Parallel Lives

Macedonia may have been spared inter -ethnic violence, but it remains a bitterly divided society.

Parallel Lives

Macedonia may have been spared inter -ethnic violence, but it remains a bitterly divided society.

In Skopje, people are on the move. The river Vardar divides the town, with Macedonians on one side and Albanians on the other. Those on the 'wrong' side are busy arranging apartment exchanges.

Nowadays it is rare to find Macedonians and Albanians living next-door to one another. The two communities keep to themselves. They have their own hairdressers, dentists, bars and discos. Children attend separate schools from infancy. In a recent opinion poll not one respondent said they would consider marriage to a member of the other community or allow their children to do so.

The war in Kosovo has had a large part to play in this polarisation. While the Macedonian community was hostile to the activities of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, the Albanian community lent its support.

On April 13, villagers in Poroj, 100 per cent Albanian, erected a statue to Mujdin Aliu, one of their residents who died fighting for the Kosovo guerrillas. Local youths attended the ceremony in old KLA uniforms and waved the Albanian flag. Representatives from the coalition government party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, also came along.

It is estimated that around 1,000 young Albanians from Macedonia fought in the KLA and about 150 were killed. Albanian language broadcasts from Radio Skopje have been known to praise the militants and often play their songs.

Macedonians fear this will all lead to Albanian community demanding an independent republic like that sought in Kosovo. According to the constitution, Macedonia is a country of Macedonians with other nationalities living within its borders. Many a Macedonian would argue the majority community is rather generous regarding the "rights of Albanians".

"You can see, we are generous, they have all the rights, and yet they relentlessly demand more and more," complained one young man. "If they don't like it here, let them go to Albania" is a common refrain, reminiscent of anti-Albanian feelings in Serbia.

Albanians, however, who make up around one third of the population, argue Macedonia is there birthplace and has been their homeland for generations. The majority of them have never visited Albania and have no intention of ever doing so.

Albanians complain they are made to feel like second-class citizens. The official language is Macedonian. And although primary and secondary school children are educated in their respective languages, university education is conducted in Macedonian.

The formal separation of school children has resulted in an entire generation growing up with little or no cross-community contact. A Dutch charity recently attempted to open a multi-ethnic nursery, offering excellent facilities, with programmes in both Macedonian and Albanian. The predominantly Macedonian parents, however, objected, believing the scheme was a thinly disguised attempt to erode their children's national identity.

Research by the Institute of Statistics calculated that out of the 15,000 marriages in Macedonia annually only 250 in recent years could be called mixed.

A Macedonian man said only the birth of his child brought his parents around to accepting their Albanian daughter-in-law. "When we visited the village where my parents live I got a real shock," the man said. "Nobody would talk to me, I was isolated and people were whispering behind my back that I had brought Albanians into their village."

One young Albanian said, " We would rather chat on the internet with someone in Japan or America than to somebody from another community."

Zeljko Bajic is a regular contributor to IWPR.

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