North Macedonia: Local Ownership of Global Challenges

Above: Cair (Skopje), North Macedonia

Sefer Selimi, Founder and Executive Director of Democracy Lab

Sefer Selimi is the Founder and Executive Director of Democracy Lab, a CSO driven to create a democracy that will work for everyone.

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Emir Hasanovic, Western Balkans Coordinator, Strong Cities Network

Emir Hasanovic is the Western Balkans Coordinator at ISD, responsible for Young Cities and Strong Cities coordination in the region, research and analysis, communications, and expansion.

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11 September 2021

The following opinion piece and the views expressed in it are the authors' own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.

While the media is rightly commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks this month, in North Macedonia the year is remembered for different reasons. It marks 20 years since an insurgency of Albanian guerrillas waged war against state security forces for more than six months. It was the culmination of a decade of civil unrest and division that can be traced back to the country’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

When established, North Macedonia’s foundations were laid on ethnocentric ideas that failed to reflect the ethnically diverse reality of its population. In a country where Albanians and other people of non-Macedonian ethnicity comprise almost one-third, the vision for the new state was that it would be led for and by ethnic Macedonians. Access to government and public resources was almost an exclusive right to ethnic Macedonians, leaving Albanians and other ethic minority communities marginalised. The first decade of North Macedonian independence therefore, was marred by civic unrest and regular clashes between police and predominantly Albanian protesters.

In response, the Ohrid Framework Agreement was elaborated in 2001, which meant that power could no longer be exclusive to a single ethnicity. Yet while the framework was meant to bring the country closer together and create a space for dialogue to further inclusivity, political parties merely exploited the Agreement for political gains. Rather than addressing community grievances at the local level, it led to a litany of unfulfilled promises and continued inequality, with ethnic Albanians frustrated at the continued lack of representation and equal rights. This provided fertile ground for radicalisation to violent extremism and recruitment into terrorist networks to grow.

This helped create the conditions conducive to the recruitment and radicalisation of (primarily ethnic Albanians) more than 150 North Macedonians to travel to Syria and Iraq to support ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups. The extraordinarily high number of foreign terrorist fighters per capita - third highest in Europe after Kosovo and Bosnia - led to alarm bells ringing in Skopje, Washington, and Western European capitals. Preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) soon became a strategic priority for North Macedonia.


"The first decade of North Macedonian independence [...] was marred by civic unrest and regular clashes between police and predominantly Albanian protests. "

In response, the Ohrid Framework Agreement was elaborated in 2001, which meant that power could no longer be exclusive to a single ethnicity. Yet while the framework was meant to bring the country closer together and create a space for dialogue to further inclusivity, political parties merely exploited the Agreement for political gains. Rather than addressing community grievances at the local level, it led to a litany of unfulfilled promises and continued inequality, with ethnic Albanians frustrated at the continued lack of representation and equal rights. This provided fertile ground for radicalisation to violent extremism and recruitment into terrorist networks to grow.

This helped create the conditions conducive to the recruitment and radicalisation of (primarily ethnic Albanians) more than 150 North Macedonians to travel to Syria and Iraq to support ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups. The extraordinarily high number of foreign terrorist fighters per capita - third highest in Europe after Kosovo and Bosnia - led to alarm bells ringing in Skopje, Washington, and Western European capitals. Preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) soon became a strategic priority for North Macedonia.

Reflecting this priority, the National Committee for Countering Violent Extremism and Counter-Terrorism (NCCVECT) was established in 2017, an inter-institutional body with a mandate to coordinate government and non-governmental stakeholders and lead the conversation on prevention efforts. It drafted a strategy – the National Strategy of the Republic of Macedonia for Countering Violent Extremism (2018 – 20222) - to consolidate national efforts in line with global good practices in P/CVE: in prevention, identification, reintegration, and rehabilitation. Importantly, it recognised the need to focus on local communities and thus the critical role that municipalities and civil society actors can play in P/CVE in the country.

While facing significant challenges, the NCCVECT has succeeded in deepening the involvement of a range of local stakeholders which had traditionally not been involved, including teachers, religious leaders and youth workers, to formulate prevention efforts.

Although the first National CVE Strategy (2018-2022) has yet to be formally evaluated, it has generated some important progress.  For example, the NCCVECT was successful in forming a working group to develop a strategy around rehabilitation and reintegration in anticipation of the successful repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters and their families.

Another important milestone was the conducting of consultations with city officials and local community leaders to better understand local needs and priorities. This has been a critical step for local prevention efforts and recognition of the necessary role that community leaders and civil society play in raising awareness, mobilising support, strengthening resilience against extremism and reducing the ability of malign groups to function and spread propaganda.

In order to institutionalise local responses and ensure sustainability, the NCCVECT has mandated and prioritised the creation of Community Action Teams (CATs), local multidisciplinary units dedicated to working on preventing violent extremism. With support from the Strong Cities Network (SCN), and based on its Local Prevention Network model, Kumanovo established its CAT in September 2019.

Since then, the CAT has designed a Local PVE Strategy, participated in exchanges with other SCN members, implemented awareness-raising and capacity-building trainings, and has conducted research and consultations in neighbourhoods vulnerable to extremism. Moreover, the SCN partnered with CATs in Gostivar and Cair (Skopje) and the Skopje-based Search for Common Ground in the delivery of youth-related activities as a part of SCN’s Young Cities programming. Equally important, in collaboration with Democracy Lab, as part of this work the team trained and is supporting a total of 15 youth groups to deliver social change projects to address prominent community challenges.

Locally-led efforts continue, but there is an urgent need for them to be scaled up and sustained in key municipalities across the country. This will require both funding and training. More broadly, current initiatives should be used to catalyse the necessary systemic reforms to enable grassroots initiatives to take hold and effectively address localised grievances and counter malign networks with a view to increase social cohesion and community resilience to violent extremism in the long-term.

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