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Macedonia: School Desegregation Plans Shelved

Fierce protests force government to back down over bid to teach Albanians and Macedonian students side by side.
By Ana Petruseva

The Macedonian authorities’ controversial attempts to desegregate two schools have been criticised as clumsy and badly-timed by western diplomats and analysts.

 

Plans for an Albanian language class in a Bitola school were halted last week after hundreds of Macedonian students took to the streets in protest, with some insisting that they would never allow an Albanian class in their city.

 

The Macedonian students went back to school, but only after receiving assurances that an Albanian class will not be opened. Protesters threatened to hold further rallies if there is a new attempt to teach students from the two communities side by side.

 

Ethnic tensions also soared last week at the Arseni Jovkov high school in Skopje when Macedonian parents and students rallied against the decision to include seven Albanian classes in the same building. Previously, the Albanian students had been attending a facility in another part of the city. Following the protests, the plan to bring the two groups together was put on hold.

 

Multi-ethnic education has been an explosive issue for more than a decade. Macedonian and Albanian students have been strictly segregated - studying in different schools or, if in the same building, in different shifts - and previous attempts to unite the two have also failed.

 

The latest desegregation initiative was not part of a broader attempt to bring an end to the ethnic divide in the country’s schools, but a goodwill gesture by the governing ethnic Macedonian parties towards their Albanian partners.

 

Education minister Azis Polozani, a member of the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, the ethnic Albanian party in the ruling coalition, faced calls from the protesters to abandon the desegregation plans or resign.

 

Faced with continuing popular unrest over the reforms, the government appears to have shelved the issue indefinitely. “The decision has been put on ice until ethnic tensions calm down,” said DUI spokesperson Ermira Mehmeti.

 

The trouble began immediately after Polozani announced the changes in early September.

 

The minister has since come under fire for trying to implement the reform after the school year had already started, and for not anticipating the likely reaction, especially in Bitola, which was the scene of riots against the town’s Albanian community during the 2001 conflict.

 

"Polozani should have known that this cannot be done without thorough preparations," one western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IWPR.

 

"He should have consulted people on local level. You cannot make an administrative decision and just hope it will be respected.

 

"The timing was also crucial. If the decision had been made before the school year had already started, it would have been a different situation. Maybe there would still have been tensions, but probably not on this scale."

 

A government source also commented on the poor timing of the move, saying tensions could have been avoided had Polozani announced the decision while the students were on their summer break. “However, there is no justification for the acts of the Macedonian students,” the government source said.

 

Gjuner Ismail, director of Forum magazine, told IWPR that a lack of foresight by the education ministry has fuelled Macedonian nationalist feeling in Bitola.

 

“The minister should solve, not generate problems. He did not respect the reality of the situation," Ismail said. "Bitola is a specific city, and one that was very much involved in the war. This way [the minister] has created an opportunity for those who organised the incidents in 2001 to do so again.”

 

The hard line opposition Democratic Party of Albanians has reacted angrily to the government’s climb-down, describing it last week as the result of a “well thought-out and organised action to prevent Albanians from exercising their rights”.

 

Mirjana Najcevska, who heads the local branch of the Helsinki human rights committee, said that the latest events should not be seen as an isolated problem, but rather as the result of the government’s heavy handedness and lack of transparency over reforms.

 

"We have many situations when a school director or a teacher is replaced without local consultation and parents and students protest,” she told IWPR.

 

“As for the ethnic dimension, on the Albanian side there is a belief that things can change overnight, while the Macedonians are building a wall and absolutely refusing to think of the legitimate and unsatisfied needs of others.”

 

The International community has expressed deep concern over the recent upturn in tensions. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, in Macedonia called the Bitola protests “frightening and unacceptable”.

 

OSCE spokesperson Isabelle De Ruyt said, “It is disappointing to see people mobilising against the a common education opportunity for students. The OSCE believes that the students should be able to go to schools close to their homes, and that multi-ethnic education should be encouraged.”

 

Ana Petruseva is IWPR project manager in Macedonia, Boris Georgievski is a journalist with the Skopje daily Utrinski vesnik

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