by Marija Djakova. Originally published on 2014/04/21

“We must become the change we want to see” – Mahatma Gandhi.

The year 1989 brought about a series of memorable changes that reshaped the world as it was known until then. The historical and political shifts that took place that year announced global changes that would alter the way entire countries functioned. An important event that marked the year 1989 is the fall of the Berlin Wall which was the symbol of division between the East and the West. Moreover, NATO noted substantial modifications at that time: the unofficial start of the globalization process took place and the United States were rapidly becoming the leading political and economical superpower. For this reason, 1989 is considered a turning point for many nations and generations.

Soon after 1989 the Yugoslav Federation fell apart, and it no longer consisted of six federal republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. We, the young people of the Balkans, grew up listening to our families talking about how life was in the past, when Yugoslavia was a very powerful country. People from the older generations describe it as a period of economic and political stability, where almost everyone had a job, a decent amount of income and the opportunity to travel abroad, given the fact that the passport was internationally recognized. Everybody was enjoying the benefits that came with the non-aligned politics of Yugoslavia.

A decade after the death of the then President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, the country’s internal political and economic situation deteriorated to the point of federal disintegration as Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. My country, Macedonia, following the other federation partners held a referendum concerning independence and since the majority of the population voted in favour, Macedonia declared its independence in 1991. Macedonia became a civil and democratic state whose Constitution is based on the separation of powers, i.e. juridical, legislative and executive one.

Shortly after though, Macedonia faced a period of both economic and political problems, which unfortunately are still present today. Initially, the Bulgarian government did not recognize the origin of the people in Macedonia claiming that they had Bulgarian ancestors, and Serbia did not recognize the independence of the Macedonian Church. The problem that received international attention, however, is the political conflict between our country and Greece, our southern neighbour, concerning our country’s name. Namely, the Greek government does not recognize neither our country’s name, nor our identity as Macedonians. In 1993 the Greek government imposed a trade embargo on our country. This was one of several factors that severely deteriorated the political situation between the two countries. As a consequence the government agreed to make changes both in the flag and the 1996 Constitution. Our experience today shows that this conflict presents us with the most difficult obstacle between Macedonia and integration in the European Union.

The external political conflicts and the difficult economic situation were not the only problems Macedonia was facing. The situation with the ethnic communities inside the country in terms of dissatisfaction concerning the recognition of their rights and liberties introduced a critical area of concern. The minority in question was the group of people with Albanian origin. The country’s stability was seriously jeopardized in 2001 with the start of the armed conflict between the Albanian militant groups (former members of the Kosovo paramilitary organization) and the Macedonian armed forces. After almost one year, the conflict ended with the signing of the Framework Agreement which granted the Albanian minority the special rights they demanded.

By signing this agreement and granting the special rights to the Albanian minority, Macedonia sent a strong message as a country that is maturing and becoming ready to be accepted and integrated in the European and NATO structures, as stated by official European representatives. In terms of demonstrating progress and advancement, Macedonia scored additional points by signing the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, which for us implied further substantial internal political and economic reforms. It will lead to EU membership once all the criteria are fulfilled.

Although fragile in the economic and financial context, Macedonia’s economy suffered additionally from the economic crisis. In short, there is a general dissatisfaction and disappointment among the people, regardless of the image the politicians are trying to promote of a rapidly developing country. With the country still being in this period of transition, a substantial part of the population faces basic existential problems and the situation does not seem to improve, even though we are a member of the UN for several years now. Even with their higher education, young people are unable to find a suitable job, which forces them to leave the country as students or employees abroad. Young people currently migrate in the Gulf countries or choose to work on a cruise ships. Unfortunately, it is really difficult to obtain a work permit in Europe, no matter how qualified one is.

To be honest, one recent event that increased my optimism for Macedonia’s future was the fall of the Schengen Wall, i.e. the visa liberalization. This event is regarded by many as a crucial step towards the development and stabilization of the region, and one which will allow especially the younger generations to travel to other countries and feel the European spirit and the benefits from the European culture. It is part of young people’s hopes to see Macedonia as part of the large European family, possibly implying a wealthier society.

However, we must admit that we need a general shift in the population’s mentality towards creating the belief that we can advance, improve and achieve a higher standard of living. I believe that one day, we can call ourselves worthy to be part of the European family, and be in a position to achieve our goals and fulfill our dreams. The Government and other institutions should collaborate with young people who want to contribute to the Macedonian society, in order to prevent brain drain. On the other hand, the EU should open its doors to talented individuals who want to live and make Europe a more prosperous place. Freedom of movement part of the European goals, wasn’t it?

So far, if there is anything that life has taught me, it is that we must be strong, determined and persistent if we want to achieve our dreams.

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