E.g., 06/28/2024
E.g., 06/28/2024
Macedonia: At a Quiet Crossroads

Macedonia: At a Quiet Crossroads

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Macedonia avoided the interethnic conflict that ripped through the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. It was the only state to emerge with its independence (in 1991) and no loss of blood.

The country took center stage in 1999 when hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians sought refuge during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) intervention in neighboring Serbia. In 2001, Macedonia came close to descending into its own war as Albanian militia briefly fought with government forces. The timely diplomatic involvement of the international community helped bring that conflict to a rapid end.

Although the ethnic Albanian community in particular has gained greater rights and regional autonomy within a unified Macedonian state, tensions between its ethnic communities regularly challenge any sense of political harmony. The possibility of independence for Kosovo, on Macedonia's northern border, also contributes to currently heightened tensions.

Little research has been conducted on migration in Macedonia. Population data, which focus on ethnicity, are subject to shifts in self-identification as well as political manipulation.

Macedonia has a relatively significant and longstanding diaspora—both of ethnic Macedonians (from the broader historical region including what are now parts of Bulgaria and Greece) and of Macedonian citizens of various ethnicities. This diaspora is becoming better organized for political and economic lobbying, and receives significant attention, through cultural, and more recently economic, ties from the Macedonian authorities.

Part of the Western Balkan "island" surrounded by European Union (EU) Member States, the country stands at a crossroads on its journey to "Europe." In 2005, Macedonia became a candidate for EU membership although it will be many years before it accedes. As such, Macedonia's approach to emigration, transit migration, trafficking, asylum, and ultimately immigration are issues on which European political attention will focus in the near future.

Historical Background

Dispute over the Name "Macedonia"
The constitutional name of the country discussed in this article is the Republic of Macedonia. A dispute with Greece concerning the use of this name means that some countries (including China, Russia, Turkey, and, since November 2004, the United States) recognize the country as "the Republic of Macedonia."

The name "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" (FYROM or FYR Macedonia) is often used, including in international arenas such as the United Nations.

Greece's concern is that use of the name "Republic of Macedonia" implies a territorial claim on the Greek province of the same name. With consensus lacking, this article refers to the country by its constitutional name.


Macedonia's history is as complex as that of the Balkans as a whole. British Relief Fund employee Edith Durham reportedly noted in 1905 that "Macedonia, be it observed, is a conveniently elastic term."

Although "Macedonia" in 2007 refers to a sovereign country and defined territory (see sidebar), it also covers many places, identities, and ideas attached to people from different political, ethnic, and religious groups over many centuries. Foreign occupation, changes in political boundaries, and population movements have all contributed to making Macedonia, like other states in the region, multiethnic and home to multiple cultures and religions.

Throughout the 20th century, Macedonia—meaning both the current territory and "ethnic Macedonians" from what are now parts of Bulgaria and Greece as well as post-1991 Macedonian territory—saw significant emigration to the United States, Canada, Australia, and Switzerland. Populations of Macedonian origin are concentrated in Chicago in the United States; Toronto in Canada; Wollongong, Sydney, and Melbourne in Australia; and Locarno in Switzerland.

Emigration from (broader) Macedonia was prompted by political unrest under the Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century and the search for riches in the New World. After World War II, the search for employment, opposition to Yugoslav communism, and the devastating 1963 earthquake all prompted emigration.

Relatively little migration to the United States took place, first because of the immigration restrictions imposed in the 1920s, and later because migrants from Yugoslavia were not, under Cold War conditions, welcomed in the United States.

Canada and Australia, as well as some Western European countries, therefore became more attractive, and realistic, destinations. Emigrants to Canada and Australia, and their descendents, tend to be citizens of those countries (estimates suggest 92 percent of people of Macedonian origin in Australia are Australian citizens, for example). Those who migrated within Europe tend not to be citizens (only 4 percent of people of Macedonian origin in Switzerland are Swiss citizens). Differences in naturalization policy can partially explain these gaps.

Little is known about these emigrants—or their total numbers—not least because destination countries used varied categorizations (Macedonians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs, and Yugoslavs) over the decades of geopolitical changes in the Balkans.

