The New Stories Issue:

gorjan ivanovski macedonia.jpg

Making Peace In Macedonia

Stories of war and violence are told and retold; but here, the Search for Common Ground tells a very different story.

Apr 1, 2000

Last spring, for a few brief months, the world focused on Macedonia. Thousands of international journalists poured into this tiny, ethnically divided country, not because of conflicts that began there, but because of events that spilled over from neighboring Kosovo.

The story was Kosovar refugees, 350,000 of them, fleeing violent ethnic cleansing. Reporters had little interest in Macedonia, a country that, despite many of the same problems as its neighbors, remained relatively calm.

But in the long run, for all our sakes, the story of Macedonia and how it avoided violence is the story that must be told.

Macedonia suffers from many of the same ethnic, social, and political problems as other war-torn Balkan nations. With a population of only 2.2 million, the country is divided into ethnic Macedonians (66 percent), Albanians (23 percent), Turks (4 percent), Roma, or Gypsies (under 2 percent), Serbs (under 2 percent), and Vlachs (under 2 percent). Few people in these segregated communities interact with members of other groups. Schools, the media, and everyday life are defined by one’s ethno-linguistic group.

 How, given this enormous potential for ethnic conflict, has Macedonia avoided all but sporadic violence? For a country to deal successfully with its differences, it must establish a system in which negotiated settlements predominate and disputing parties recognize that their interests are better served through collaboration than through violence. Ultimately, the idea is to transform an adversarial culture to a culture of peace.

In Macedonia, both the international community and the Macedonians themselves have made some progress in establishing such a system. While more could have been done, preventive measures have included a full range of official and unofficial initiatives from the diplomatic, economic, social, military, psychological, and conflict-resolution domains.

Domestic political will

Macedonia is governed by a coalition of two seemingly irreconcilable parties: one ultra-nationalist and Macedonian, the other Albanian. Although this coalition government has done little to resolve the primary grievances, it has managed to avoid provoking violence — a boast that neighboring governments cannot make. It has shown its greatest restraint in response to the horrible violence and destruction in nearby Bosnia and then in Kosovo. Macedonians of all ethnic groups, regardless of their mutual mistrust, recognize that everyone will suffer if their country follows the same path as their neighbors.

International presence

In 1993, 1,000 United Nations soldiers, including an American battalion, began patrolling Macedonia’s borders with Kosovo and Albania. These blue-helmeted troops had no real military role, but their presence indicated a commitment from the international community and helped keep things calm. 

Then in 1999, a new Macedonian government recognized Taiwan in return for promises of a billion dollars in aid. Beijing reacted by vetoing a UN Security Council resolution to continue the presence of UN forces. The UN troops left, and were immediately replaced by NATO soldiers who used the country as a base for peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo. Once the air war began, many ethnic Macedonians, who have close family and other ties with Serbia, felt powerless and abused. Adding economic insult to political injury, the NATO powers wrecked the economy by imposing a trade embargo on Serbia, Macedonia’s principal trading partner. Though the US and the European Union promised massive amounts of compensating aid, little has yet been provided. Resentment runs high, but there is little Macedonia can do about it. 


Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have provided a wide array of technical, humanitarian, and development assistance, and this is where our organization fits into the story. 

We at the Search for Common Ground specialize in conflict prevention and resolution. With funding from the Swiss, US, Dutch, and British governments and UNESCO, we work to strengthen Macedonia’s immune system against potential violence. Our basic strategy, as articulated at one of our workshops by Andrew Masondo, a South African military leader, is Understand the differences; act on the commonalities.

Although the tools of conflict prevention can be applied unilaterally by NGOs, international organizations, and governments, our experience shows that prevention is most effective when all work in concert. Some mechanisms for conflict prevention– for example, those that include benign involvement in a country’s internal affairs or result in back-channel talks — are often best left to NGOs. At the same time, only governments can make peace. We are also convinced that applying several tools at the same time increases their overall effectiveness. 

Breaking down media ghettos

In Macedonia, each ethnic group has its own media in its own language. As a result, communities live in virtual information ghettos. Since 1994, we have worked to close this ethno-linguistic chasm. We organized cross-ethnic team reporting that produced more than 60 newspaper articles published simultaneously in the Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Roma press. Our aim is to prevent the media from being used as a tool of social and political fragmentation; instead, it can be a forum in which people of all ethnicities explore their common interests. 

