Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Macedonian, Albanian, Romani, Turkish, Serbian
Main religions: Eastern Orthodox Christianity (70 per cent), Islam (mainly Sunni) (29 per cent)
Main ethnic groups, according to the 2002 Census, are Macedonians 1,297,981 (64 per cent), Albanians 509,083 (25 per cent), Turks 77,959 (3.9 per cent) and Roma 53,879 (2.66 per cent). Other estimates put the Roma population at around 200,000 and Albanians comprising 30-35 per cent.
Macedonians are a Slavic people who speak Macedonian and are mainly Christian Orthodox.
Albanians are the largest minority group. They are mainly Muslim, speak Albanian, and live predominately in the west of the country. Other minorities include Turks, Roma, Serbs and Vlachs.
No national census has been held since 2002. A census was planned in April 2020 but was postponed in late 2019 due to the announcement of elections that year.
Updated October 2020
Since independence in 1991, the Republic of North Macedonia (the country was officially renamed in 2019) has been dominated by ongoing tensions between its ethnic Macedonian and Albanian communities, culminating in 2001 in violent conflict. Though peace was restored through the Ohrid Framework Agreement and a raft of constitutional reforms, Albanian organizations have complained of continued marginalization. In July 2020, for instance, supporters of Albanian opposition parties protested in Skopje following national elections that they alleged had been manipulated by the ruling party. In September, community representatives called for job subsidies to encourage increased Albanian employment in the private sector to address their low levels of representation in business. However, the proposals were rejected on the grounds that they would be discriminatory and increase inter-ethnic tensions.
Another legacy of North Macedonia’s post-conflict framework is that it focused exclusively on Macedonian and Albanian relations, while overlooking other minorities such as Roma and Turks. These communities remain excluded from mainstream society, despite many legal regulations in place specifically prohibiting discrimination. For Roma, this process begins early, with many Roma children segregated in separate classes or even in special schools, where the curriculum is often of a poorer quality and pupils typically achieve lower academic results.
The proportion of marginalized Roma children who attend segregated school is significant, with 40 per cent of marginalized Roma students aged 7-15 attending segregated schools in 2017. Troublingly, this phenomenon appears to be on the rise: in 2011, the ratio was 25 per cent. The quality of education in these schools is typically poorer, with limited resources and less qualified teaching staff. For a variety of reasons, the school drop-out rate is higher among Roma compared to the overall population and this, combined with discrimination in the labour market, leaves the majority of Roma unable to obtain formal employment.
As a result, many Roma live in substandard living conditions, often struggling with overcrowding and without access to sanitation, safe drinking water, electricity, street lighting or public transport. These issues are frequently interrelated and contribute in turn to ill health which, coupled with the discrimination in access to public services, ultimately leads to a lower life expectancy. At present, despite some progress in certain areas, Roma continue to experience a lifetime of discrimination and on average die earlier than their non-Roma peers: average life expectancy among Roma is 68 years, more than five years less than the national average (73.5 years).
North Macedonia’s Turkish community is also marginalized, with high levels of poverty and unemployment. As with other smaller minorities in North Macedonia, Turks cannot participate effectively in public discourse, which is dominated by ethnic Macedonian-Albanian relations. Community members still face limited educational opportunities in the Turkish language and as a result many Turkish children end their formal education at an early age. Turks do not participate effectively in national politics and remain under-represented in public sector employment.
North Macedonia lies in the western Balkans, bordering Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Large lakes in the southwest attract tourists and provide fishing resources.
In the Middle Ages, what is now North Macedonia formed successively a part of the Bulgarian and Serbian empires, and its Slav-speaking population was converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. At the end of the fourteenth century, the region was over-run by the Turks and it remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until the eve of the First World War. Some Eastern Orthodox Slavs converted under Ottoman rule to Islam. During the period of Ottoman rule there was a substantial influx of Albanian-speakers, most of whom embraced Islam.
After the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, northern and central territories were assigned to Serbia, southern territories were apportioned to Greece, and the easternmost part of the region was given to Bulgaria. After the World War I, Bulgaria ceded an additional sliver of territory to the newly formed Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (after 1929, Yugoslavia). During the inter-war period, the Yugoslav authorities denied the existence of a separate Macedonian identity and embarked upon a policy of assimilation. In 1943 the communist partisans, led by Josip Broz Tito, affirmed the existence of a Macedonian nation and, at the end of the war, Macedonians were given the status of nation and the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was established as one of the country’s six republics along its pre-war borders within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY).
After 1945, a Macedonian alphabet, orthography and grammar were devised. A Macedonian Orthodox Church was established in 1967. Although denied recognition both by the Serbian Patriarch and by the wider Orthodox community, the Macedonian Church enjoys substantial support within Macedonia itself.
Ethnic Albanians, concentrated in Kosovo and Macedonia, were the largest nationality without the status of nation in the SFRY. Albanians in Macedonia had some provision to protect their identity through Albanian language education, media and cultural associations. However, Albanians demonstrated for more rights in the 1980s, which in turn met with a rise in Macedonian nationalism.
In 1989, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic took control of half of the seats in the SFRY’s rotating presidency. When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, Macedonia (along with Bosnia and Hercegovina) faced a choice: remain in a rump federal Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic, or also declare independence. In 1991, nearly 70 per cent of Macedonians opted for independence in a referendum. As Belgrade went to war against Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, Macedonia with its much smaller Serb minority, was spared.
