Human Rights Developments
In 1999, Macedonia was overwhelmed by the rapid influx of Kosovar Albanians who were forced to flee abuses committed by Serbian and Yugoslav forces during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. At its peak in May, more than 250,000 refugees were in the tiny country of two million people, posing a serious challange to Macedonia's stability.
Despite promises, the international community was slow to provide the Macedonian government with the help it needed to deal with the crisis. NATO and the U.N. were clearly not prepared to deal with the large number of refugees.
The Macedonian government often violated its obligations under international law to provide refuge and fair treatment for those fleeing well documented persecution and abuse. The government closed the border to refugees on a number of occasions, forcing thousands of ethnic Albanians back into Kosovo and leaving thousands of others stranded for days at the border in appalling conditions. Incidents of physical abuse of Kosovar Albanian and Roma refugees in Macedonia, restrictions on their freedom of movement, and inadequacies in their registration as refugees were all serious problems throughout the crisis.
From the moment the first refugees arrived in late March, the Macedonian government understandably demanded rapid assistance from the international community, as well as promises that refugees in Macedonia would be relocated to third countries. There was considerable fear in the government, overwhelmed by the crisis, and the general population that the influx of Kosovar Albanians would tilt the already fragile inter-ethnic balance in the country and endanger Macedonia's stability. Such concerns, however valid, did not justify closing the border to those fleeing legitimate persecution. Refoulement is strictly forbidden by the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Macedonia is a signatory.
By early April, as many as 65,000 refugees were trapped in Blace, a "no-mans land" between the borders of Kosovo and Macedonia, waiting to enter Macedonia. Traumatized refugees were held in alarming conditions, with no shelter and little humanitarian relief or medical assistance. International aid agencies were granted restricted access to the area.
In the late night of April 3, most of the refugees in this area were forcibly cleared by the Macedonian authorities without advance notice. Refugees were provided no information about where they were being taken and did not give their consent to be moved. International aid workers were apparently not informed about plans to transfer the refugees and were not present during the relocation. Thousands of refugees were transported to Albania. In many cases, family groups were forcibly divided, and some of them ended up in different countries, without proper records to facilitate their reunification. Other refugees were transported to camps inside Macedonia that had been built by NATO.
Refugees reported cases of harassment, intimidation, and violence during their stay in the Macedonian camps. Armed Macedonian police officers guarded some of the camps and occasionally abused the refugees. Movement outside some of the camps was restricted.
Problems remained even after most refugees had returned to Kosovo in June. In September, the Macedonian government temporarily denied entry into the country for approximately 450 Roma from Kosovo, who were fleeing revenge harassment and attacks by ethnic Albanians. Many Kosovar Albanians view Roma in Kosovo as having been willing collaborators with the Serbian government.
Aside from the treatment of refugees, an important human rights issue continued to be the government's treatment of non-ethnic Macedonian citizens, especially ethnic Albanians, who make up at least 25 percent of the population. As in previous years, Albanians, Roma, Turks, Serbs, Macedonian Muslims, Bulgarians and Vlachs were underrepresented in state institutions, although there were some improvements in this regard during the year. The government allowed the controversial private ethnic Albanian university in Tetovo to operate without interference, but continued not to recognize the school's diplomas.
The new government elected in October 1998, made up of the formerly opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), Democratic Alternative, and Democratic Party of Albanians, did initiate some improvements during the year, such as an effort to include Albanian as an official language and more willingness to discuss the use of minority languages in university education.
After initially refusing, President Kiro Gligorov signed an Amnesty Law on February 6 that released approximately 900 prisoners, including the ethnic Albanian mayors of Tetovo and Gostivar, Alajdin Demiri and Rufi Osmani respectively. Both men were convicted in 1997 for raising Albanian state flags in front of their town halls in violation of a constitutional court ruling, prompting riots with police in which three ethnic Albanians were killed and many others were wounded, including nine police. Demiri and Osmani's trials failed to meet international standards of due process.
State discrimination against the country's sizable Roma population continued as in previous years. In addition to some cases of police abuse, Roma experienced prejudicial treatment in education and employment. A government working group was established to discuss possible revisions to Macedonia's 1996 citizenship law that denied citizenship to many Roma who have lived in Macedonia for extended periods, but the law remained unchanged.
On July 8, the government lifted a fifty-year ban on books in the Bulgarian language. The issue of language has been a long-standing point of contention between Macedonia and Bulgaria, since Bulgaria claims that Macedonian is just a dialect of Bulgarian. Some books from Albania had also been confiscated under this law in previous years.
A number of human rights issues crossed ethnic lines and affected all of Macedonia's citizens. As in previous years, police abuse continued to be a problem, although there were fewer reports of police using excessive force. Police still engaged in the illegal behavior of conducting "informative talks"-summoning a person to the police for questioning-and suspects were sometimes held for more than the twenty-four hours allowed by law. There continued to be corruption in the courts, and victims of abuse rarely obtained redress through the legal system.
