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Macedonia: A Political Pact To Regulate Demography?

14 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The age-old issue of the relationship between politics and birthrates has reemerged in Macedonia. During a conference on recent demographic developments at the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts (MANU) in Skopje on 3 June, Ilija Aceski -- who is a professor for social sciences at Skopje university -- triggered a controversy over whether demographic trends can be regulated through political agreements.

Discussions about the possible negative impact of some demographic trends in modern societies are not confined to Macedonia. In some western European countries such as Germany, politicians face the problem that decreasing birthrates and aging societies will inevitably undermine the current state-regulated pension systems. Mainland China is well-known for its one-child policy to curb population growth.

'Problematic Developments'

But references to "problematic demographic developments" in Macedonia almost inevitably pertain to the fact that the country's 23 percent ethnic Albanian minority continues to grow due to a high birthrate, while the ethnic Macedonian majority's birthrate continues to decline (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 April, 17 October, and 12 December 2003).

Macedonian nationalists have -- just like their counterparts in neighboring Serbia -- long warned of demographic trends favoring the Albanians across the Balkans. In Serbia, it was the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) that played an important role in promoting this idea. With its 1986 memorandum on the alleged grievances of Serbs in Yugoslavia, the SANU facilitated Slobodan Milosevic's ascension to power, ultimately paving the way the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosova during the 1990s (see "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," 5 March, 30 April, and 14 May 2003).

Aceski's presentation in Skopje should be viewed against this backdrop; he reportedly worried aloud that ethnic Albanians would consolidate their majority in certain parts of the country and ethnic Macedonians would leave those areas.
In an editorial for the daily "Utrinski vesnik" of 11 June, Ivica Bocevski slammed the conference at the MANU as a "pseudo-scientific" event. Bocevski wrote that the MANU followed its Serbian counterpart's footsteps in promoting nationalist ideas.

In order to slow this trend, Aceski proposed that the government work out a "demographic agreement" to help curb such developments. The measures proposed by Aceski include tax relief and other state subsidies for families from those ethnic groups in the minority in areas with a different ethnic majority. According to Aceski, such measures would provide incentives for Macedonians to stay in the overwhelmingly Albanian-population parts in western Macedonia.

At the same time, Aceski also proposed that the state reduce its subsidies to families by cutting support for school costs, health care, and welfare benefits. Aceski apparently hoped that this would effectively reduce the incentives for families to raise more children than they can financially afford. (He did not mention that Albanians are generally known throughout the Balkans for having large families.)

Aceski's final aim is to avoid "ethnically clean" territories in Macedonia, which, in his view, could negatively affect the functioning of the state. That is why he called his proposed pact an "anti-segregationist" agreement. The document itself should be drafted by a state body that includes representatives from all ethnic groups in the country. It should be a "political answer to the low birth rate of Macedonians and the high birth rate of Albanians."

Skeptical Audience

Already during the conference at the MANU, Aceski's proposal was met with skepticism. Former Prime Minister Nikola Kljusev said the Macedonian government cannot introduce measures to regulate population growth like China, but should nevertheless consider defining a population policy.

Abdylmenaf Bexheti, who is a former chairman of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity and a professor at the private Southeast European University in Tetovo, said that such an agreement is not feasible. Bexheti argued that even the 2001 Ohrid peace agreement, which ended hostilities between ethnic Albanian insurgents and the Macedonian security forces -- has not yet been fully implemented.

But perhaps the most pointed criticism came from an ethnic Macedonian. In an editorial for the daily "Utrinski vesnik" of 11 June, Ivica Bocevski slammed the conference at the MANU as a "pseudo-scientific" event. Bocevski wrote that the MANU followed its Serbian counterpart's footsteps in promoting nationalist ideas. Instead of being a stronghold against "quasi-scientific" views, "we saw the MANU as the 'avant-garde of Macedonian nationalism,'" Bocevski wrote.

For him, the problem was not only Aceski's presentation but also the widespread and often uncritical media coverage of his proposal. Bocevski said that because of this publicity he was forced into a discussion by his friends but resolved the problem with a computer. By entering the current growth rates of the Albanian and Macedonian populations, he showed his friends that even if the Albanian population continued to grow at its current pace, it would be a matter of centuries rather than decades before Albanians were in the majority in Macedonia.

Nonetheless, given the widespread anti-Albanian feelings among ethnic Macedonians, Aceski's proposal rather than Bocevski's debunking is likely to attract more supporters among the majority population.