Minority Education in Macedonia: Recurring Ethnic Tensions


This chapter looks at the developments in Macedonian post-conflict politics. The focus is on minority education, one of the most sensitive policy areas for ethnic relations and subject of substantial reforms attempts since 2001. More than ten years after the conflict, minority education is still a controversial topic in Macedonian politics. The policy is subject to repeated attempts at reform and contestation by various actors, reinforcing the ethnic division between political elites.

Reflecting on the dynamics of minority education policy over the last decade, it appears that the post-2001 power-sharing institutions in Macedonia successfully increased the political power of ethnic minority groups through veto mechanisms and executive coalitions. However, power-sharing institutions did not always lead to political elite accommodation nor produced policy outcomes that alleviated inter-ethnic tensions. On the contrary, the initial elite accommodation in the area of minority education has resulted in segregated education, which further aggravated ethnic relations. Subsequent efforts to address ethnic divisions in the educational system had little success, as attempts to introduce compulsory Macedonian in primary schools almost led to government crisis in 2010. The introduction of functional, policy autonomy in education prevented the development of crosscutting political identities, rendering every attempt at education reforms an issue of ethnic nature.

Minority Education Policy in Macedonia

Historical Legacies in Minority Education Policy

Education is not the most obvious and pressing area of reform in the aftermath of a violent ethnic conflict. The immediate concerns of most post-conflict societies are focused on more difficult security-related issues that affect the survival and physical safety of the population and the state and its institutions. Indeed, security-related issues were also present in the immediate post-conflict period in Macedonia, but did not cause much debate or problems in implementation. Instead, the eyes of the population were turned towards other reforms stipulated by the Ohrid Framework Agreement (OFA), among which that of the education
system, aiming to improve non-majority communities' access to and quality of education (henceforward, minority education), was one of the most contentious.

Minority education has been one of the central policy issues in Macedonian politics, both before and after the 2001 conflict. It is an issue that has shaped the relations between Macedonians and Albanians in the last two decades and generated much of the inter-ethnic tensions since 1991. However, the problems pre-date Macedonian independence and have roots in the Yugoslav policies and grievances that the new Macedonian state inherited with independence.

In the Yugoslav Federation, Albanians, Turks and Serbs, in Macedonia had extensive rights to use their native language in local institutions and to receive primary and secondary education in their mother tongue. University-level instruction at Macedonian universities was conducted only in Macedonian, but Albanians from Macedonia could and often did go to Prishtina University in Kosovo, where opportunities for university education in Albanian existed. These were the rights that Albanians, as a constituent nation of the Macedonian republic, could enjoy according to the republican and federal Constitutions.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest that Albanians' education rights in Yugoslavia were improving, as the power of federal republics expanded. With the rising tide of nationalism in the late 1970s and especially during the 1980s, the situation of Albanians worsened. Some Serbian politicians were intent on curbing the extensive autonomy that the province of Kosovo enjoyed, a trend that culminated in 1989 with Milošević abolishing Kosovo's autonomy and most of the freedoms that KosovoAlbanians enjoyed. Macedonian leaders followed the Serbian example in their stance towards the Albanian population's rights in Macedonia, even though they did not partake in the anti-Albanian rhetoric and scaremongering among the population, like some Serbian Arts and Sciences Academy members who warned of the 'soft genocide' that Albanians were allegedly committing.1 Albanians in Macedonia during the 1980s lost some of the minority education rights they enjoyed, among which were the right to secondary education and use of Albanian in local-level institutions. Moreover, with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent Macedonian independence, Albanians lost access to the higher education in their mother tongue provided by Prishtina University. These measures were seen as discriminatory by the Albanian population. They generated frustration that poisoned the relations between Albanians and Macedonians.

Regaining the lost rights became a powerful political cause for the Albanian political elites in Macedonia after independence. The new political context, ideologically – with the fall of communism, and strategically – with the removal

1 Milošević speech at Gazimestan, 28 June, 1989. Available at: Slobodan Milosevic, Political Speeches. slobodan-milosevic.org/spch-kosovo1989.htm (accessed 5 November 2013). SANU Memorandum, 1986. Available at: Making the History of 1989. Primary Sources. chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/674 (accessed 5 November 2013). Both sources illustrate the discourse about how Albanians were overtaking and expelling Serbs from Kosovo and other historical and 'sacred' Serbian territories. of Belgrade as the centre of power, provided opportunities to reopen some of those questions and reclaim the rights lost during the previous decade. Immediately after independence, the deputies from the first Albanian political party in Macedonia, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), introduced the questions of minority education and use of Albanian in Macedonia, demanding the issue of language use to be addressed in the new Macedonian Constitution.2 However, for the Macedonian political elites, the new political context was not seen as an opportunity to re-negotiate ethnic issues, but rather as a threat to the survival of the newly established Macedonian state. Thus Albanian demands for re-opening the questions of education and the use of Albanian language fell on deaf ears, as the Macedonian political elite focused on considering how to run an independent state and gain international recognition, while the gap between the two major ethnic groups was widening.

The sensitivity of language, as a political issue, does not stem solely from Albanians' frustration with the abolishing of their rights in Yugoslavia. Language strikes a sensitive note with Macedonians as well. Since the codification of the Macedonian language in 1945 it has been the subject of repeated attacks from Bulgarian politicians and academics, who did not recognise the existence of a separate Macedonian language, claiming it was a dialect of Bulgarian. These language arguments infused with animosity the official Yugoslav-Bulgarian relations many decades before 1990 and soured the relations between Macedonia and Bulgaria afterwards.3 After independence also came the name dispute with Greece and the lack of international recognition of Macedonia as a sovereign state. This was an additional blow to the self-confidence of Macedonian political elites sensitive to all challenges to the Macedonian nation or state. Thus they became very defensive of the language, seeing it as one the most pronounced and most challenged identity markers of the Macedonian nation, a feeling also predominant among the wider population. Any demands for increased use of the Albanian language were perceived as additional attacks on Macedonian statehood and nation 'from the inside'.

Since the issue of minority education for Albanians was not addressed in the initial period of establishing the state and its constitutional order, the tension remained to plague ethnic relations in Macedonia throughout the 1990s. Culmination was reached with the failed attempt in 1994 to establish an Albanianlanguage university in Tetovo, an Albanian majority town, which triggered violent response from the police. The status of Tetovo University became the most contentious issue in the debates about minority rights and ethnic relations in the following years. Because of the intense ethnic resistance and contestation in the

2 Anonymous, Member of Parliament for PDP, 1994–2002: personal interview with the author, Skopje, 28 July 2010.

3 For a more detailed overview see: Robert R. King, 'The “Historical” Debates: Macedonia', in Minorities under Communism: Nationalities as a Source of Tension among Balkan Communist States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973). years prior to 2001, Tetovo University was the most indicative test for the capacity of political elites from both ethnic groups to resolve ethnically sensitive issues in the new, power-sharing context after the war. Therefore, the following section traces the policy processes related to its establishment and legalisation both before and after 2001, reflecting how resistance turned into accommodation after 2001. The second case refers to a failed attempt to introduce compulsory Macedonian language classes for Albanian pupils in 2010. Almost a decade after the conflict, the case explores the persisting problems of minority education in Macedonia, which continues to be framed in ethnic terms. Initially introduced as a measure to increase the ethnic integration in primary schools, compulsory Macedonian language tuition turned into a source of major tensions between Macedonian and Albanian coalition partners in government, revealing the shortcomings of the postconflict political system in Macedonia and its inability to resolve problems with minority education.

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