Albanians Drop Boycott of Macedonian Army

Ethnic Albanians are starting to enlist in the ranks of the same army that many of them fought against only a year ago.

Albanians Drop Boycott of Macedonian Army

Ethnic Albanians are starting to enlist in the ranks of the same army that many of them fought against only a year ago.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Ethnic Albanians this year are completing national service in the Macedonian armed forces in unprecedented numbers as the Ohrid peace deal continues to reduce tension between the republic's two biggest ethnic groups.

Since the former Yugoslav republic gained independence in 1991, Albanians have formed a negligible proportion of army conscripts even though the community comprises at least a quarter of the total population.

Enmity between Albanians and Macedonians led most of the former to shun military service. During last year's armed conflict, few responded to the call-up. Several officers of Albanian origin also quit the forces, refusing to fight their co-nationals in the National Liberation Army, NLA.

But the Ohrid Peace Agreement of August 2001, which guaranteed Albanian civil rights in Macedonia, has created a new spirit. In November, a new government also took office. Uniting moderates from the Social Democrats with the NLA's political wing, the Democratic Union for Integration, it has vowed to carry out the terms of the Ohrid agreement in full.

In January, Albanians made up a derisory 0.8 per cent of army recruits. In April, the figure rose to 2.5 per cent, in July 4.2 per cent and in October twice as large again.

But even if the Albanian percentage reaches 10 per cent, it is still around 13 per cent lower than what many believe it should be.

General Adil Gazaferi, an Albanian who works in army training, said the defence ministry and General Staff were working in the spirit of the Ohrid Agreement to involve Albanians and other minorities in all military structures.

He said 120 non-commissioned officers were currently undergoing training, 60 per cent of them coming from minority backgrounds. A few months ago, 60 young Albanians completed their three-months' training to become NCOs.

About 10 Albanians army cadets have also been admitted to the Military Academy in Skopje. Their overall number remains tiny, though. And few Albanians are involved in the army's education and training programmes, being run in NATO countries as part of plans to join the alliance by 2007.

Nonetheless, at a recent passing-out ceremony for NCOs in Ohrid, the chief of the General Staff, General Metodija Stamboliski, said the armed forces had made great strides towards implementing the Ohrid peace deal. He said he expected Albanians to achieve proportional representation within the military by 2004.

General Zijadin Tushi, an ethnic Albanian in the army leadership working in the field of military-civilian cooperation, told IWPR that progress was being held up by what he called "the bureaucratic structures of the state and those who hold old-fashioned views".

Tushi said the fact that only 2.5 per cent of officers were Albanian - and that this figure had not altered in 10 years - told its own story. "With the current training of Albanian NCOs we expect that figure to reach 4.5 per cent," he said. But the general said even this modest progress would only be possible if politicians took the issue more seriously.

In fact, officers of Albanian background are continuing to give up on the armed forces. At least 10 have recently retired or left, claiming they were overlooked for promotion for years. Once officer, Captain Muhaedin Bela, a graduate of the Military Academy, said he had to wait 20 months for a promotion that should have been routine.

Defence officials deny claims that they discriminate against Albanian officers. They say sharp cuts in the numbers of officers, an obligatory part of the army’s NATO harmonization plans, will mainly hit Macedonians.

Of the 700 officers, 950 civil servants and 690 other defence ministry employees due to be laid off by 2007, almost all will come from the majority community. "The cuts will drastically increase the proportion of the other ethnic groups in the army and defence ministry," officials argued.

Progress clearly remains slow. But everybody agrees that a new spirit is at work in the army and that ethnic discrimination within the ranks is on the retreat.

Sefer Musliu is a journalist with the Albanian Language Programme at Macedonian Television.

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