Lake Ohrid. Photo: flickr/PetarS
Lake Ohrid. Photo: flickr/PetarS

The Ohrid Agreement and its implementation

The Ohrid Agreement, signed on 13 August 2001, ended Macedonia's armed conflict between Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces. A month after the agreement was signed, The Economist forecast:

"Any peace will be artificial. Having created a politically modified Macedonia, the West is going to have to police it – or leave it to fresh violence, not just between the two main communities, maybe, but between the moderates and hardliners of the Slavic one."

Six months later, the political scientist Alice Ackermann warned that "there is a succinct threat and fear that the peace accord already holds the seeds of another war."

There is little doubt that the conflict in Macedonia could have turned into a full-scale war, as had happened in other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the previous decade. Both sides had access to an ample supply of weapons: the ethnic Albanian rebels could rely on supplies from Kosovo; ethnic Macedonian leaders controlled the army and the police. In addition, according to The Economist, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski had distributed about 10,000 Kalashnikov rifles to civilians and police reservists in the spring of 2001. Leaders on both sides could have referred to a rich heritage of grievances, stereotypes and emotionally laden pieces of historical fabric to fuel violence. In addition, there were individuals from the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian population willing to escalate and to undermine the peace process. But it did not happen: the conflict was successfully contained. Fighting stopped after less than seven months, claiming fewer lives 250 lives.

The Ohrid Framework Agreement of 2001, as it is officially called, does not read like a classic peace accord. While the cessation of hostilities, disarmament of the Albanian rebels and a general amnesty were among its key provisions, most of the agreement concerned increased rights for the Albanian minority – rights that would require substantial changes in key state institutions.

When Radmila Sekerinska recalls her time as deputy prime minister for European integration from 2002 to 2006, the Ohrid Agreement played a big role in her work:

"I personally witnessed the change that has occurred in Macedonia from 2001 to 2003. A country which nobody expected to survive managed to show that with good policies, with more understanding, with better discussions, with more tolerance, peace can be restored and confidence can be rebuilt. I have always been a strong believer that the EU glue is the element of cohesion that countries like Macedonia desperately need, not only because of ethnic divides but also because of social divides. So, if there was one umbrella policy that could help us to change the country, it was definitely the prospect of EU membership."

Several key individuals in the government, particularly president Boris Trajkovski, shared that vision. But it proved to be a significant challenge, first to convince the domestic audience, media and voters, and second to convince the EU, as Sekerinksa experienced personally:

"The European Commission has been a valuable partner, but they have also been sceptical. I remember the first meeting in Brussels just few days after the election of the new government. I had just talked to the commission representatives, the director for enlargement, and I remember that he made a comment afterwards to our journalists saying: ‘Well, she said the right things, she promised the right goals, but then when I look at the list of the things that Macedonia needs to achieve, it's mission impossible. So, we'll see if she can actually deliver, if the government can deliver what they have promised.'"

Sekerinska understood that, regardless of the many requirements set out by the EU, the Ohrid Agreement in particular would serve as a crucial indicator of progress. While implementation of the agreement, which called for equitable representation of all national groups in the state administration, was difficult for Macedonia, Sekerinska also saw it as an opportunity.

"When politicians and experts read the Ohrid agreement, they said: ‘Oh my God, this would be difficult to implement even in a richer, stronger and more mature country. And it is difficult to do it in few years.' So they said: ‘Ok, if you do at least this, then you'll show that Macedonia can actually progress in the future.' And we took it for granted and we said: ‘OK, if it's the Ohrid Agreement [that counts] then so be it.' We were aware that Macedonia would not be a perfect candidate country in a few years, but the Ohrid Agreement was the big argument in our favour because it became clear in 2005 that Macedonia has implemented the most difficult parts of the Ohrid Agreement against all odds and against all predictions."

However, progress on the path to EU integration did not come easy. Sekerinska was surprised by the reaction of some member states to Skopje's plan to apply for EU membership.

"We had a few delegations from Berlin and from Paris sending a very clear message: we think it's too early, and if you do it, it will be your risk. It wasn't nice wording. It was very direct. And I cannot say it didn't frighten us. We've had several meetings afterwards, the small cabinet and president Trajkovski: are we on the right track? Can we afford to go against the mainstream European tide? It was a huge dilemma …

We sat down and we said, look: if we can implement the basic part of the Ohrid Agreement by 2005, we have a wild card. And we'll go to the same people who thought that this is impossible and we will tell them that yes, in the Balkans a multiethnic country with a conflict history can dramatically change into a normal European place and this is what should earn us candidate status."

They played it well. The implementation of the measures of the Ohrid Agreement make for impressive reading.

Cessation of hostilities, amnesty and disarmament: NATO's operation "Essential Harvest" collected 3,875 voluntarily delivered weapons, including two tanks and two transporters, 17 air defence systems, 483 machine guns and 161 mortars.[1] All National Liberation Army (NLA) fighters were granted amnesty. The number of violent incidents, still high in the weeks after the agreement was signed, declined dramatically. Macedonia has now been peaceful for more than a decade.

