Macedonia: Class Struggle

class struggleSKOPJE, Macedonia | The Albanian students who attend Zef Ljus Marku High School don’t know the Macedonian students at Nikola Karev High School, even though both groups attend classes in the same building. The roughly 2,000 students go to classes in two shifts separated by an hour: Macedonians in the morning, and the Albanians in the afternoon. The schools’ management decided to split the students into ethnic groups about five years ago to avoid conflicts.

“We never have contact with the students from Zef Ljus Marku because we never see them,” says a second-year Macedonian student who spoke anonymously. Many people – students, teachers, and parents alike – are afraid to be named as discussing such a controversial issue.

When the students do run into each other, the encounters often end in fights. But the problems don’t end with students. There is even a divide among the teachers: the Macedonian instructors meet in one school office, while the Albanian ones meet in another. The teachers are wary to discuss the split because school policy insists that they do not. Some suggest the division isn’t an issue and even say it’s “normal,” in the words of one Albanian teacher.

The roots of this de-facto segregation are rooted in fear and prejudice – hardened sentiments exacerbated by the 2001 conflict in Macedonia. That year, the Albanian National Liberation Army attacked Macedonian security forces, launching armed clashes that lasted for several months. Since then, many parents and students have insisted ethnically mixed schools are not safe or desirable.

There are no official statistics about how many schools are segregated, but the practice stretches from Skopje out into the regions. “According to what [my daughter] tells me, students are separating by themselves, and we cannot do anything,” says a Macedonian mother from an area near Skopje. “In the future, the segregation among students will increase more.”

With the government taking no serious steps to stem the segregation tide, the issue of ethnic division remains potent, and its dimensions are burgeoning. In addition to divides between Albanians and Macedonians, Romani students often are separated from their peers.

According to some non-governmental organizations and human rights groups, responsibility for the segregation rests on the shoulders of teachers, school administrators, and government officials who allow it to happen. But some of these authority figures say parents who pressure schools to take action or place their children at certain schools for ethnic reasons are at fault.

“People are not used to being comfortable together, and they always have reservations about ‘others,’ ” says Zuldjevat Abdija, principal of Kiril Pejcinovic High School in Tetovo. “The elders should be blamed for this. It’s futile to teach the children to be more open with each other if at home there are always some prejudices against the other nationality. The children are copying their parents’ behavior.”

For their part, many government officials claim there is little they can do. For the time being, they say, ethnic divisions aren’t going anywhere.

“There is segregation on an ethnic basis in schools and we in the ministry are aware of this problem,” says Education and Science Minister Sulejman Rushiti. “But it’s a very complex one. … People must know that we can’t resolve it overnight. It will take time, maybe a few years.”

Strong Underpinnings

Ethnic Macedonians comprise 64 percent of the country’s 2 million citizens, while ethnic Albanians comprise 25 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. After 2001, the Education Ministry supported the creation of improvised ethnically divided schools or double shifts within schools.

In 2003, for instance, the government approved the segregation of more than 1,700 Albanian students in Kumanovo, Macedonia’s third largest city, after students refused to attend classes with ethnic Macedonians. Many parents also staged protests, demanding segregation. Such boycotts and protests throughout the country – staged by Albanians and Macedonians alike – delayed the starts of school years and placed intense pressure on the government to act.

Giving into demands in Kumanovo and other cities, the government called segregation a temporary fix, but to date it has yet to reverse its decisions effectively and promote integration.

While acknowledging the impact of the 2001 conflict, former Education and Science Minister Azis Polozani also attributes entrenched segregation to long-standing educational practices, namely language divisions in school instruction. Many Albanian-speaking students are taught only in their native tongue, while Macedonian students are taught in their first language. Government statistics for the 2005–2006 school year showed close to 327,000 elementary and high school students receiving instruction in Macedonian, while roughly 147,000 took classes in Albanian. The language divide starts as early as preschool and extends even to the university level.

Polozani also says politics among teachers, especially those teaching history, language, and social sciences, are exacerbating divisions. Instructors often focus on teaching subjects related to their own ethnic or political history. “Most of the teachers believe that they must to fight for the ideals of their nationality,” Polozani says.

Such is the case at Kiril Pejcinovic, the largest high school in Tetovo, where there are roughly 2,700 students. The Macedonians and the Albanians took classes together until the conflict in 2001, but now they attend school in two different buildings. An Albanian student also said his history classes focus only on Albania, not Macedonia.

