Even by the surreal standards of Balkan racial politics, the University of Tetovo is an oddity. It is a cluster of ramshackle buildings in a gritty suburb of the western Macedonian centre of Tetovo, whose 60,000 inhabitants are almost all Albanian-speaking members of the country’s largest minority. There are 347 professors on staff at the university’s 13 faculties, teaching everything from German philology to computer sciences to the 6,238 students registered in the current academic year. But to the Macedonian authorities, Tetovo university is an outlaw. Its degrees and diplomas are not recognized. Its buildings have been bulldozed by Macedonian police, its students attacked and its professors imprisoned. And for Fadil Sulejmani, the university’s rector, there is a simple reason why. “That is what they fear,” says the 58-yearold professor of linguistics as he points to a map of southeastern Europe on his office wall, where the region’s ethnic Albanian homelands are shaded blue. “They like to call it Greater Albania.”
The rector’s map tells the story. It traces a line around all of the area’s Albanian-speakers. The line dips into northern Greece from the southern border of Albania and then runs up through roughly one-third of western Macedonia, circles the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo and curls back through a corner of the western Yugoslav republic of Montenegro towards the northern Albanian border. Precise statistics are not available, but there may be as many as seven million ethnic Albanians living in the region: 3.5 million in Albania, close to two million in (or formerly in) Kosovo, another 900,000 in Macedonia and the rest in Montenegro. They are an ancient people, claiming descent from the Illyrians of the classical Greek world. And their existence is the largely unvoiced but potentially explosive issue that underlies the conflict currently unfolding in the poorest backwaters of Europe. “It is a Serbian myth,” says Sulejmani, “but
everyone seems to be afraid that we are all somehow going to suddenly rise up in demand for the creation of our own state.”
The fear is widespread, shared not only by governments in the region but also in major Western capitals. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has based much of his political career upon it, exploiting it first to rise to power, then using it to justify the ethnic cleansing now under way in Kosovo. It is the primary reason behind Macedonia’s persistent discrimination against its own Albanian minority, as well as its acute discomfort with the huge influx of Kosovar Albanian refugees. Western leaders have pointed to it to justify policies that, until the outbreak of NATO ’s air war, ruled against independence for Kosovo. The concern is that Kosovan independence will spark unrest in Macedonia, which will in turn trigger a nationalistic uprising for a Greater Albania that will set the southern Balkans aflame, drawing NATO partners Greece and Turkey into the fray and eventually sucking Russia in as well.
They have been labelling it the “domino theory” in Washington and in chancelleries around Europe. It predicts that the call for a Greater Albania will pit the Balkans’ Orthodox Christian world against the region’s Muslim populations. On one hand, there is Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece, all of which are governed by Orthodox majorities, but each of which harbours sometimes restive Muslim minorities. On the other is Albania, supported by the area’s Muslim superpower, Turkey, and, for political reasons, Bulgaria. Hovering ominously in the background are the Russians, sharing the same Orthodox heritage as the Serbs and acting as the traditional guardians of their southern Slavic cousins.
For those who espouse the theory, Macedonia is the linchpin, as it has been for more than a century. ‘When the Great Powers gathered in 1878 in an effort to solve the Balkan Wars,” notes one Western diplomat based in Skopje, “the so-called Macedonian Question was the main
item of business on the agenda.” The place was high on the agenda in discussions at the end of the First World War as well, when European powers struggled to rewrite the internal boundaries of the collapsed Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. It was Marshal Tito who first gave the Macedonians a separate identity when he created the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as the southernmost state in the federation after the Second World War. When Yugoslavia unravelled after Tito’s death, Macedonia managed to survive as a separate state without a shot being fired.
The credit for that is largely due to the astute political sense of Kiro Gligorov, Tito’s comrade from Second World War partisan days who, at 81, is still the much-revered president of the country. But as an independent state, Macedonia is an infant, a mere eight years old. What is more, it was, as one western European ambassador in Skopje remarks, “born into a very rough neighbourhood.” Milosevic’s government in Belgrade still regards the country as southern Serbia, destined for reincorporation into a Greater Serbia some time in the future. Large chunks of its territory are coveted, if not officially claimed, by Bulgaria in the east and Greece to the south. “If the place ever did fall apart,” says the European diplomat, “there might well be a push for territory by both Bulgaria and Greece, acting on the pretext of protecting their minorities here. And that, as they say, would really put the cat among the pigeons.” Under the best of circumstances, any Macedonian government has to walk a very narrow tightrope. Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski, who took office only last December, and his officials have been traumatized by the war on their border and 12,000 NATO troops and 130,000 Albanian Kosovar refugees on their soil. “They have been paralyzed by fear,” says a Western diplomat. It is reflected in the often brutal manner in which they have treated the refugees, first penning countless thousands in the squalor at Blace on the Kosovo frontier, then suddenly herding 40,000 or so onto buses in the middle of the night and secretly shipping them off to destinations in Albania, Greece and Turkey. In their panic, the Macedonian authorities have been
demanding membership in NATO, “not some time in the future, but next week,” comments Raphael Girard, Canada’s envoy to Macedonia.
Georgievski may have some grounds for irritation. “We are caught in the middle,” complains the Macedonian prime minister, “the only really innocent victims of this whole affair. NATO did not even bother to ask us when they closed our airport and shut down our air space, which is costing us millions of dollars every day. And you can be sure, when all of this over, Serbia is going to spend the next 10 years trying to punish us. As for the Albanians, I don’t expect there will be any thanks or congratulations.”
Probably not. But on that score, the Macedonian authorities have not been welcoming hosts to the refugees, motivated in no small measure by the overweening fear of Albanian political aspirations for a single homeland. To some, the entire question of Greater Albania is overblown. Canada’s Girard, like many other diplomats in the Balkans, counts himself among the skeptics. “I’m not sure it’s a real issue,” he argues. “There are people in the Albanian leadership who talk in millennial terms, about political pluralism within—and across—national boundaries. And those are modern, up-to-date political concepts that many Serbs just can’t seem to get their heads around.”
Such concepts are espoused by at least some of the students and faculty at the University of Tetovo, as they sit in cafés under the shadow of Mount Titov, still snow-capped despite the warm spring sunshine. “The authorities can’t seem to recognize it, but we are loyal Macedonians,” says agricultural engineering student Emin Zejneli, 28. “All we want is a chance to be educated, preferably in our own language.” Tetovo is the only institute of higher learning in the country that teaches in Albanian, which is the main reason the government has made extraordinarily brutal efforts to close it down since it opened four years ago. One student has been killed and hundreds injured in police assaults. Five professors have gone to jail, including a 10-month stint behind bars for the rector. “The aim,” says Sulejmani, “is to keep
us in our place, good enough for manual labour in the fields and in the cities, but not good enough to be members of the professional classes.”
The figures tend to support the rector’s argument. While Albanians comprise at least one-quarter of Macedonia’s 2.3 million people, they make up less than eight per cent of the 29,000 students at the country’s only other university, where classes are in Macedonian. “Education is the peaceful road to reconciliation,” says Sulejmani, “but if the government continues to block the road, then we are destined to repeat what is happening in Kosovo.” A glance northward, beyond the snow-capped peaks, is enough to suggest the dire consequences of that path. □
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