Prague, 1 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Private homes, former cafes, storefronts and even mosques have served as the base for their secret classes. Welcome to Tetovo University, home to some 4,000 ethnic Albanian youth in Macedonia, who have come to study in their mother tongue.
Founded in 1995, amid ethnic rioting that left one person dead and hundreds more wounded, Tetovo University continues a tenuous existence and has been declared "illegal" by the Macedonian government. Still, its student population is thriving, as is the political debate surrounding accreditation for the unique "parallel" institution, for which there is believed to be no other model in the world.
Fadil Sulejmani, a former professor of Albanian Literature at Pristina University in Kosovo, is the founder of Tetovo University. Recently, he told RFE/RL that he established the institution to fill a gap created by the collapse of the Former Yugoslavia and the emergence of an Independent Macedonian state.
Sulejmani said that owing to new political and economic circumstances, the education of Albanian youth in Macedonia outside its borders became impossible. But, he said, once the University was in place, the problems remained. According to Sulejmani, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia still suffer economic, political and social discrimination.
"We are citizens of this state and have to be treated the same. We pay taxes for health care, we send our children into the army to defend the borders of this country, and 60 percent of this army is formed by Albanians. And it would be better for these students to be educated and to use these efforts in a more educated way."
Sulejmani complains that the University has yet to receive official recognition and accreditation from the government of Kiro Gligorov. The government has declared Tetovo University "illegal."
When RFE/RL sought government response to the Tetovo issue, a spokeswoman in the Macedonian Information office said that government policy on the subject was, as she put it, "non-existent." The spokeswoman said that as far as the government is concerned, "The University does NOT exist."
Located some 40 kilometers from the border with Albania, many Macedonians fear they are witnessing the development of an ethnic region in Tetovo determined to join with the homeland to form a greater Albania. They see the University as a hotbed of Albanian nationalism. Sulejmani disagrees: "The University belongs to Macedonia. It is not the University of Albania or Kosovo. And it is very absurd, unacceptable why the government does not accept this institution as its own. We wanted so many times to cooperate with the two Macedonian universities. They did not respond either positive(ly) or negative(ly), unfortunately, because these two universities are under the dictate of the present policy of Macedonia."
Sulejmani said Tetovo University is "multi-national," with classes open to all citizens of Macedonia. He said that includes Turkish and Romany students, as well as Macedonians. But Sulejmani says that while some Macedonians have shown an interest in study at Tetovo, none has come to stay.
At the same time, Sulejmani points out that half of Tetovo's 4,000 student populace is made up of Albanian women. He said Tetovo is helping them advance jointly with women of other Balkan countries toward modern European civilization.
Arlinda, 20, told RFE/RL that she would not be denied the opportunity to obtain a degree in economics. Arlinda also expressed concern and support for ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo in their struggle for independence.
"Of course we are worried because whatever happens to them is happening to us because we are one people, one blood and we are worried about them."
Arlinda is not alone in her worry. Sulejmani also expressed concern that the ongoing conflict in Kosovo could spark similar protests or violence in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians comprise about one-third of the population. Still, he said, the Albanians in Macedonia were long-standing in their policy of peaceful protest or, as he put it, "choosing bullets over books." That policy and the strong belief that truth is on their side, is what Sulejmani said keeps the struggle strong.
"We are not going to move from this our right way and we are going to go further because this is the future of our entire people and also in the world... not just here. As soon as the University will be accepted and enrolled, it will be better for the future of Macedonia. We hope that this institution will be officialized one day. But I do not think this will happen with this government. Maybe some other people will come with more democracy."
Sulejmani said Tetovo University is supported by a voluntary tax of about two U.S. cents a month per ethnic Albanian -- or about $10,000 a month, according to official census documents. Also looming over the University is the question of whether the degrees that it grants will even be recognized by any other educational institution or employers.
But student Arlinda said she has no worries. She said that given the choice of hiring a good accountant, or a degreed accountant, citizens of Macedonia would choose to hire a good accountant everytime. The recognition issue, as she put it, "Is only the government's problem."