From Borders to European integration – Itineraries from yesterday to today

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Impressions on the Skopje seminar, 7th to 10th of February 2013

Dragoș Oprică

When I say “Balkans”, two words come to my mind: wonderful and intriguing!

These lands are home for great traditions, they host stunning landscapes and truly brave people! A unique yet homogeneous balkanic cuisine gathers centuries of resistance against the invaders that have left visible traces over the local culture.

Coming down to the people, this region cultures are so much alike because of the similar mentalities across this land. We are stubborn people and usually spiteful as well, which can trigger both good and bad consequences. One of the good outcomes is that we survived the trembled history we have had without being assimilated. However, as a drawback I could mention that even though we have so much in common, we still did not find a way to successfully cope together at times of peace, especially different cultures living inside the same borders.

After being under communist regimes for more than half a century, the Balkans are facing a new challenge: leaving behind the socialist heritage and catching up with the Western Europe while integrating within the EU community. Macedonia is one of the current candidate countries with a special integration agenda due to its unique situation. The seminar in Skopje brought up different aspects of this process and tried to find possible acting paths for outstanding issues in Macedonia.

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One of the most important external issues is the naming dispute, a singular case among the candidate states. As we all know, the neighbouring country Greece is claiming the name of “Macedonia” for one of its regions, located next to the border with the small ex-Yugoslavian country. While Macedonians are struggling to build their own identity worldwide, solving this issue is compulsory for the EU integration to which a good part of the citizens aim for.

Now looking internally, the biggest issue in my opinion is the conflict between the two largest ethnic groups of the state: the Macedonians and the Albanians. Macedonia was always a peaceful country, both during the Yugoslav Wars, in the early 90s, and during the Kosovo conflict in the late 90s. Moreover, wanting to help the fellow neighbours, Macedonians received a great number of ethnic Albanians, coming from Kosovo during the war. This has strongly destabilized the country, basically doubling the number of ethnic Albanians in the country who have never left after the war, contrary to what some sources say.

Before receiving the mass exodus of refugees, the Macedonians were living peacefully with the Albanians under the same borders. However, following the adoption of the refugees, strong conflicts started which involved even an armed dispute between the Government and some Albanian rebels. This happened mostly because the ethnic Albanians originating from Kosovo were asking for more rights in the adopting country.

IMG_7445 All in all, the conflict ceased and a peace agreement was signed in the local city of Ohrid. The document is, in my opinion, both beneficial and disadvantageous for the two parts. Of course, the good outcome is the peace and maybe some rights for the Albanians, but this is arguable as well, since the Macedonians say they have been rushed into signing the agreement, favoring the Albanians at the expense of everyone else.

On the other hand, I believe this agreement did not go far enough. Having ethnic school is a big division input and this agreement did not try to change that. The education system in Macedonia splits the elementary schools on ethnic principles, fact to which I strongly disagree as it makes the society and individuals want to divide further on as they grow up. Besides the mixed neighbourhoods, which are not very common either, people do not bind together with other ethnics. I believe that mixing pupils and having mixed schools with only different classrooms for different ethnics it is a far better option, since it will make kids bound stronger relationships with each other, regardless of the mother tongue.

There are of course other minorities, such as the Roma, the Turks, the Vlachs, the Serbs and other ethnics, who roughly reach a tenth of the population. Towards them, the Macedonians are tolerant but yet not completely inclusive I would dare to say. Some ethnics, such as the Roma and even the Turks still live in certain marginalized areas and are not completely blended with the Macedonians. The Roma especially live in very poor conditions, as they usually do throughout the Balkans. What I have noticed and admired in the Roma community living in Macedonia is that they are slightly more cooperative between them than in Romania. Most of this minority lives together in Skopje’s outskirts and fights for their wellbeing through International projects, as they get little attention from the Government. The Roma community has representatives who look after them and have their best interests in mind, in contrast with Romania, where the Roma representatives do not really help the community as much as they should.

IMG_7461Going to Macedonia also made me remember the fears that we had ourselves before the EU adherence. Being little-known countries in the European context, both Romania and Macedonia share some worries. The cultural identity is the biggest one, many citizens believing that an EU inclusion would mean a national heritage exclusion. Right before the adherence, I recall Romania rushing to register as original products a lot of our local cuisine and beverages. Nevertheless, even if one registers them, nobody can take away the right of somebody to produce a certain good. Only if you are the best at something you will get recognition for that in people’s minds. National identity preservation is a matter of personal choice and ambition of the nationals to perpetuate and make their culture wide known. Any fear is completely unjustified if you ask me, as after entering the EU, nobody obliged the Romanians to forget their traditions. That happened voluntary here, but this is another story!

A good outcome of the EU membership is that things will happen and change a lot faster in the Balkans! That is from the political way of speaking. The Balkans have always been very slow in taking decisions. But now EU is watching and urging some important measures to be taken wherever they are needed, actions that otherwise would drawl indefinitely. I am not saying this is always a good thing, but when it comes to infrastructure for instance, I prefer a highway finished in 5 years rather than 20! I hope it’s not just me!

To conclude, I believe that Macedonia’s shiniest days are yet to come and its beautiful people are essentially contributing to that! Meeting ambitious people in Skopje made me realize that the youngsters are actually preoccupied with the future of the country and they want to change things. Of course, in a rather closed Balkan society, as we all are, any change comes with challenges, yet nothing is impossible! All we need to do is involve ourselves in beneficial projects and keep fighting for our interests, like we have been doing for thousands of years!

 

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