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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 00:14 GMT 01:14 UK
Ethnic tension a pan-European ill
Ethnic Albanians in Macedonia
Talks to ease tensions between ethnic groups have so far failed
By European Analyst Jan Repa

Talks in Macedonia, aimed at working out a political solution to the tensions between majority Slavs and minority Albanians, have so far failed to deliver results.

There is strong international pressure to find an accommodation, which would undercut support for the Albanian militants.

Many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have already tried to deal with similar problems.

Robin Cook in Tetovo, Macedonia
International pressure is being brought to bear

Outside former Yugoslavia, none of the ex-Communist countries have conceded the principle of territorial autonomy for minority communities.

Macedonia describes itself as "the state of the Macedonian nation".

The Slovak Constitution contains a similar formulation.

In each case, the main minority groups - Albanians and Hungarians respectively - would like to change "nation" to "citizens", but so far without success.

Both countries remain, explicitly, "national" states.

National minorities denied

Poland provides an interesting illustration of how thinking about minority issues has evolved.

Under the Communists, the existence of national minorities was effectively denied, all citizens were held to be Poles.

Today, several minority nationalities are acknowledged: Germans, Ukrainians, Belarussians, Lithuanians - together accounting for some 3% of the population.

They have their own churches, schools and state-subsidised cultural organisations and the Germans have two MPs.

No autonomy

But there is no question of allowing regional autonomy of the kind granted, for instance, by Italy, to German-speaking Southern Tyrol.

Slovakia's 1999 minority language law allows for Hungarian to be used in official contacts in areas where Hungarians comprise at least 20% of the local population.

But discussions on regional government reform have made little headway, with Hungarians complaining that proposals presented so far would divide up the Hungarian-speaking areas, combining them with larger, Slovak-speaking territory.

However, since 1998, Hungarians have formed part of Slovakia's governing coalition and much of the tension has subsided.

Improved relations

In Romania, also home to a large Hungarian minority, relations have improved in the past few years.

Nevertheless, attempts to bring together the main Hungarian-speaking areas into one larger administrative unit have been rejected - as have demands for the restoration of the historic Hungarian university in the ethnically mixed city of Cluj.

Hungary itself officially recognises 13 minority ethnic groups, which are empowered to set up local "minority self-governments".

However, the powers of these bodies are very vaguely defined and communities have to be resident in Hungary for at least 100 years in order to be eligible.

Genocide and expulsions

The ethnic make-up of much of Central and Eastern Europe is itself the result of massive "ethnic cleansing" during and immediately after the Second World War.

Auschwitz inmates
Past 'ethnic cleansing' led to today's situation

The greater part of the large Jewish population perished in the Holocaust, 13 to 14 million Germans were expelled from the region; as were several million Poles from what are now parts of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

Throughout the region - in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia - Gypsies, or Roma, remain at the very bottom of the social heap: poor, despised and subject to daily harassment and racial abuse.

Several million strong, they are traditionally Europe's largest nomadic people.

They make no territorial claims, but their high birth rate and continuing social alienation are seen by some pessimists as a potential ethnic time-bomb.

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See also:

03 Apr 01 | Europe
Nato in Macedonia peace drive
27 Mar 01 | Europe
EU call for dialogue in Macedonia
18 Mar 01 | Europe
Greater Albania question
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