Soccer Brings Hope to a Divided Nation

Macedonia scores against England
This goal may have done more for Macedonian-Albanian relations than years of efforts.

The temperature in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, climbs into the 100s in the summer months. It is not until evening that the city comes to life. People stroll along the banks of the Vardar River and drink beer in the restaurants. Nothing seems to suggest that two years ago this country was tormented by seven long months of conflict between its security forces and Albanian guerrillas.

A huge cross, which the ruling nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) erected on a nearby hill before last year’s election, looks down at the city. The cross is a national symbol of the Orthodox Christian Macedonians, as opposed to the mostly Muslim Albanians.

Nevertheless, this gesture did nothing for the right-wing party. Voters who were tired of corruption scandals and the conflict decided to favor change. The election was won by the post-communist SDSM (Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia), headed by Branko Crvenkovski.

The peace in Macedonia was negotiated by an agreement signed two years ago in the resort town of Ohrid by the four most important political organizations. VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM, together with the parties protecting the interests of Albanians, PDP (Party for Democratic Prosperity) and DPA (Democratic Party of Albanians), committed to undertake reforms for the benefit of Albanians, who make up roughly a third of the country’s 2 million inhabitants. Among other things, there was an agreement to decentralize the government and introduce Albanian as a second official language in regions where Albanians represent more than 20 percent of the population. Parliament approved a change in the constitution, and specific laws are gradually being passed. Albanians have the legal right to a university-level education in their own language. Basically, Macedonia has embarked on a change from a unitary nation state to a dual-nation state. Not everyone is satisfied with such a solution, however.

Along the road from Skopje to Struga, which intersects the western part of the country, there are many unfinished family houses with Albanian flags streaming from their flagpoles. The letters UCK [Ushtria Clirimtare Kombetare—National Liberation Army], an acronym used by the former Albanian guerrillas, can occasionally be found on their walls.

Local Macedonians are troubled by it. “In Tetovo, we can hear gunfire every night; Albanians are settling their disputes among themselves,” says 26-year-old Jovana Georgievska. “In Lesok, not far from Tetovo, Albanians set my father’s house on fire two years ago, and they also damaged my grandmother’s dwelling. We have already made repairs to it so she can live there now. From time to time, though, someone knocks her windows out. This way the Albanians are showing us that it is their territory.” Georgievska fears that the conflict has not been solved by the Ohrid agreement. In fact, she believes it is only the first step and thinks that the demands of Albanians are going to escalate now.

Many Macedonians living in the western part of the country decided to sell their houses and move outside the “Albanian territory.” Observers therefore worry that the situation will be reversed in several years.

“An agreement similar to Ohrid will be necessary to improve the rights of Macedonians living in places where they will remain a significant minority,” argues Angel Apostolov of the Institute of Sociology in Sofia, who has studied the neighboring country for many years. “Albanians, whose birth rate is the highest in Europe, do not, for the most part, move farther inland from the territories that belonged to so-called Greater Albania during World War II,” adds Apostolov.

Ljubco Georgievski, the former prime minister and the leader of VMRO-DPMNE until the end of May, published several emotional articles in the daily Dnevnik this spring. He suggested changing the current borders and separating Albanians from Macedonians—specifically by exchanging population and territories in such a way that ethnically pure states would be created. Georgievski called for the ethnic protection of Kumanovo, Skopje, Kicevo, and Struga, cities where Albanians and Macedonians have coexisted in a balanced way.

On the contrary, the coalition partners in the current government, also consisting of Albanian representatives, agreed in the spring to continue with the Ohrid process. Even the most disputed issues—the dual-language texts in passports and the usage of the Albanian language in Parliament—have been solved.

Today’s Macedonia is characterized by an unemployment rate that reaches 40 percent, according to official statistics, as well as poverty, distrust between Albanians and Macedonians, creeping segregation of both communities, and uncertainty regarding the country’s future. Nevertheless, good news appears from time to time—for instance, from soccer stadiums. Tens of thousands of fans took to the streets of Skopje last fall to celebrate after Macedonia’s stunning 2-2 draw against England in the qualifying game for the European Soccer Championship. President Boris Trajkovski called the result the greatest sports event in the history of the country and sent a letter of congratulations to the soccer players.

And who became the public’s favorite? It was Artim Sakiri, an Albanian soccer player, who scored straight from a corner kick in the game. Maciej Kaczorowski from Poland, who has been living in Macedonia for several years and works in Skopje for the Euro-Balkan Institute, a nongovernmental organization, believes that Sakiri has achieved more for mutual coexistence of Albanians and Macedonians with this goal than all the projects and nongovernmental organizations combined. A rematch with England is going to take place in Skopje in September.