To most ethnic Macedonians who headed to North America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the United States and Canada were apparently indistinguishable. They went where work was available or to the places where they already had family members or networks.

Immigration regulations and employment opportunities alike made Canada more attractive than the United States. Migration of "Macedonians," primarily from Bulgaria and Macedonia to North America in the first two decades of the 20th century, is estimated to have been on the order of 50,000, primarily men.

Toronto is home to the largest community in the Macedonian diaspora at between 80,000 and 150,000. In Canada, early-20th century immigration from broader Macedonia is characterized as mainly political, as it followed the unsuccessful 1903 Illinden uprising against the Ottoman Empire. Many Macedonian migrants found industrial work in Toronto (particularly in the metal industries), from which they progressed to ownership of restaurants, grocery stores, and butcher shops.

Macedonian immigration to Australia in the same period was mainly economic. The earliest immigrants, in the late-19th century, sought gold fortunes, with the intention of returning home.

Following World War II, Macedonians, among other Yugoslavs, migrated as guest workers to European countries, particularly to Switzerland and Germany. As states do not offer figures broken down by republic of origin within (former) Yugoslavia, it is impossible to say exactly how many Macedonians migrated. It is known that there are about 55,000 Macedonians in Germany (2005) and about 40,000 in Switzerland (2002) although their ethnicity and actual citizenship are not specified.

Similarly, little is known about the flows of internal migrants during the Yugoslav period, both how many people from other Republics moved to Macedonia, and how many people from Macedonia moved elsewhere in Yugoslavia. The latest census figures from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Slovenia suggest about 36,000 Macedonians live in those countries collectively—the highest number (about 26,000) in Serbia according to Serbia's 2002 census.

Counting Macedonians Abroad

No onr knows the size of the Macedonian diaspora, which is considered to include individuals (regardless of ethnicity) with Macedonian citizenship and/or those of ethnic-Macedonian ancestry depending on which organization is counting. Estimates vary from 350,000 to 2 million. The lower end correlates with census data in major destination countries (see Table 1).

Table 1. Macedonian-Origin Population by Country of Residence
CountryMacedonian-origin population (including foreign born)Census Year
United States38,0512000
Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics, US Census Bureau, Statistics Canada

Macedonian officials dealing with diaspora relations, although hesitant to offer statistics, suggest doubling the total from some 350,000 to 700,000 to allow for underrepresentation of ethnic Macedonians born (or with ancestors born) in geographic locations now beyond the borders of the present-day territory of Macedonia. Macedonian representative groups abroad, promoting statistics at the higher end, also suspect underrepresentation in census data.

These data issues are a result of the shifting geographical and ethnic boundaries in the Balkans throughout the 20th century. Some diaspora organizations consider all ethnic Macedonians and their descendents as part of the Macedonian diaspora.

Another issue is the phrasing of census questions, as some countries ask about country of origin while others ask about ancestry or ethnicity. Some individuals respond to questions based on their ethnicity and not their place of birth, regardless of the phrasing of the questions. A further factor complicating the counting of individuals of Macedonian origin is the time span between an ancestor's emigration and the present.

For example, in the 2001 Australian census, the state of Victoria counted 19,539 people claiming Macedonian heritage. This figure represents about one-third of the number of people who had, prior to its break up, been counted as saying they came from Yugoslavia.

The Diaspora's Influence

Macedonia's diaspora has not been a well-organized community. An organization called United Macedonian Diaspora was established in Washington, DC, in 2004 to represent the issues facing and needs of Macedonians worldwide. United Macedonians, based in Canada since 1959, works to unite ethnic Macedonians globally. However, the diaspora has little lobbying power on major issues, such as EU and NATO membership.

The governing coalition, elected in Macedonia in 2006, put four members of the diaspora in key cabinet positions aiming to stimulate foreign direct investment. The diaspora's economic input (through remittances on a personal level but also broader investment) is seen as having potential to assist the country. According to the International Monetary Fund, remittances formed up to 18 percent of GDP in 2005, the amount having doubled since 2002.

In 2006, a group of 20 entrepreneurs led by Macedonian-born Mike Zafirovski, CEO of Canadian telecommunications company Nortel, established "Macedonia 2025" to assist with economic reforms, including combating corruption, so that Macedonia can reach EU levels of competitiveness by 2025.

