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Macedonia: Government Permits Albanian University

  • Jolyon Naegele

Macedonia's Foreign Minister, Aleksander Dimitrov, announced last week that the country's Albanian minority will be allowed to have a university where instruction will be in their own language. Dimitrov said everyone has a right to education in his or her mother tongue and that the issue will be resolved within the framework of a new law on higher education. But as our correspondent reports, the Macedonian government appears unlikely to foot the bill.

Prague, 20 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Legalizing higher education in Albanian is the culmination of a nearly five-year struggle by Macedonia's Albanians to establish a university. The Albanian minority constitutes nearly one-quarter of Macedonia's population of two million.

The Albanian government in Tirana -- which has repeatedly raised the issue in discussions with Macedonian leaders -- welcomed the move, saying it shows a willingness to overcome problems and to foster Macedonian-Albanian relations.

The announcement by Skopje comes soon after the swift departure from Macedonia of some 300,000 ethnic Albanian refugees to what is left of their homes in Kosovo. Macedonian concern that a long-term presence of Kosovar Albanian refugees might alter the republic's ethnic balance led Skopje to maintain a restrictive refugee policy, limiting the inflow and distribution of refugees.

The end of this perceived threat to Macedonian stability was likely a factor in the timing of Dimitrov's announcement.

During a visit to Skopje last week, OSCE Commissioner for National Minorities Max van der Stoel met with Dimitrov, Prime Minister Ljubcho Georgievski and Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, one of the main ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia and part of the current coalition government.

Van der Stoel said after his talks that he is encouraged that the problem of Albanian-language higher education is starting to be solved. He said he does not expect a final resolution to be achieved "within several weeks or months" but insisted the matter is in what he called its "final phase."

Macedonia's deputy minister for education, Fejzullah Shabani, is an ethnic Albanian. He told RFE/RL's Albanian language unit today that the government's promise to allow an Albanian-language university will be implemented.

"Absolutely! The talks have been held on this issue at the highest political level between the government parties and Mr. van der Stoel. This issue has to be solved because it is not a political problem, as some might say, but rather it is purely an educational problem. We as Albanians hope to solve this issue once and for all.

Georgievski and van der Stoel agreed that the solution is dependent on securing financing for the university from the international community. Until now, Macedonian Albanians -- at home and abroad -- have been virtually the only financial backers of Tetovo University.

Tetovo University was established in December 1994 with the support of all of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian political parties and the three main Albanian-majority towns of western Macedonia: Tetovo, Gostivar, and Debar.

The Macedonian government responded by declaring the university illegal, on the grounds that a separate university was tantamount to Albanian separatism and thus a threat to Macedonia's stability.

Police raided the university's offices and arrested university President Fadil Sulejmani. When classes began two months later, police responded with force, trying to enter a faculty building while lectures were in progress. Clashes ensued. One demonstrator was killed, some 20 others were injured and others still were jailed.

Despite ongoing harassment, the authorities never shut down the university, which continued to function, albeit underground.

As of two years ago, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Tetovo University had some 2,500 students enrolled in three academic years. Nearly 400 students each were enrolled in the Law School, the Economics Department and the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. More than 360 students were studying at the autonomous Teachers' Training College (School of Pedagogy), while more than 200 each were majoring in Albanian or English.

The decision by Skopje to permit an Albanian university to operate in Macedonia comes at a time when Macedonia's Albanians are becoming more specific in their political demands.

Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians proposed last week that rather than granting autonomy to Macedonia's Albanians, Skopje should let a representative of the Albanian minority serve as vice-president. In Xhaferi's words, "We want equality in employment, administration, culture, education, and institutions."

Presidential elections are due in October, but it is unlikely Xhaferi's party can succeed in time in changing the law to create an Albanian vice presidency.

The Democratic Party of Albanians joined the ruling coalition government last year after it was promised the underground university would be sanctioned by the state. But it remains far from clear whether Skopje will come up with any funding for an Albanian university.

After the current Georgievski government took office last year, it promised to undertake educational reforms, including "creating conditions for opening foreign faculties without the participation or financial support of the state."

Macedonian Albanians responded that this is not enough and called on the government to recognize Tetovo University, to help support it financially and to accept its diploma as equivalent of that of Macedonia's other two universities.

Macedonia's ethnic Albanians have never made up more than 2 percent of the number of students enrolled at Macedonia's two legal universities -- Skopje and Bitola. Prior to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Macedonian Albanians studied at universities elsewhere in the country, above all at Pristina University in neighboring Kosovo until 1989.

After Serbia rescinded Kosovo's autonomous status and Yugoslavia's gradual disintegration, studying in Pristina became all but impossible.

Some 50 to 60 Albanians a year were allowed to study Albanian teaching at the official teacher's training college. But this falls far short of satisfying the need for some 4,000 Albanian mother-tongue elementary school teachers in Macedonia.

Tetovo University's founders insisted the school was open to all citizens of Macedonia and that studying the Macedonian language was a core requirement for all students, arguing that failing to study Macedonian properly would hamper the integration of Albanians into Macedonian society, further solidify segregation, and ultimately undermine the stability of the state.