Tensions between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians continued to be high and, in general, the two communities did not mix. During the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians streamed into Macedonia, and some Macedonian Albanians fought in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). While Macedonia’s Albanian community cared for many of the arrivals, ethnic Macedonians were wary. Most of the refugees returned to Kosovo after NATO intervention there led to the withdrawal of Serbian forces in June 1999. Radicalized by war and inspired by the eventual victory over Serbian forces, some Albanian extremists from both sides of the border formed the National Liberation Army and began the violent pursuit of Albanian separatism in Macedonia. Exclusion of Albanians from many spheres of public life, and specifically the government’s refusal to register the Albanian-language university of Tetovo, fuelled tensions.
These culminated in open conflict in early 2001. International officials exerted intense pressure to suppress the outbreak of violence. NATO forces in Kosovo cracked down on militants along the border, a NATO monitoring mission in Macedonia was launched, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) announced that she had jurisdiction over war crimes committed during the conflict (and indeed, indicted a nationalist ethnic Macedonian interior minister), and the US and EU convened negotiations in the south-western town of Ohrid. The conflict ended with the August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, which increased Albanian representation and language rights.
Under pressure from Greece, international organizations including the United Nations and European Union only recognized the Republic of Macedonia under the reference ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or ‘FYROM’, out of concern that the country is usurping the cultural heritage of all historical Macedonia, including the Greek province of that name, and could even stake a territorial claim to Greek land. Many countries recognized the ‘Republic of Macedonia’ as such, including all of the former Yugoslav republics, China, the UK and the US. The EU was divided, with Greece and Cyprus blocking recognition.
The transition to a market economy resulted in lowered standards of living across Macedonia. Minorities have been especially affected, in part because rural areas neglected by the government, where most minorities live, felt the greatest blow, and in part due to ongoing discrimination against minorities. The Roma and Turkish communities have been most impacted, suffering widespread poverty, and lacking access to such basic necessities as health care and electricity.
A longstanding source of tension with neighbouring Greece since independence was the then Republic of Macedonia’s name. The Greek government argued that it represented appropriation of its own national culture and heritage, including its own province of the same name, and has consistently sought to oppose its membership of NATO until the issue was resolved. In February 2019, the country was formally renamed the Republic of North Macedonia. In March 2020, North Macedonia formally joined NATO.
The Constitution includes the principle of equality and prohibits discrimination, including on the grounds of race and ethnic origin. There is no comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. A 2005 law on labour relations prohibits discrimination in employment, including on the basis of race and religion. A Law on Religious Communities and Religious Groups is currently being revised, but the proposals are problematic as they include recognition of one religious community per religious confession. North Macedonia has ratified major international human rights treaties, including the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, and they take precedence over national legislation.
The Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended the armed conflict in 2001, provided for a range of legislative and policy measures to ensure equality and minority protection. As a result, constitutional changes were made and legislation introduced or amended. This package of decentralized power, gave official status to a minority language in areas where at least 20 per cent of the population speak it, adopted proportional representation, strengthened education in the Albanian language, and improved participation and employment of minority peoples in public life and state institutions. The Ohrid Framework Agreement led to the ‘double majority’ rule, meaning that any parliamentary decisions affecting the rights of communities or local self-government must be passed both by a majority of all MPs and a majority of the total number of votes by MPs from the minority community. At the municipal level, committees for inter-ethnic relations are being established in areas with more than 20 per cent minority population; if given a meaningful role, these could be an important mechanism for participation. A key problem with the Ohrid Framework Agreement is that it focuses on the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian communities, marginalizing smaller minority communities. Whilst comprehensive legislative changes have been made, implementation of the laws, policies and programmes has varied.
North Macedonia is a parliamentary democracy, with a single chamber parliament. Participation of minorities, particularly of ethnic Albanians, in parliament and in state institutions has improved since the Ohrid Framework Agreement. Since independence, the country has been governed by multi-ethnic coalitions, with two main Albanian parties split between the governing coalition and opposition. Political life is dominated by ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, leaving out smaller communities. An Inter-Community Relations Committee, made up of members of all ethnic groups, has been established and can make proposals to Parliament. The European Union (EU) is North Macedonia’s main trading partner and donor and has the most political leverage, as North Macedonia is a candidate country.
The education system has long been one of the major factors in the de facto segregation between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians due to the insistence of both communities that their children be taught in their first language and resistance to learning each other’s language.
The judiciary is influenced by political parties, especially through selection of judges. It further suffers from a judicial backlog, and difficulties with the enforcement of judgments.
Despite government pledges to fight it, corruption continues to be a serious problem in many areas of social, economic and political life. The problem includes such state institutions as the police. Increased participation of minorities in the police force and establishment of interethnic police units has made the service more effective, but complaints about ethnic bias of the police persist. A range of measures contained in the Ohrid Framework Agreement aiming to foster tolerance have largely not been implemented, and North Macedonian society remains highly segregated.
During its participation in the Decade for Roma Inclusion 2005 – 2015, the government adopted its first Strategy for Roma, which aimed to improve the quality of life of the Roma, reduce inequalities, expand service access and promote integration. Ten years later, in accordance with the EU’s Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies and preparation for the upcoming post-Decade period, the government adopted a new Strategy which focuses on five priority areas: education, health care, employment, housing and culture. At present, despite some progress in areas such as school enrolment, implementation of the strategy remains poor.
- Association for Democratic Initiatives (ADI) – Website
- Civil Society Resource Centre – Website
- European Centre for Minority issues Macedonia (ECMI) – Website
- European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) – Website
- Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of the Republic of Macedonia – Website
- Macedonian Information and Liaison Service – Website
- World Macedonian Congress – Website
- Roma Centre of Skopje
- Roma Humanitarian Association Sun – Website