Melting pot comes to boil

October 20, 1995

The recent assassination attempt on Kiro Gligorov, president of Macedonia, revealed the potential volatility of the small Balkan country, which became independent from Yugoslavia four years ago.

It suggested a disaffection lurking beneath the surface which the government has always done its best to play down. This resentment seems most intense in the large Albanian minority, and for many of them the most explosive issue is what they perceive as their denial of access to education.

Mevlan Tahiri, an MP in the Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, demonstrated this concern when he pinpointed education as the main potential flash-point for future relations between Slavs and Albanians in Macedonia.

"The question of higher education is of the utmost importance," he said. "The peace of the country may depend on solving this problem."

Albanians, who make up at least 23 per cent of the 2.1 million population, say they are under-represented in state education to the extent that they comprise only 2 per cent of those in higher education.

For Mr Tahiri this under-representation is mirrored by Albanians' poor showing in the civil service where - he claims - they are only 4 per cent of the total.

"At the moment the Albanian language is practically excluded from official use in Macedonia," he says.

Since December last year the education issue has crystallised in Tetovo, around 30 miles west of the capital, Skopje, where attempts are being made to establish the first Albanian-language university.

The government has ruled the university illegal, and bitter clashes occurred when police moved in to try to close it down. For many Albanians Tetovo would fill a gaping hole in college tuition in their mother tongue, but government sources claim much of this demand could be met by provision for teaching in Albanian at the two existing universities. They also say that the establishment of Tetovo would encourage "separatism".

In the meantime, an uneasy stalemate continues between the government and the fledgling institution. Mr Tahiri claims that some 1,200 students are now enrolled.

One western diplomat in Skopje said the two sides had reached an informal "understanding" in which "as long as they don't talk about it the government won't interfere". But in the long term both sides seemed to have adopted "irreconcilable positions".

For some Slavic Macedonians, who make up around 66 per cent of the population, the government has already bent over backwards to placate an Albanian minority.

Referring to Tetovo University Ognen Maleski, assistant foreign minister, points out that society has to cater for all its minorities, including Turks, Romanies and Vlachs.

He claims the Albanians are fuelled by a rising self confidence perhaps boosted by the fact that there is a strong lobby pressing their case in the United States.

For Mr Maleski the problem of higher education is being "misused by politicians to gain radical support. "All I have seen in the remarks of the leaders of the so-called Tetovo University were demands; even now they are putting together further demands. These are orders, not requests and it mocks the whole legal system. There is no room for negotiations, no room for argument."

The accusation of "separatism" is a label often hurled at the Albanian community by those Macedonians who fear that this sizeable minority might wish to split away and form a new state.

But Albanian Kadri Hadjihumzah, a trainee doctor forced to work as a pharmacist because of the shortage of medical posts, says that all he and his compatriots wish for is access to equal levels of education, and the right to be taught in their own language. He admits that there is already some teaching for children in their mother tongue of Albanian, but this is insufficient.

For Kadri the situation was better under the old "totalitarian" regime when there was a quota for Albanians in higher education. There was also access to the Albanian-language University of Pristina in Kosovo, which is now barred to them because of the inter-ethnic tension in that region.

Kadri says one reason for this denial of education is due to the Slav Macedonians' reluctance to see "more intellectual Albanians".

He also paints a picture of an Albanian community which, if starved of real power and access to education, could stagnate in a quagmire of resentment and violence.

The fact that Albanians now hold 19 out of the 120 parliamentary seats, as well as four posts in the cabinet of 20 cuts little ice. "The effective power is not in their hands," he says.

The solution to the deadlock calls for understanding from both sides, he adds. "We don't have to love each other, but in order to live together we must have some mutual respect."

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