Macedonian Language Dispute

A dispute over teaching in the Albanian language is raising political tensions in Macedonia

Macedonian Language Dispute

A dispute over teaching in the Albanian language is raising political tensions in Macedonia

Thousands of teachers, students and parents took to the streets of Bitolj earlier this month in protest at government plans to provide an Albanian language class at a local secondary school.

The Macedonian protesters said the plan to teach 30 Albanian youngsters in their mother tongue was unjustified. They claimed the class would be under subscribed, as Albanians made up less than three per cent of the town's population.

The dispute reflects a wider highly politicised and emotive debate over teaching in the Albanian language.

Approximately 23 per cent of the population in Macedonia is ethnic Albanian. At present, limited minority language teaching is provided in primary and secondary schools. There must be at least 24 Albanian or other minority pupils in a class before they can be taught in their own language.

Albanian political leaders want this principle extended to universities. Macedonians are bitterly opposed, fearing the move would lead inexorably to the secession of the predominantly Albanian region of western Macedonia.

The ruling coalition of Albanian and Macedonian parties is now struggling to prevent the language quarrel from spiralling out of control.

Protesters in Bitolj were clearly concerned that government plans would prompt other Albanians from neighbouring areas to attend the school, undermining its Macedonian identity. Albanians would, it seems, "spoil the tradition of the school".

The demonstrators won in the end. The government withdrew its plans. The move provoked a fierce reaction. Albanians in a Skopje suburb beat up local Roma children and tried to prevent teaching in their mother tongue.

Albanians were further outraged when the OSCE high commissioner for national minorities, Max Van der Stoel, proposed the creation of a new multi-lingual, internationally-funded university.

They fear this will lead to the closure of their own university in Tetovo, which was set up illegally five years ago and has been a constant source of political tension ever since.

In response to the Van der Stoel proposal, some 3,000 Albanians demonstrated last week in Tetovo to demand that their institution be officially recognised.

"This (Albanian) institution is not a political problem, as some are attempting to present it," said student leader, Jusuf Zeneli. "This university functions according to Macedonia law, similar to other universities."

The rector of the Tetovo University, Fadil Sulejmani, was highly critical of Van der Stoel. "[He] is not competent to offer solutions, he's in Macedonia only to cause trouble and conflict."

When in opposition, the Albanian Democratic Party, PDSH, had called for official recognition of the Tetovo institution. Now in government it has sought to appease its Macedonian coalition partners by supporting the creation of the new internationally funded university.

The party's position has enraged Albanian students. They sent its leader, Arben Xhaferia, a letter accusing him of treachery and warning that he would lose their support if he continued to back the new university.

Sulejmani said all bargains made between "the Macedonian regime and their collaborators in the PDSH" would be rejected.

Zeljko Bajic is a regular IWPR contributor

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