Since 1951, the government has had an agency for communicating with its emigrants. The Agency for Emigrants, its current name, primarily provides Macedonian language books, textbooks, posters, and flags to those applying for assistance. These materials are available to all people from Macedonia as well as all ethnic Macedonians. In reality, most supplies go to people of Macedonian ethnicity, whether or not they are Macedonian citizens.

The agency's other goal is to bring the diaspora home—temporarily, permanently, or through financial investment. Recently it has started to produce its own promotional materials, focusing on DVDs aimed at children and the potential investment community. The government, seeking foreign investment and targeting the diaspora as potential investors, has asked the agency to survey regions and cities in Macedonia with industries and products that could be attractive to investors or for export.

Who Is Macedonian?

According to Macedonia's 2002 census, the country's total population was just over 2 million, of which about one-quarter are of Albanian ethnicity and about 64 percent are of Macedonian ethnicity (see Table 2).

The focus in population data collection within Macedonia is ethnic affiliation. For primarily political reasons, people apparently shift their self-identified affiliation with each census. For example people will sometimes self identify as "Muslim" and on another occasion identify themselves as "Albanian" or "Turkish" depending not only on their own wishes but also the pull of political forces in the country at the time of the census.

Table 2. Population of Macedonia by Ethnicity, 1994 and 2002
Ethnicity1994 census2002 census
 Source 1Source 2Source 3Sources 1 and 3
Macedonian1,295,964 1,288,3301,297,981
Albanian441,104 442,914509,083
Turk78,019 77,25277,959
Roma43,707 53,73253,879
Serb40,228 32,26035,939
Bosniac6,829 7,24417,018
Vlach8,601 8,4679,695
Bulgarian 1,6821,5471,487
Greek 368349422
Jew 23 53
Egyptian (i.e., Ashkaeli) 3,0803,1693,713
Italian 61 41
Muslim 15,41815,3152,553
Russian 340 368
Slovene 403 365
Croat 2,248 2,686
Montenegrin 2,318 2,003
Yugoslav  595 
Other  8,703 
(Not included according to total figure from census)   -7,302
TOTAL1,945,932 1,936,8772,015,245
Source 1: State Statistical Office, "Data and Indicators of Municipalities in Macedonia," November 2004.
Source 2: Table 8, "Population according to ethnic affiliation: 2002 census 'other' category" in Natasha Gaber and Aneta Joveska, "Macedonian census results — controversy or reality?" South East European Review, 1/2004.
Source 3: Table 7, "Results of the 1994 census" in Natasha Gaber and Aneta Joveska, "Macedonian census results — controversy or reality?" South East European Review, 1/2004.
Note: Gaber and Joveska argue that census data are politically manipulated. The results they used, provided by the State Statistical Office (which gave different figures without explanation), and that same office's 1994 results as produced in their 2004 volume clearly show discrepancies that Macedonian researchers analyze as politically influenced. The data reported for the 2002 census in publications found to date maintain the same statistics.

As part of Yugoslavia, Macedonia took a relaxed approach toward the migration of Yugoslavs while other republics took a more planned approach. This is why Macedonia has become home to a number of ethnic communities.

All people resident in what became Macedonia in 1991 had one year to apply for citizenship. To be eligible, they had to be able to support themselves financially and have at least 15 years of legally uninterrupted residence in Macedonia regardless of ethnicity or Yugoslav republic of origin.

Those who did not apply for citizenship within a year fell under the 1992 Law on Citizenship's naturalization procedure, which involved extensive criteria and made the acquisition of citizenship more difficult for members of ethnic minorities. This was thought to be in large part a deterrence to Kosovar Albanians seeking Macedonian citizenship, but the law also penalized other groups.

A 2002 temporary law loosened the strict criteria, giving greater access to citizenship for many members of ethnic minorities, particularly those who were stateless (including many Roma, semi-nomadic people found throughout Europe) but long-term residents of Macedonia. A 2004 amendment to the law reduced the residency requirement to eight years.

Media reports suggest that in 2002 some 17,000 long-term residents of Macedonia were not in possession of Macedonian citizenship. The center-right government, which took office in August 2006, is set to review a Ministry of Interior proposal that would reportedly seek to resolve the situation of all people without citizenship who have been in the country since 1990.