We have designed and co-produced four television series, including a documentary series on indigenous traditions of conflict resolution. In 1999, we collaborated with Children’s Television Workshop (producer of Sesame Street) on an eight-part series for children ages 7-12. Called Nashe Maalo (Our Neighborhood), the series stars Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and Roma children who live in a talking apartment building named Karmen. The kids find themselves in conflicts that arise from cultural, gender, and language differences. With Karmen’s help, they solve their problems. The series airs on Albanian- and Macedonian-language TV stations, and viewers of all ethnicities and ages have responded with enthusiasm. An accompanying curriculum for use in schools and local communities is nearly complete. Nashe Maalo counters the idea contained in most TV fare that disagreement leads inevitably to violence. This is an extraordinarily destructive idea in any country, but particularly in multi-ethnic societies like Macedonia. Nashe Maalo will air for a second and third season in 2000 and 2001. We hope it will become a model for programming in other strife-torn countries. 

Through these television and newspaper series and a series of training programs for journalists, we have worked closely with nearly every newspaper and TV station in the country — a relationship made possible by the reservoir of trust built up during our five-year engagement in the country. The strategy paid off when the war in Kosovo threatened Macedonia’s delicate ethnic balance. Rather than escalating the conflict, as the press has so often done in other Balkan states, Macedonia’s journalists, for the most part, avoided inflammatory reporting. 

Indeed, in the middle of the crisis, the Macedonian media participated in our initiative that brought together Macedonians, Albanians from Macedonia, and Kosovar refugees — who are both Albanians and Serbs. This group produced three magazines that were inserted into Macedonian and Albanian daily papers and distributed free of charge throughout the country, to the refugee camps, and eventually into Kosovo. At its height, this project produced nearly 100,000 copies in two languages. Each magazine treated an aspect of the war and its impact on Macedonia from the ethnic Macedonian, Albanian, and Kosovar perspectives. These supplements were regarded by all communities as the one source of non-inflammatory, comprehensive information on the war and its aftermath. 

Education for respect

Young children are not born acculturated with the prejudices and stereotypes of their elders, but they easily learn adversarial, exclusionary relationships. In Macedonia, where most schools are segregated by ethnic group and language, we opened three multi-ethnic kindergartens, called Mozaik (mosaic). Each class has four teachers, two Albanians and two Macedonians. All activities are conducted in both languages, and the teachers all speak their own languages. The primary goal of Mozaik is to create an environment in which all languages and cultures–and all children–are valued. Promoting bilingualism is a secondary goal; when it happens, it is not because kids are told they must learn the other language, but simply because they want to talk to each other.

During the first days of the war in Kosovo, most parents in our kindergartens were wary of rising ethnic tensions and kept their children home from school. However, the parents soon relented, despite the social stigma involved in inter-ethnic mixing. While the war was in full swing, we held an evaluation meeting for parents, teachers, and administrators. Not only did they give the kindergartens overwhelming approval, they also went public with a press release that stated: Mozaik is indispensable for promoting mutual respect and understanding among all people in Macedonia. We urge other parents to join us and to send their children to Mozaik.

Mozaik reaches only a small fraction of Macedonia’s children — and only for a year. However, we reach many more children in other ways. We help train Macedonian educators, resulting in conflict resolution programs in about 100 of the country’s middle schools. Through conflict resolution games, kids are taught to develop self-respect as a basis for respecting others, to take responsibility for their own actions, and to see the another’s point of view. Though the games do not concentrate on ethnic issues, the lessons learned are easily applied to ethnic conflict.


Search for Common Ground teaches that relationships between conflicting parties can be improved when the parties work together to identify and address shared problems and to set goals that transcend immediate conflicts. Thus, we sponsor Eko-Patrols in 23 schools with the twin aims of contributing to a cleaner environment and providing a positive experience of inter-ethnic cooperation. Each school adopts a public place, preferably one with historical or cultural significance. Once a week an Eko-Patrol of five kids monitors the site. Once a month, the schools send out bigger, ethnically mixed groups of 30-40 kids to pick up litter. Several times a year, participants from all the schools come together for joint activities.

The kids, aged 12-14, have taken to this project and added their own variations. One group launched a weekly TV show on environmental issues for kids. Another group decided to rate local businesses on environmentally responsible behavior.

Some might argue that little can be done to help resolve seemingly intractable, deeply rooted clashes such as those in the Balkans. But compared to the tremendous loss of life and resources that occurs when prevention fails, the cost of building peace has been small. In Macedonia it has proved possible to prevent ethnic differences from turning deadly.

Spring 2000

New Stories


New Stories