In December 1998, the Constitutional Court struck down several disputed articles of Macedonia's 1997 Law on Religious Communities and Groups, including the ban on "religious work and rituals" by unregistered groups. Some articles remained controversial, such as the need for a permit to hold religious events in public. The Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox Churches continued to refuse to recognize one another, and the Macedonian government occasionally denied Serbian priests entry into the country.
Freedom of the press was generally respected in 1999, as many private radio and television stations and printed media operated throughout the country. In December 1998, the car of Simeon Marjanov, owner and manager of TV Iris in Stip, was destroyed by fire. Marjanov claimed that he had received phone threats prior to the attack, although the perpetrators and their motivations remained unclear. In January, a Macedonian state radio commentator, Gorica Popova, was demoted after expressing her personal view about the stay of several foreign guests who were invited by the Macedonian government to honor a controversial inter-war hero.
Defending Human Rights
Human rights groups, such as the Macedonian Helsinki Committee, reported no government restrictions on their work in 1999. Many foreign human rights organizations, governmental and non-governmental, were active in Macedonia between March and June, interviewing Kosovar Albanian refugees about war crimes in Kosovo.
The Role of the International Community
After Macedonia's recognition of Taiwan in January, the Chinese government exercised its Security Council veto on the extension of the U.N. presence in Macedonia. On February 28, the mandate of the United Nations Preventive Deployment Mission in Macedonia (UNPREDEP) came to an end.
Beginning in March, however, the U.N. was once again very active in Macedonia, with UNHCR struggling to deal with the large-scale influx of Kosovar Albanian refugees. UNHCR's response was initially slow and poorly coordinated since the organization was unprepared for such a large and sudden exodus. In addition, it did not take a strong enough stance against the Macedonian government on protection issues, particularly when refugees were being denied entry into the country. The emergency response improved within a few weeks, but was difficultto coordinate due to the participation of NATO and the rapid proliferation of nongovernmental organizations. As of October, UNHCR was conducting an independent review of its emergency response in both Macedonia and Albania.
In May, the U.N. Committee Against Torture reviewed Macedonia's periodic report, noting that Macedonia should adopt a specific crime of torture into its domestic laws. The U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was active in Macedonia between March and June collecting information about war crimes in Kosovo.
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
The OSCE maintained a small permanent presence in Macedonia, known as the Spillover Monitor Mission to Skopje, which observed internal and external threats to the country's stability. During the NATO bombing against Yugoslavia, a large OSCE team was in the country to help register refugees and take statements on human rights abuses committed in Kosovo.
The OSCE high commissioner on national minorities continued his work in Macedonia with an ongoing emphasis on higher education for ethnic minorities. He visited the country in May during the refugee crisis and called on the international community to provide immediate assistance in order to avoid further destablization.
OSCE monitors observed the October/November 1998 parliamentary elections and the presidential elections on October 31, 1999, both of which were considered free and fair.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
Macedonia was a crucial base of operations for NATO during its air campaign in Yugoslavia, although offensives were never launched from the country. As of October, 7,000 NATO forces, members of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), were still in the country providing logistical support to the mission in Kosovo. NATO stated that it would respond to any attempts by Yugoslavia to threaten Macedonia's security. Relations soured slightly on August 28, when a KFOR truck accidentally hit and killed a minister in the Macedonian government, Radovan Stojkovski, along with his wife and young daughter.
During the Kosovo refugee crisis, NATO provided much needed transportation supplies, logistical support, and assistance to set up refugee camps in the country, which were later turned over to UNHCR and non-governmental relief organizations.
In its six-month assessment of Macedonia's compliance with the criteria of the E.U.'s "Regional Approach" to relations with the Balkan states, the European Commission described Macedonia's performance as "exemplary." Citing Macedonia's cooperation with NATO, as well as human rights improvements, the E.U. determined to work on upgrading its relations with Macedonia by negotiating a Stability and Association Agreement to establish closer economic and political ties.
Council of Europe
Macedonia remained subject to the Parliamentary Assembly's monitoring procedure, with a debate on the rapporteur's report expected in January 2000. In May, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) published its first report on Macedonia, noting improvements in the representation of ethnic Albanians in public life, but continued tension between Macedonians and Albanians, as well as discrimination against Roma. ECRI also cited a need "to keep the Law on Citizenship under review," with special regard to naturalization and fair implementation of the law. There must be monitoring, the report said, "to ensure that criminal and administrative law is applied impartially and implemented in a non-discriminatory manner."
As in previous years, the United States maintained close relations with the Macedonian government, even though three new political parties were in power. Mutual concerns centered on the Kosovo crisis and Macedonia's role in the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, which made the U.S. government hesitant to criticize the Macedonian government's human rights record, especially the unlawful treatment of Kosovar Albanian refugees.
In September, the U.S. State Department issued its first annual report on freedom of religion, which highlighted some problems with Macedonia's Law on Religious Communities and Groups (see above) and the ongoing restrictions against the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The U.S. government gave an estimated $34.5 million in assistance to Macedonia in 1999, more than half of it for military training or equipment. Another $9 million was provided for economic reform.