Ongoing efforts of political parties and NGOs help fuel peaceful transformation.
By Miki Trajkovski for Southeast European Times in Skopje -- 20/05/13
The 2012 Skopje Rock School brought together young people of Macedonian and Albanian backgrounds. [Skopje Rock School]
With the conflicts that dominated life in the Balkans for years now in the past, academics, analysts and political leaders said the time has come to establish dialogue and co-operation to help citizens overcome the prejudices and stereotypes that have divided the region.
In some cases, political dialogue already has facilitated improvements for minority communities, while many organisations offer programmes for young people to help smooth over the ethnic tensions that are at the heart of the region's divisions.
Rubin Zemon, an expert on minority issues and professor at the Institute Euro Balkan in Skopje, told SETimes that national and political elites are slowly beginning to understand the importance of minority relations and rights. He spoke of the need for institutional dialogue between governments and minority groups, and also for state and local governments to plan projects addressing the needs of minorities.
"Such examples we have in Croatia, which brought a whole package with laws for this issue, in Serbia, Montenegro where there is a separate ministry for minorities, in Kosovo there are places reserved in the parliament and the councils of the municipalities of the national minorities,” Zemon said.
Political dialogue has helped solve some of the problems of the Macedonian community in Albania.
Vasil Sterjovski, general director of the Macedonian Alliance for European Integration, a political party of ethnic Macedonians in Albania, said the process was slow, but was achieved peacefully.
"Good example of solving the problems is the fact that we signed agreement with the ruling party in Albania where we set some conditions for solving of our problems -- education, respect of the minority rights, investing in the infrastructure where the Macedonians live," Sterjovski told SETimes.
A decade ago, Macedonian issues in Albania were not dealt with, said Edmond Temelko, mayor of Pustec, an Albanian municipality with a significant Macedonian population. The formation of a Macedonian political party led to improvement.
Through political agreements, the government in Tirana invested in infrastructure, education and water supply in Mala Prespa, Golo Brdo and Gora. The construction of two travel routes has been approved at a cost of 200,000 euros.
"Through our political influence from 2003 until now, we managed to return the names of the villages in Pustec, which were named in Albanian in 1973," Temelko told SETimes. "Around the territory of Gora, there are three border crossings opened between Albania and Macedonia. We put effort in the learning of the Macedonian language. We are managing water enterprise in the rural areas in the municipality of Korca as a result of agreement with our political partners in Albania, where few Macedonians are employed."
The Bosniak community in Sandzak, Serbia, is another example of how the institutions are trying to solve problems despite all the injustices of the past, said Jahja Fehratovich, president of the Bosniak Democratic Community.
Kosovo Albanian artists created a water lily bridge across the Ibar River last November in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in Northern Kosovo. [AFP]
"We are trying to make right a lot of wrongs towards the Bosniaks, advocating for freedom of their people, preserving and nurturing the identity of the Bosniaks," Fehratovic told SETimes. "The best examples are the opening of the International University of Novi Pazar, which in the time of the former Prime Minister of Serbia Zoran Djindjic got a permanent permit for working, as well as the positive attitude of the Croatian government toward their people of the Bosniak nationality."
Fehratovic said the most significant problems facing Bosniaks in Sandzak are a lack of participation in state institutions and unemployment. In Novi Pazar, the largest city in the Sandzak region, more than 50 percent of the working population is unemployed.
"When it comes to the rights of Bosniaks and Sandzak, we are searching of ways to use all the political and other democratic mechanisms at our disposal for solving of our individual and collective rights," Fehratovic said.
Through political negotiations and agreements, Albanians in Macedonia now enjoy native language education at all levels, representation in institutions and the use of the Albanian language in municipalities where the Albanians comprise 20 percent of the population.
Dzabir Derala, president of the NGO Civil in Skopje, told SETimes the group's projects aim to affect social trends and serve as an example in the region about how to overcome problems.
"In 2001, during the conflict in Macedonia, we organised the events Rock for Peace and Festival of Unlimited Peace, as well as many creative workshops for children and young people, where we [spoke] about tolerance, human rights, respecting of the differences," Derala said.
"The project we are working on right now is called 'All the colors of my country,' which will unite more than 3,000 children from different ages from all the ethnic communities. We are organizing small musical schools at which the children learn music, forming of bands and writing songs. And that always has a strong influence."
The Mitrovica Rock School is another example. Sponsored by Musicians Without Borders, the programme has used music to bring together young Albanians and Serbians in Mitrovica, a strongly separated Northern Kosovo city. Based on the success in Mitrovica, another Rock School was formed in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, helping to break down barriers between young Bosniaks and Serbs.
"The experience from the participation in such projects is wonderful," said Marija Meckarovska, who participated in another Rock School in Skopje. Meckarovska is a resident of Struga, a southwestern Macedonian town where about 30 percent of the population is Albanian.
"I've met a lot of friends from different nationalities and religious backgrounds," Meckarovska said. "Although we met a few years ago, we still keep in touch. The Rock School I have participated in is a great link for connection and sufficient proof that music doesn't know borders."
What observations have you made about relations between the majority and minority ethnic populations where you live? Share your experiences in the comments section.