Decentralisation: The competencies of municipalities, which hitherto had been very restricted, were considerably extended, as were their financial resources. Major new municipal responsibilities included the establishment, financing and administration of primary and secondary schools; the execution of social welfare and child protection activities; local economic development; culture and sports. Competencies for urban planning, environmental protection and health care were enhanced. The number of municipalities was reduced to 84, largely rectifying previous alterations, which ethnic Albanians had perceived as gerrymandering. (In 1996 the number had expanded from 34 to 123, cutting off Albanian-inhabited rural hinterlands from urban centres.) A referendum instigated by opponents of these new municipal boundaries in 2004 failed due to a low turnout of only 26 per cent. While smaller municipalities in particular still struggle with the implementation and financing of the new competencies, the new laws have addressed the long-standing concerns of the Albanian community, which now has considerably more freedom in organising its affairs.

Equitable representation of minorities in state institutions: Within only two years, from December 2002 to December 2004, the number of Albanian staff paid from the state budget increased from 8,164 to 10,294, representing a rise from 11.65 to 14.54 per cent. The share of ethnic Macedonians decreased from 83.27 to 80.31 per cent over the same period.[2] Increasing Albanian participation in the police and the armed forces was particularly difficult and sensitive. Nevertheless, the number of ethnic Albanians in the police force increased from 350 in 2001 to 1,659 in 2004, a rise from 3.6 to 13.31 per cent of the total, while the share of ethnic Macedonians declined from 92 to 82 per cent.[3] The number of Albanians in the Macedonian army, subject to additional pressure to reform by aspirations for NATO membership, rose from 129 in 2001 to 796 in 2004, that is, from 2.25 to 10.18 per cent of the total staff.[4]

In Kicevo we found that the number of Albanians employed in the state administration had considerably increased. While in 2002 Albanians held only three leading positions in the Kicevo area, by 2005 they held 20 (including the director of the hospital, the director of the biggest primary school, two police station commanders and the heads of six branch offices of government ministries). The number of Albanian policemen had virtually doubled to 85 (out of a total of around 350). Similarly, the number of Albanian staff in schools and the hospital had increased considerably. These changes were representative of statewide developments: by December 2009, the overall number of civil servants from the non-majority ethnic communities in Macedonia had reached 29 per cent (p. 21).

Parliamentary safeguards: The Ohrid Agreement provides for a double-majority principle in the Parliament on issues that affect minorities (the so-called "Badinter majority"), such as laws relating to culture, language, education, personal documentation and the use of national symbols. This principle requires that whenever such laws are put to a vote, there should be both a majority of all MPs and a majority of all minority MPs. An Inter-Community Relations Committee has been set up to address any disputes regarding these issues. The agreement also grants minorities the power of veto over the election of one-third of the Constitutional Court judges, three of the seven members of the Judicial Council and the Ombudsman.

University education: A new South East European University, operating in Albanian, Macedonian and English, was officially inaugurated on 20 November 2001 in Tetovo. In addition, a new law adopted on 20 January 2004 recognized the formerly illegal Albanian University of Tetovo. The number of Albanians enrolled in recognised institutions of tertiary education increased from 2,285 in 2000/01 to 9,540 in 2004/05. The respective share in the total number of students increased from 5.7 per cent to 15.5 per cent.[5]

Language use and symbols: Under the Ohrid Agreement Macedonian remains the country's official language, but any other language spoken by at least twenty per cent of the population has been declared an official language that can be used for personal documents, civil and criminal proceedings, by municipal institutions and in communication between citizens and the central government. Albanian MPs can also use Albanian in the Parliament. A law passed in 2005 allows for the Albanian flag to be flown on public buildings in municipalities with an Albanian majority. According to a constitutional court ruling in 2007, the Albanian flag can only be flown on certain holidays, but this has been largely ignored, both by Albanian mayors (who still fly the Albanian flag on a daily basis) and by central government institutions (who tolerate it).

The level of implementation of the Ohrid Agreement was one of the key reasons why France and other sceptics eventually agreed to grant Macedonia membership status at the end of 2005, only four years after the conflict had ended.

Importantly, those who had previously taken up arms also acknowledge the successful implementation of the agreement. Speaking on the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Ohrid Agreement, former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti said:

"I think the greatest triumph for the Macedonian and Albanian nations is that with [the] Ohrid agreement all feel Macedonia as their state and loyal to it. I think matters are going properly and much good work has been done."[6]

Nikola Gruevski, the current prime minister and in a coalition with Ahmeti's party, told ESI already in 2008:

"This agreement was a compromise. The other side also was not satisfied. They had asked for a lot more to be done. The Macedonian side was not fully satisfied. But when you sign, it is signed and you have to implement it. And now we are implementing this."

Javier Solana sums it up very well when – asked in an interview to look back at 2001 – he said:

"In 2001, we were talking about being at the brink of a catastrophe; and now, in 2008, we are talking about being a candidate for the European Union. This is a great success."


[1] Jovanovski V. and L Dulovi, "A new battlefield: The struggle to ratify the Ohrid Agreement", in Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Ohrid and Beyond: A Cross-ethnic Investigation into the Macedonian Crisis, IWPR, 2002, pp. 59-72, p. 68.

[2] Republic of Macedonia, "Answers to the EC questionnaire – Political criteria", Skopje, 14 February 2005, p. 396.

[3] Republic of Macedonia, "Answers to the EC questionnaire – Political criteria", Skopje, 14 February 2005, pp. 403f.

[4] Republic of Macedonia, "Answers to the EC questionnaire – Political criteria", Skopje, 14 February 2005, pp. 406f.

[5] Republic of Macedonia, "Answers to the EC questionnaire – Political criteria", Skopje, 14 February 2005, p. 402.

[6] Alsat, "DUI leader Ahmeti says Ohrid agreement toward implementation", 14 August 2008, available at, accessed 29 October 2010.