Former parliament member Mersel Biljali co-founded the Citizens for European Macedonia initiative and now writes a column for Dnevnik. He spoke to SETimes about interethnic relations, the Macedonia name issue and the road ahead.
By Marina Stojanovska for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 08/06/09
Progress made since 2001 is being reversed, argues former MP Mersel Biljali. [Tomislav Georgiev]
Southeast European Times: Where do you think the interethnic climate in Macedonia is heading?
Mersel Biljali: Ethnic relations are heading in a poor direction. I think there is a trend of losing trust in the government among Albanians, which was demonstrated during the presidential elections when the largest part of the Albanian public boycotted the vote. A feeling has developed among the Albanians that the government favours one ethnic, one cultural and one religious group.
This is not good, given that after the events in 2001, there was a dynamic period in the settlement of ethnic problems. It brought increased ethnic trust and shared stability, which resulted in EU candidate status for Macedonia.
If you have a feeling that only one ethnic community is favoured, it is normal that discontent will emerge among the others, and this will eventually harm the interests of everyone in the state. We are going backward instead of forward, especially with the so-called "antiquisation" -- that is, the process of renaming the airport and main highway after Alexander the Great, and the plan to place a grandiose monument on the public square. It is a bad practise, as history has shown multiple times.
SETimes: Gostivar Mayor Rufi Osmani and DPA leader Menduh Tachi say that the Ohrid Agreement is no longer functioning and that there is a need for a new agreement between the Albanians and Macedonians. What are your thoughts?
Biljali: I think this opinion arises from the feelings of neglect among the Albanians … It is as though we are going back to an old film in which the Albanians were always dissatisfied, asking for something, and the Macedonians had to give them what they want. Instead of going ahead, we are moving backwards. And there is one more thing: the situation is polarising among the Albanian parties as well. While the Gostivar mayor and the DPA leader say that Macedonia needs a new agreement, the ruling DUI says the Ohrid Agreement is the right framework for developing the state. It is normal for it to say that, because this party is responsible for the Agreement. I think this [political] game is very dangerous.
SETimes: How do you think the ongoing name dispute is affecting the relationship among NATO, the EU and Macedonia? What about the Albanian parties' call for a quick solution?
Ethnic Albanians place more importance on EU and NATO membership than on the Macedonia name issue. [Getty Images]
Biljali: The Albanian parties clearly and publicly showed their understanding with regard to the name issue. But this problem has continued for a long time. Following the Bucharest Summit, we have a changed situation, in which we went from being a regional leader to being shut out of NATO membership -- in contrast to Albania and Croatia.
Now there are two diametrically opposed groups in this state. One is the Albanian community, which asks for NATO and EU membership regardless of the price, and another are the Macedonians, for whom NATO and EU membership is important, but not as important as the name of the state. I think that among Albanians, the prevalent view is that the government lacks the will to resolve this problem.
SETimes: Do you expect the name dispute negotiations to intensify now that Gjorge Ivanov is in office and the European Parliament elections in Greece are over?
Bilajli: We are witness to great international pressure for the resolution of this issue. The government has the objective task of solving all issues, especially with the election of the new president ... Time is no longer our ally -- there is a need for clever and brave decisions. I think that the negotiations can intensify now, but the prime minister still has the main word. I'm not certain he wants a solution.
SETimes: The announcement that the church in the middle of Skopje will be rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 1962 earthquake has prompted calls to also rebuild the Burmali Mosque. How will this affect our multiethnic society?
Biljali: It is certain this situation will not have a positive influence, but rather will polarise things further, as has already been seen in some ways. See, in a multiethnic society you have to be very careful when you announce renovations, especially of religious buildings, because you can't favour only one ethnic group.
In this case there are two different opinions. The first -- representing, I believe, the majority of Albanians and other non-Orthodox citizens, as well as many among the Orthodox as well -- is that there is no need for any religious building in the centre of Skopje. The second comes from supporters of the Burmali Mosque, who follow the logic of "let them build the church, because then we'll build the mosque". Building only one of the aforementioned sites could have a big impact.
SETimes: You helped initiate the Citizens for European Macedonia, and you speak around the country about the meaning of the EU and NATO. How much do you think Macedonian citizens know about NATO and the EU?
Biljali: They know a lot, and they are supporting this process -- as has been shown in all the polls so far. However, I think that the populist politics of this government creates some confusion, [suggesting] Macedonia can exist without NATO and the EU. I think time will show that it isn't so.