Economic Hardship at Home

According to the government's 2005 Report on the Millennium Development Goals, in 2004, 27.7 percent of the Macedonian population lived in a household in which no member was employed. Also in 2004, 29.6 percent of Macedonians were estimated to be living below the poverty line. Broken down along ethnic lines, unemployment among Macedonians in 2002 stood at 32 percent, ethnic Albanians at 61.2 percent, and Roma at 78.5 percent.

With the highest unemployment rate in the world, and an average net monthly wage of $256 in 2005, it is perhaps not surprising that 21.0 percent of the population sees their own or their children's future lying in working abroad according to the United Nations Development Program's (UNDP) December 2006 Early Warning Report (EWR). Those who were neither of Albanian nor of Macedonian ethnicity had the highest positive response rate to this question (26.9 percent).

The report also found that 18.5 percent of the population depends on remittances as their main source of income. Calculations on remittances to Macedonia are hampered by poor reporting by banks, the presumed high rate of unofficial transfers (maybe up to 6.5 times that of bank transfers), and the absence of official definitions of migrants. Research is needed to ascertain the actual levels. According to IMF estimates, total remittances could have been some 840 million euros in 2005.

Recent Emigration and Internal Migration

The Statistical Office reported that 1,282 Macedonian citizens emigrated in 2005. Of these, 518 were said to have left for employment, 420 for family reasons, 85 in order to marry, 41 to pursue educational opportunities, and 218 for other reasons.

This number of reported emigrations increased significantly over previous years (see Table 3). Even if these figures include all legal emigrants (which is doubtful) they do not, of course, capture Macedonians becoming irregular immigrants.

Table 3. Official Number of Macedonian Citizens Who Emigrated, 1998 to 2005
Source: Republic of Macedonia State Statistical Office

In 2005, a total of 2,050 Macedonian citizens were readmitted to Macedonia after failed attempts to migrate illegally to primarily Western European states. Macedonians have also attempted to enter the United States illegally. The deaths of five Macedonians of Albanian ethnicity trying to cross the Mexico-U.S. border in late February 2007 gave rise to intense media coverage of irregular movements.

Of Macedonians admitted to the United States in 2005, 230 were temporary workers, more than half with H-1B specialty occupation visas. Another 1,070 Macedonians were granted lawful permanent residence (green cards) in the United States; the majority of them relied on family members with U.S. citizenship for sponsorship.

Current levels of actual emigration appear to be low, as are people's concrete short-term plans to move. The December 2006 EWR asked people whether they planned to leave Macedonia in the coming year to work abroad: 83.5 percent said no and 8.2 percent said yes. Those planning to leave for the longer term appear to be primarily urban males, aged 25 to 34, with a secondary education.

Another 5.5 percent said they planned to leave in order to seek temporary employment abroad. Indeed, seasonal migration from Macedonia, primarily to Greece and Bulgaria, which often goes unreported, is thought to be significant. However, only 0.3 percent of those surveyed for the EWR said they relied on temporary work abroad for their income.

There are suggestions based on Statistical Office data that, due to the return of Macedonians living abroad, the country was experiencing net immigration until 2003. As these data again capture only a part of legal migration, they are not totally reliable.

Meanwhile, rural-urban migration within Macedonian has been high, as it was during the Yugoslav period. At least a quarter of the country's population now lives in Skopje, the capital. In 2002, 121 villages no longer had residents, while 366 had fewer than 50 residents.


Macedonia's social and economic transition since gaining independence, its weak economy, the prevalence of corruption and organized crime, and its geographic location have created a fertile environment for human trafficking. Macedonia is primarily a country of transit and, to a lesser extent, a destination for traffickers.

Those involved in trafficking to and through Macedonia—both victims and criminal groups—have mainly originated in Ukraine, Moldova, Russia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, and Serbia, according to a 2005 report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Since 2002, successive governments have developed public information campaigns and stronger legislation against trafficking and, in particular, training for and coordination of the various government and law-enforcement agencies. Strengthening the criminal code is one of the key conditions for Macedonia's admission to NATO. A National Coordination Office on trafficking was opened in April 2007 to assist in the fight.

