The Albanian-language University of Tetovo (Universiteti i Tetovës) has occupied the political centre stage in Macedonia over the past two weeks following the Committee on Higher Education's submission of recommendations for the future of Albanian-language higher education.
The report's effects will have a long-reaching impact on the large ethnic Albanian minority in the country.
Article 48 of the Constitution, adopted on 6 January 1992, enshrined the right to education in the languages of national minorities at both the primary and secondary levels. There is, however, no such guarantee for minority language education at the university level, despite the fact that Albanians are the dominant minority within Macedonia, constituting between 25 to 33 percent of the population (see last week's news review for more demographic bickering).
Save the meagre concession of a small pedagogical faculty at the University of Saints Cyril and Methodius in Skopje (Shkup), the country's two state-run universities teach only in Macedonian.
Their own university
After a succession of appeals to the government failed to produce any results, the Albanian community took matters into its own hands and founded a university in Tetovo, a town in the Albanian-dominated northwest, on 15 February 1995.
The University of Tetovo is now privately funded by both the local Albanian community and a many among the expatriate community who, due to unemployment in Macedonia, spend 11 months of every year abroad working, primarily in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The university initially comprised of five faculties: law, economics, languages, pedagogy, and the natural sciences, and staff were drawn from the long-established and well respected Albanian language University of Priština (Prishtinë).
Only two days after its opening, Macedonian police closed the university down, and the violent clashes that resulted in one killed and 15 injured. The University Rector, Dr Prof Fadil Sulejmani was imprisoned for two and a half years on charges of verbal sedition, although he was released on bail in June of the same year.
Symbol of a wider struggle
Tensions between the Macedonian and Albanian communities eventually cooled and, in March 1995, classes resumed in private houses. Still, the university's very existence remains vociferously unrecognised by the state amid accusations it is a hot bed of radical Albanian nationalism and Greater Albanian expansionist ideology.
These accusations have been met by Albanian counterclaims of intolerable conditions and discrimination in Macedonian universities. Here, as in Kosovo, minority education has come to symbolise the struggle for all minority rights in the state.
While the relationship between Macedonians and Albanians is far better than that between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, the issue of Albanian minority rights has the potential to destabilise the young, fragile democracy that has withstood massive regional stresses, without descending into chaos or widespread violence, since declaring independence in 1992.
Minority language education is of paramount importance because of its position on the political fault lines between the Macedonian and Albanian agendas.
Fears of "Greater Albania"
Ethnic Macedonians fear recognition of the University of Tetovo for a variety of reasons. Some suspect it is the first step in a programme of secessionism, aiming to sever the west of the country in order to form some kind of alliance with Albania and Kosovo. By contrast, others fear the rise of Albanians as a threat to Macedonian society per se.
Albanians in Macedonia are predominantly Muslim, while Macedonians tend to be Orthodox Slavs. The widespread regional fear among Slavs of Islamic domination in the peninsula, so redolent of the ghostly Ottoman Empire, has been well documented in recent years, as have the fear's of such catastrophic consequences.
For their part, the Albanian claims to equal opportunities and access to mother-tongue education is of vital importance to a community that, with its demographic growth, may eventually achieve majority status in Macedonia. The implications of an ethnic group achieving majority status without having had widespread access to higher education are self-evident and do not bode well for the future of Macedonia.
In addition, the heated ongoing debates and controversy surrounding the issue are laying a strong foundation of Albanian resentment of ethnic Macedonians. Such tensions in the Albanian community already inhibit the extent to which the two national groups interact, and will certainly have influence in the future.
A private institution?
The controversial draft law on Higher Education formulated by the Parliamentary Committee on Higher Education was submitted to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for consideration two weeks ago, it has still not been released to the wider public.
However, Dr Prof Zamir Dika, a Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) member of parliament, committee member and Dean of the university's Faculty of Computer Science, has already said that the draft law recommends the creation of a private institution.
Under the proposal, Dika says, the University of Tetovo would be a normal university in every respect save funding, which would continue to come from private sources and international donor agencies such as the European Union. Providing higher education in the Albanian language, the university would issue state-approved diplomas and would be recognised as equal to its state-funded counterparts.
Responsibility for establishing the university's structure, hiring teaching staff, naming the institution, etc, would remain the responsibility of the Albanian community.
A political vendetta
Despite leaked details painting a picture of an apparently liberal proposal, students at the university remain unconvinced, fearing radical cuts and changes. Their fears have, in fact, been stoked by the hysteria of the university's Rector, Fadil Sulejmani, a known supporter of the opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDD).
Sulejmani is waging a political vendetta against Dika, and Dika has said that the Rector verbally dismissed him as Dean of Computer Science in a manner that violates the code established by the university's senate.
This is a critical time for the university and the wider Albanian community. Dika and his colleagues, both academic and political, seem to be pursuing a conciliatory yet highly effective line through official channels.
Sulejmani, by contrast, perhaps resting on his laurels as a hero and "personality," is using the political power and following he accrued over the last few years of struggle to oppose the parliamentary committee's recommendations out of hand, simply on the basis that they come from the government.
If the committee's recommendations are as have been reported, and provided they are approved by the OSCE and implementation is facilitated - they represent the most comprehensive efforts toward reconciliation on the issue that the two communities have yet seen.
The concept of co-existing state and private institutions is well established in the United States, among other countries, and there is no reason why it should not function equally well in Macedonia.
An atmosphere of hysteria
Given the nature and importance of the solution, this is an issue which should supersede petty bickering along party lines - now is a time for unity, a time to be visionary yet pragmatic.
At present, Sulejmani and his demonstrating student followers, who represent only a small faction of the student body, are promoting an atmosphere of hysteria that helps neither their cause nor the wider perception of Albanian demands.
Public opinion among Albanians remains divided along party lines. Those behind Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), a participant in the coalition government and the party of which Dika is a member, support the proposals with something approaching enthusiasm.
By contrast, supporters of the smaller opposition party, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) led by Dr. Imer Imeri and including Sulejmani among its members, continue to reject the proposals out of hand.
The Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences has now piled into the fray (see last week's news review), and the country waits with baited breath for the next development in an issue that can only grow in importance to Albanians and Macedonians alike.
Eleanor Pritchard, 19 June 2000