Thursday, May 3, 2001

This week, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski will be in the United States to meet with President George W. Bush, members of Congress, and others. Given the danger of renewed conflict, we must grasp this opportunity to press for real change so Macedonia does not devolve into violence once again.

Macedonia has been a good friend of the United States and, in recent years, has cooperated in several regional initiatives important to our national security. Its support during Operation Allied Force, which ended former Yugoslav President Milosevic´s brutal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, was critical and will not soon be forgotten. Likewise, America and the West are rightfully concerned with Macedonia´s stability as it borders many countries of strategic significance.

However, our support for Macedonia should not mask the serious inequities of its society. In recent weeks, Macedonia has faced an uprising of several hundred Albanian militants. I believe that this use of violence is wrong, as was the recent killing of eight Macedonian security personnel. It has not helped to advance the cause of inter-ethnic relations in Macedonia. Nevertheless, the underlying reasons for the serious discontent within the Albanian community of Macedonia are not new and must be addressed if Macedonia is to make real progress as a multi-ethnic democracy.

Albanians have felt like second-class citizens of Macedonia since its independence in 1991. Their concerns are well-known. Language contained in the constitution saying that Macedonia is a state of Macedonians is understandably problematic in an ethnically diverse region. In addition, Albanians resent that their language is not officially recognized, legislative districts are drawn to minimize Albanian parliamentary representation, there is under-representation in public employment, and there is no publicly funded Albanian university.

It is important to emphasize, however, what the Albanians have not asked for. They do not want to change borders, nor do they want to create a “greater Albania.” They have not requested anything but full citizenship in a fairly-structured Macedonian society.

Since its independence, the West has considered stability in Macedonia to be of the highest importance. In fact, the United States has had troops deployed there for several years. While Macedonia´s borders should be secure, I am concerned that we have over-emphasized Macedonian stability so much that we have ignored the inter-ethnic strife bubbling beneath the surface. Our diplomats have never seriously pressed the Macedonians to create a more equal society, consistently claiming that we should not destabilize the shaky Macedonian coalition.

Shortly before winning his election in 1999, I met with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and was encouraged by his pledge that he would make eliminating discrimination against Macedonia´s Albanian citizens a priority. Because of such statements, Mr. Trajkovski received the support of the vast majority of Macedonia´s Albanian population and won the election as a result. Moreover, as a member of a religious minority, Mr. Trajkovski expressed a personal understanding of the problems facing ethnic Albanians. It is dismaying that since his election, steps taken to address the legitimate concerns of Albanians have been seriously inadequate and have not made Albanians “full partners.”

The recently-begun national dialogue is certainly the preferred course to resolve Macedonia´s problems. In addition, the Macedonian government made the right choice in postponing the national census. However, we must not have dialogue for dialogue´s sake.

During this week´s visit, Mr. Bush should urge the Macedonians to move expeditiously to address the concerns of Albanian citizens. Swift action will go a long way to bolstering the legitimate elected Albanian political leadership, weakening the militants, and rectifying the current crisis. If Albanian politicians are unable to demonstrate results soon, I fear that more will turn away from the political process, further destabilizing Macedonia.

Macedonia is an important friend and strategic partner of the United States. It is my strong desire that this relationship will continue in the future. However, such a relationship will prosper only if Macedonia commits itself to promoting fairness for all of its citizens and takes immediate steps to show Albanians that they are valued, equal members of society.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, is co-chairman of the Congressional Albanian Issues Caucus and is a member of the House Subcommittee on Europe.

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