The government and IOM have established a Transit Center for Foreigners in Skopje that can shelter up to 40 trafficking victims as well as provide them with medical care and legal assistance.

IOM is responsible for a return and reintegration program for eligible victims (i.e., those meeting international definitions and understandings of trafficking). Victims may choose to waive access to the program, in which case they are accommodated separately though still within the center.

Between September 2005 and September 2006, 23 suspected victims of human trafficking, mostly girls under 19, were registered in Macedonia. Both the government and international organizations consider this figure to be unrealistic. It is not known how many other victims might be in the country undetected, or how many victims transited through Macedonia.

Transit Migration

While both emigration from and immigration to Macedonia are limited in scope, transit migration to the European Union is thought to be more significant. Most transit migration involves people entering Macedonia illegally on the way to enter an EU Member State illegally. Therefore, the government has no reliable statistics on transit migration.

The statistics on returns or attempted returns of third-country nationals from EU Member States to Macedonia under some readmission agreements also show only a partial picture of likely total transit migration. Those responsible for organizing voluntary returns from Macedonia report assisting people coming from places as far away as China and Pakistan. They indicate fewer than a dozen such returns in 2006.

With the European Union now bordering Macedonia on two sides (Greece and Bulgaria), EU-bound transit migrants can only enter Macedonia via Albania and Kosovo, making the Balkan route more challenging than other routes into the European Union. As such, it is suspected that most migrants attempting to transit through Macedonia in the coming years will be Albanians from one of these two points of origin. Recent press reports seem to back up these suggestions, although it is impossible to know from available sources either the extent of such movement or whether it is high compared to that of other nationalities.

In January 2007, five policemen at Skopje's airport were arrested for smuggling Kosovar migrants. The following month, two Kosovars were found in a French KFOR (the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo since 1999) vehicle being transported by train at Skopje's railway station, hoping to continue the journey through Thessaloniki, Greece, and by ship to France. This was not the first such incident, and Macedonian media reports suggest KFOR troops might frequently be involved in such attempts at irregular migration.

In spite of these incidents, those working on migration in Macedonia and the European Commission's Progress Report all suggest that border guards are better trained and better coordinated than three years ago. As a result, fewer cases are thought to be slipping through.


Although Macedonia currently experiences little immigration, political attention to the subject, due in part to the prospects for EU accession, inspired a new Aliens Act. The act, which came into force in March 2007, is in line with EU requirements, such as they exist on immigration.

It is estimated that some 20 bylaws are required to enable implementation.

The government's short-term priority was a law on the employment of foreigners, which had been postponed until the new Aliens Act was in place. This law was adopted at the end of May 2007, and stipulates the conditions under which foreign citizens may be employed in Macedonia and the procedures for their employment. A foreigner may work in Macedonia only if staying legally, and with a work permit.


The Kosovo experience of 1999 demonstrated the need for a new law on asylum and temporary protection, which Macedonia passed in 2003. According to the European Commission's November 2006 Progress Report, key institutions needed to deal with the various aspects of asylum are in place but require strengthening.

Also, Macedonia has had problems implementing processes for legal appeals and material assistance. As is the case for the Aliens Act, a series of bylaws are required for implementation, and although the asylum law was passed in 2003, these bylaws are not yet in place.

However, the country has had little need for its asylum law. The total number of asylum seekers and refugees in the country as of August 2006 was 1,985, mostly Roma from Kosovo.

Some suggest this low number is artificial because there should be more asylum seekers based on statistics from other countries in the region. If the critics are right, the question is whether there is underreporting, a lack of people applying (because they are in transit to the European Union), or a problem with Macedonian authorities not dealing with asylum applications properly.

Some 755 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are registered in Macedonia, a result of the 2001 conflict that displaced more than 76,000 people. The few remaining IDPs are reluctant to return home or lose their status, primarily for socioeconomic reasons.

Macedonia and the European Union

Macedonia was the first western Balkan state to engage in a Stablization and Association Agreement with the European Union, in April 2001. Although the country became a candidate for accession in 2005, the European Commission seems increasingly skeptical as to Macedonia's progress in reforms and thus its suitability to proceed in negotiations.

