Ethnic violence is a genuine fear for lots of Macedonians. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has seen a growing mistrust between Albanian and Macedonian speaking communities. The killings of five men in spring have ratcheted up tensions in the country, where a quarter of its population are ethnic Albanians.
In the western Macedonian mountain villages like Brodec, most people speak Albanian. In 2001, when the country came close to civil war, the rebels’ headquarters was nearby.
In 2007, police raided Brodec: they found an arms cache and arrested villagers. So is there a revival of separatism today?
Mustafa Bektesh, the Mayor of Brodec gives his view:
“We are happy with the status quo, I don’t care about borders but we want to get a fair chance of economic development. We are afraid of friction and conflict. If there is a conflict it always hits the poorest people, those who have nothing to eat.”
Villagers feel abandoned by the State and by the banks; loans here are hard to come by.
Greece, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia and Bulgaria neighbour the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Most native Albanian speakers live in the western parts but there are also Turkish speaking minorities. Tetovo, the main city in the north-west, is mainly – but not exclusively – populated by native Albanian speakers.
When the Tetovo stadium sells out, one thousand Macedonian football club supporters of “Teteks” face ten thousand Albanian FC “Shkendijas” supporters – things can get pretty nasty
“The Albanians around here still have this idea of a big Albania and they would like to take away our part of Macedonia. We protect our club, we protect our country but we are not nationalists, we are patriots.” Blasko, a Teteks’ supporters says.
Spiro, another Teteks’ supporter continues: “The Albanians provoke us because we are ethnic Slaves, they insult us because we are Christians, they insult Jesus, they even insult our dead. It’s real provocation.”
However, provocation and violence is reported from both sides, with Albanians and Macedonians guilty of giving as good as they get.
Hate-speech and ethnic vandalism are present in rural areas too: here in the village of Jancishte, not far from Tetovo, Macedonians have painted over the Albanian on the bilingual sign post. With extremists from both communities believing the village belongs to them and them alone.
In 2001, armed checkpoints were set up in the country’s mixed areas.
In order to bring back a sense of normality, the Norwegian government channelled money into bilingual school projects: While the older kids got to take part in workshops about “dialogue and reconciliation”, the younger ones took to the stage, acting in productions where both Albanian and Macedonian speaking parts were welcome.
However for the pupils, it is an excuse to make friends and have fun:
Maria, a pupil at Preljubiste Primary School:
“We all play together: for example we play basketball, football or do theatre productions. We also sing together.”
Arsim, a pupil at Preljubiste Primary School:
“The advantage of knowing other languages means you have the possibility of speaking with lots of people and making lots of friends…”
Alexandra, a pupil at Preljubiste Primary School: “I have friends from all language groups living here…”
These projects are still the exception. The programme’s leader would like to see bilingual education rolled out across the country but if anything, things seem to be going backwards; a problem Veton Zekolli, the Programme Manager of the Nansen Dialogue Centre knows all too well:
“The most shocking point, from my opinion, of what is going on in the Republic of Macedonia is the segregation of schools. Students, children do not go to the same school. They do not have contact with each other. What should be done in the future, as a long-term project of the ministry, of the government is to bring them closer: the gap that children have between each other should disappear.”
Gostivar, is a mixed city (with a slight Albanian majority). Earlier this year, a Macedonian policemen shot two Albanian men here in unclear circumstances. This triggered an increase in ethnic tension throughout the country.
Elmaz and Dime are best friends. After growing up together, they decided to set up a bilingual Macedonian-Albanian joint venture, offering accountancy to all business’, regardless of ethnicity.
Elmaz Adili, at Partner-Kom, Gostivar says:
“The choice of who to start up our business with, the criteria to find a partner was not nationality or religion, not at all… but it was very important to go ahead with a solid character, completely trustworthy and reliable and that’s how it started …”
Dime Smilesici, at Partner-Kom, Gostivar adds:
“Yes, people from all kind of communities have been living here together for centuries. I can not imagine any other way than this multi-ethnic way of living together, that’s our tradition.”
Gostivar is the home-town to theatre director and former Macedonian education minister, Sulejman Rushiti.
So what does he think about the recent rise in ethnic tensions?
“The government is encouraging controlled destabilisation, because they want to hide the real issues like corruption, the lack of policy for integration and by creating this controlled destabilisation they want to defocus the public opinion away from the real issues.” He says.
The research programme’s director at the “Institute for Social Studies” agrees. Instead of tackling the skyrocketing unemployment rate politicians are fuelling the ethnic conflict, in his view.
Artan Sadiku, Researcher at the Skopje Institute of Social Sciences talks to euronews:
“It is the political elite of this country. They have been governing and running this country through exploiting sometimes even extremely ultra-nationalistic discourse and rhetoric, just to maintain power.”
“Nonsense! Utterly wrong! It serves local purposes to try, with a lack of any reasonable political offer, to mobilise votes in order to topple the government.” Adds Slobodan Chashule, Former Macedonian Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The former foreign minister and future Macedonian ambassador to Spain is loyal to the ruling nationalists in power. He accuses the Serbian secret service of being behind the recent ethnic tensions in the region. So Is there still a risk that the country is going to break up along ethnic division lines?
“Both of the communities, the large communities in this country want Macedonia as a whole. The Albanians know that secession is politically, economically and strategically impossible and the Macedonians also know that without the Albanians, they will loose more than they will gain.” He concludes.
Naser Selmani, Head of the Macedonian Association of Journalists believes the problems come from the inside:
“I’ll be honest: all those recent incidents were organised by the political parties in power. Why are they doing this? I strongly believe that there is still a strong motivation to break up Macedonia.”
The Head of the Macedonian Journalist Association has expressed concerns about organised crime groups infiltrating political parties. Straight question: is civil war possible? He believes it is.
This pessimistic viewpoint is not shared by the majority of experts euronews met in the capital, Skopje. Nevertheless, misunderstandings and prejudices are a reality.
The allocation of a huge amount of public money for the “Skopje 2014” project has been criticised by the Albanian community. All over Skopje giant statues of ancient Macedonian heroes have been built, alongside museums which glorify the country’s past. Many Albanians feel excluded by the efforts to construct an “Ancient Macedonian identity”.
So what do the locals think?
Imam, Skopje, Ferid Sulejmani: “Compare the percentages: all the statues and buildings represent 95 percent Macedonian… and only 5 percent Albanian culture…”
Ivanka Stojkovska, Skopje resident: “I’m Macedonian, I live in Skopje and I think that it’s a good project but of course, it would be nice to have good living conditions for everyone all over Macedonia…”
Florina Emini, Skopje resident:
“It would have been better to invest all the money in other areas, such as schools and hospitals instead of investing it into buildings and monuments by pretending that people don’t know their own identity and that they should be educated about their identity.”
In Brodec, like in most of the country, people believed the hundreds of millions of euros would have been better spent on infrastructure projects and sustainable job creation.
This villager for one, could not agree more. Halim Bahtjari, Brodec resident:
“Just one of those huge monuments in Skopje costs a lot of money. Why not build less in the capital and bring a bulldozer over here to build a small but good road to our village. They’re not doing it, so we have to keep on with horses, transporting only small-cut pieces of wood from the mountain back down to the valley on horse-back…”
One opinion is widely shared by experts: if northern Kosovo was re-integrated into Serbia, Albanian separatism would be expected to strengthen in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and EU membership would be out of reach for everybody.
To listen to an interview with Robin Liddell, Head of section for Political, Justice and Home Affairs Issues at the Skopje based delegation of the European Union, click here