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'Everyone is for yes': name vote brings hope to Macedonia's Albanians

Ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population, are expected to play a decisive role in Sunday's vote to settle a long-running row between their Macedonian compatriots and Greeks across the border.
Ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population, are expected to play a decisive role in Sunday's vote to settle a long-running row between their Macedonian compatriots and Greeks across the border. AFP
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Aracinovo (Macedonia) (AFP)

From the brink of war to decades of discrimination and poverty, it has not been an easy ride for the Albanian minority wedged into Macedonia's northwest corner.

But a referendum on Sunday to change the country's name -- and open the door to EU-membership -- is giving the community a sliver of hope that a better future awaits.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a quarter of Macedonia's 2.1 million population, are expected to play a decisive role in Sunday's vote to settle a long-running row between their Macedonian compatriots and Greeks across the border.

And their position is no mystery: many say they will happily accept the name "North Macedonia" -- a compromise between Skopje and Athens -- if it means clearing their country's path to the EU.

"Everyone is for yes," said Selajdin Latifi, a 46-year-old post office worker in Aracinovo, an Albanian village perched on a hillside above Skopje.

"Here we have nothing, but in the EU, there is everything."

Nearly two decades ago artillery shells were raining down on Aracinovo, a rebel holdout for Albanian guerillas who brought Macedonia to the edge of civil war in 2001.

A peace deal was reached that year after more than 100 were killed, guaranteeing more rights and representation for Albanians in government.

But high unemployment, crime and a xenophobic brand of Macedonian nationalism have stalked Albanians since.

The country's stalled integration with the West -- a process held up by the Greece dispute -- has sowed further disappointment.

"Everyone just wants a better life. No one wants to fight or think about war," said Latifi, sipping a coffee in the village's dusty main square.

- Change for the youth -

A high turnout on Sunday could see up to 300,000 Albanians cast ballots, overwhelmingly for "yes", said Albert Musliu, a political analyst.

That would represent a large chunk of the 900,000 votes needed to pass the 50 percent mark of registered voters to make the poll credible.

There is scant data on the economic situation of Albanians, as Macedonia has been unable to complete a census since 2002 due to ethnic tensions.

But Musliu said high poverty rates among Albanians date back to Yugoslavia, when the community was excluded from state institutions and firms, and therefore missed out on the economic boons of privatisation in the 1990s.

Albanian political parties say their communities still suffer low rates of state investment.

"Basically these regions are living on money transfers from abroad, from Switzerland and Germany," said Visar Ademi, an economist who leads an NGO to bring down youth unemployment.

Today, the village of Aracinovo is peaceful but struggling with a broken sewage system and patchy water supply.

Quiet streets speak to the emigration exodus that has hit Albanian communities especially hard.

"We have some water but not for drinking... What century are we living in?" said Neazid Sulejmani, a 76-year-old who is volunteering to help campaign for the referendum.

He is hoping a successful 'yes' vote will speed-up EU accession.

"It will change things for the youth," said the father-of-three, whose children have moved abroad for work.

"They will have some hope."

- 'Good signals' -

While the identity battle has chiefly pitted Greeks against ethnic Macedonians, Albanians have also been caught in the crossfire.

The row stoked Macedonian nationalism that has often targeted the minority, casting them as a threat.

Tensions bubbled over on April 27, 2017, when a mob of Macedonian nationalists stormed parliament in protest of the appointment of the first Albanian speaker of the chamber.

Scores were injured but the incident failed to stop the appointment, eventually allowing Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and ethnic Albanian parties to forge ahead with a new coalition government.

This year, Zaev made good on a promise to pass a law boosting the official use of the Albanian language.

"There are some good signals that this government might really fulfil their promise that they are going to take care of the entire society," said Musliu.

But "the honeymoon will not last long if the government doesn't start to prove itself," he added.

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