One example of how the European Union has been working in the region to push for improved migration management is the CARDS Regional Project on Asylum, Migration, and Visa Management 2004-2005. The roadmap of this EU project targets integrated migration management and includes instructions on administrative and agency management.

The roadmap also says that western Balkan states need to "show they can cooperate and meet modern European standards in relations between states." Among the tools recommended to demonstrate international cooperation are readmission agreements, participation in EU-organized training and capacity building projects, and participation in the Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative (MARRI) regional forum and regional center.

Aimed at assisting the western Balkan states in achieving EU standards, MARRI grew out of the Stability Pact of the 1990s. The Regional Center of this initiative is based in Skopje and is staffed by secondees from the governments of each of the six member states. Thus far, in spite of strong attempts and significant Member State and Commission support, the western Balkan states in general have not been entirely successful in their adaptation as far as EU-style migration practices are concerned.

The Stabilization and Association agreement between Macedonia and the European Union, like all others, stipulates that readmission agreements be concluded with all existing EU Member States. Macedonia has ratified readmission agreements with 10 EU Member States, and four others are signed and in the process of ratification. Estonia, Ireland, Latvia, and the United Kingdom have stated that they do not need readmission agreements with Macedonia.

All western Balkan states began separate negotiations with the European Commission for visa facilitation and a readmission agreement with the European Union at large at the end of 2006. Macedonia signed agreements with the European Commission, after difficult negotiations, in April 2007.

The Macedonian government was reluctant to include noncitizens in its readmission agreement with the European Union. This reluctance was based on the nature of the noncitizens most likely to be sent to Macedonia through readmission, namely transit migrants and stateless persons with some connection to Macedonia, who would primarily be Kosovar Albanians. Germany is currently home to the largest number of such Kosovars in the European Union. As Macedonia's existing agreement with Germany contains a clause for the readmission of these noncitizens, Macedonia ultimately had no grounds to refuse the European Union's insistence on its inclusion in the broader agreement.

Macedonia had particularly high demands on the visa front, largely because it was seeking visa liberalization rather than facilitation. Liberalization will only come at a later stage in the process of EU candidature, and will require significant changes in Macedonian regulations.

As the International Crisis Group pointed out in 2005, the EU visa regime for the western Balkans has long caused resentment. The visa regime is a major obstacle to these countries' integration in the world economy, as well as to their economic development. Macedonian students, in particular, are very vocal in their demands to both their own and EU governments for greater freedom to travel and be European.

Relations with both Greece and Bulgaria present hurdles in the negotiating process on visas. Greece has difficulties related to the name issue. Bulgaria has long considered ethnic Macedonians to be Bulgarians.

Until Bulgaria's accession to the European Union, in January 2007, many Macedonians traveled frequently to Bulgaria for vacations and to visit family and shop. They now need a visa to do so, and applications are reported to have been low.

From December 2001 until the end of December 2006, ethnic Macedonians could apply for Bulgarian citizenship if they had at least one Bulgarian grandparent or parent. It is not known how many applied or were successful in their applications. Those whose applications were accepted thus became EU citizens ahead of Macedonia's own potential future accession.


Macedonia is standing at a rather quiet, but not tranquil, crossroads. Although the country is keen to join the European Union and NATO, reforms and economic development are proceeding slowly. The current government's actions since coming to power in September 2006 seem to have added to the delays, and have not been well received by the European Union in particular.

Meanwhile, Macedonia stands on what has been a significant transit route for migrants seeking to enter the European Union, although the route has become less traveled. Measures are in place to deal with immigration and asylum, if not yet really implemented, and the quality of border police and other control measures has been improved. Although transit migration and trafficking are still major issues, the number of these cases seems to be decreasing.

In sum, migration issues are not a high priority for politicians in Macedonia. The main area of activity and concern is visa facilitation and liberalization. The government is also seeking greater economic involvement from the diaspora. Although not well known, this might be the biggest story related to migration in Macedonia.

Meanwhile, if anything seems likely to unsettle Macedonia's progress, it would be events in neighboring Kosovo. What happens in Kosovo in the coming months will be the source of either peace or significant unrest across the western Balkans in the years ahead.

Joanne van Selm conducted several interviews for this article between September 2006 and March 2007.


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