name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), under which it became a member of the United Nations in 1993. This was because of the country’s ongoing dispute with Greece over the name issue; Athens objects to the use of the name “Macedonia” as this is shared by a Greek province.

However, this acronym was never accepted by the local population, making independence after centuries of foreign rule a bitter victory for Macedonians.

While Ugrinovski is in a minority in his Yugonostalgia, it’s true that problems started to pile up in Macedonia following independence. First there was the need to accept the temporarily name FYROM, then the short-term oil embargo by Greece, followed by Athens’ successful attempts to block Macedonia’s membership of the EU and Nato.

The reality is that many wanted and still want Macedonia to be an independent state, but also recognise that a number of problems have affected the country and that in many ways life has become harder since independence.

Positive consequences of the breakup of Yugoslavia are the market economy, the arrival of foreign investors, opportunities to create private businesses, and - if the name issue is resolved - the chance to be part of the EU and Nato. 

On the downside, Macedonia has been in an open political crisis since the April 2014 elections were won by the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. Afterwards the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM) boycotted the parliament, alleging that the vote was rigged. In early 2015, opposition leader Zoran Zaev released tape recordings implicating top state officials in vote rigging, large-scale abuse of power, and corruption. This led to the resignation of top officials. Corruption among high-ranking politicians has long been one of the country’s biggest problems.

The crisis escalated in mid-April when President Gjorge Ivanov made the unexpected decision to pardon politicians mainly from the VMRO-DPMNE party who were under criminal investigation, which undermined the work of the special prosecution office in charge of probing allegations connected to the wiretapping scandal. The decision sparked daily protests against the current political regime dubbed the “Colourful Revolution”.

Now, because of the unstable political situation, Macedonia is facing sanctions from the EU and may even lose its 2009 recommendation to launch EU negotiations as Brussels tries to increase pressure on the country’s government to end the ongoing crisis.

The crisis could also damage Macedonia’s formerly fast growing economy. Macedonia posted strong economic growth of 3.7% in 2015, but the crisis forced the central bank to cut its projections for 2016 to just 1.6%. Unemployment has also been a serious problem since independence, surging to 35% in 2006. Although it fell to around 25% at end-2015, the official figure does not fully reflect the reality.  

Finally, Macedonia still has lingering ethnic tensions to address. In 2001 rebels from the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) started attacking security forces. The conflict ended with the signing of the Ohrid Agreement, which was the basis for the incorporation of ethnic Albanians into government structures. Ex-NLA commander Ali Ahmeti became a leader of the political party Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), which is now the VMRO-DPMNE’s coalition partner.

The Ohrid Agreement guaranteed a number of rights to the Albanian minority, such as the extension of the use of the Albanian language in government and education, proportional representation in the administration and the decentralisation of the state. Many municipalities now have ethnic Albanian mayors.

However, there are continuing tensions between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. Last year 18 were killed when police attacked what they claim was an armed Islamic cell in Kumanovo. This spring there were also running disputes after nationalists provacatively erected huge crosses in mixed Christian-Islamic neighbourhoods. 

This article is part of a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.