“Outside of the school we do not hang around with Macedonians,” he adds.

Other Dimensions

Authority figures at schools are hesitant to talk about segregation. Unwilling to discuss any negative aspects of the situation, Mile Srbinovksi, a deputy principal in the Macedonian part of Kiril Pejcinovik, offers a promising outlook instead, saying “things are starting to change.”

“Right after the conflict in 2001, the Macedonians asked for their children to be transferred and separated from the Albanian pupils, but now they don’t mind if their children are learning along with the Albanians,” he says.

Some young people even say they would be willing to get to know students of different backgrounds and learn more about their history. “We are not afraid of the Albanian students,” a student at Nikola Karev says.

Despite some vague notions of integration, however, the situation remains bleak – and not only between Albanians and Macedonians. Increasingly, Romani students are segregated from their peers as well. Roma comprise about 3 percent of Macedonia’s population.

According to research conducted by the National Roma Center in Kumanovo, the pervasive negative stereotypes that Romani children are unable to learn and behave properly are driving many schools to prevent Roma from enrolling or from taking classes with other students.

According to Slavica Curcinska of the National Roma Center, the principal of Avram Pisevski Elementary School in Skopje told Romani parents at a meeting several months ago that the Romani children lack basic cultural standards, cause trouble, and have very low grades. The principal asked the parents to sign an agreement that if in the next three months of the new school year their children don’t improve their grades and behavior, they will be expelled from school. The parents didn’t want to sign the agreement, but the principal threatened that the Romani children would lose a school year if signatures weren’t provided.

The school administration declined to comment, saying only that a problem it faced has been solved. Representatives from the Education Ministry said they would investigate the matter.

Another instance of excluding Romani children, Curcinska says, is occurring at Jordan Hadji-Konstantinov Djinot Elementary School in the city of Veles. Many parents there refuse to let their children attend classes with Romani students, so starting this school year, the Roma and other students will go to school in separate shifts.

According to other firsthand experts, such segregation of Roma could be worsening.

“Nine mothers of children of Macedonian nationality presented a request to sign out their daughters because there were seven Roma pupils in their class,” says a psychologist from Braka Miladinovci Elementary School in Kumanovo who did not want his name to be used. “I was astonished. I have worked with pupils from different ethnic groups, but until now, I haven’t seen such a thing.”

He adds that the school had to convince the parents that “the Roma children are not aliens.”

Solution Not in Sight

Polozani says one way to eliminate segregation in schools would be to use a common language of instruction for at least portions of students’ lessons.

“The schools can organize English classes and Macedonian and Albanian pupils can attend these classes. Or [they can learn] through workshops. Work is always the best integration,” he says.

The Tetovo-based Ljoja Center for Balkan Cooperation suggests that the government should create a new curriculum that trains new generations of teachers to promote ethnic interaction. The government, however, has yet to take any steps toward integration. Education Minister Rushiti says the way to solve the problem is “with projects for students and with training for teachers,” but he offers no concrete examples of what these projects should be.

Pero Stojanovski, state secretary in the Education and Science Ministry, says reducing the number of “pure ethnic classes” premised on language is important, but he also says the problem of segregation is so complex it seems impossible to fix. “I don’t know how to solve it,” Stojanovski says. “I don’t know, simply don’t know.”

Adding fuel to the fire, some school officials now are pressuring Skopje city government to sponsor increased ethnic separation. School administrators at Zef Ljus Marku, for instance, are hoping a new school being constructed in the Chair district of Skopje, where the majority of the population is Albanian, will be completed soon so the students from Zef Ljus Marku can attend their own facility. Administrators see a separate school in a different neighborhood as a solution to the tension between the Macedonians and Albanians currently in the same school building.

Both Polozani and Rushiti – during their respective tenures – have said students from Zef Ljus Marku could attend the new school, implying support for further segregation.

With such efforts underway, pressure groups and government critics say any move toward integration likely is not on the horizon. Representatives at the National Roma Center, for instance, are upset that neither the government nor individual schools have taken serious steps to wipe segregation off the map. They suggest that the government is permitting it rather than dealing with the political difficulties of changing the situation.

“The institutions are trying to hide this problem, not to solve it,” says Asmet Elezovski, coordinator of the National Roma Center. “I see weakness. … We are the ones who speak openly about this issue.”


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