Radmila Sekerinska was until recently the leader of Macedonia's main opposition party, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM). She was the first woman to lead a major political party, but resigned after a clear electoral defeat in the early parliamentary elections of June 2008.
When the first signs of a direct conflict between Albanian rebels and Macedonia's security forces appeared in January 2001, Sekerinska was a member of the parliamentary opposition. She was only 29 years old.
"I was afraid of what was going on in Macedonia: this surge of nationalism, hostilities, and extreme populism. We said we were the country of our citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. Macedonia was the only country of the former Yugoslavia which had actually ensured primary and secondary education in all minority languages. Albanian was already an official language at the local level. We thought that just by being the first we would end all the hostilities, buy more time, and solve some of the problems in the future."
She recalls the reaction among the Macedonian population when violent confrontation erupted.
"You would presume that there would have been panic but actually there was not, because there was this feeling that somehow problems would disappear, that they would last for a week and that they were far away. And I have compared this attitude among the majority of Macedonian citizens with the events in, I don't know, Croatia and Bosnia, and I actually saw that this is a typical pattern: people adjust to the conflict and think that somehow it will not affect their daily lives. We thought, 'Oh, this is just the neighbourhood of Kosovo,' and this is why the problems have erupted.
When it (the conflict) moved to Tetovo, which is 40 km from Skopje, we thought that somehow the conflict was still contained, that there were problems, there was shooting… but that it would go away. It moved closer and closer to Skopje. It was in Arachinovo, which is halfway between Skopje and the Airport, and people were still leaving on vacation to Greece or to Ohrid. I think it was pretty dangerous, because it made everyone numb."
While tensions continued and Arachinovo was being bombed, the parties were already negotiating in secret.
"Everyone wanted to see the hostilities end, but no one was prepared to pay the political price for this. Politicians could stick to the line that ‘We are not negotiating with the insurgents or the terrorists or the fighters’. Some people thought that just by sitting down and negotiating – four political parties and the president – we were already committing treason."
The negotiations preceding the Ohrid Agreement lasted until August 2001. After the all-party coalition government set-up during the crisis fell apart, the Social Democrats won the autumn 2002 elections – and were thus left with the task of implementing the Agreement, criticised by many Macedonians.
"People said, ‘Look, all of these things in the Ohrid agreement are not supposed to be rejected – but did we have to negotiate them under the threat of arms? Maybe we would have reached the same decisions anyway, even without the casualties?’ That is a very strong feeling among ethnic Macedonians – that they were pressured into accepting a deal that was not fair."
As deputy Prime Minster responsible for European Integration, Sekerinska oversaw important progress on Macedonia's path towards EU accession. Under Sekerinska, Macedonia applied for membership and – in December 2005 – was awarded official EU candidate status by the European Council. In doing so, Macedonia showed that it was ahead of many of its neighbours. Sekerinska declared:
"Macedonia is a living example of what can happen: If you deliver, there is progress… If you area complicated ethnic mix, it does not mean you are doomed to conflict." (IHT 2005)