Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Albanians are the largest minority in North Macedonia. According to the 2002 census there are 509,083 Albanians in North Macedonia, or 25 per cent of the population. Unofficial estimates are higher. Albanians live mainly in western areas of the country and in Skopje. The majority of Albanians are Muslims, but there are some followers of the Bektashi dervish religion, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Albanians.
Albanians have lived in what is now North Macedonia since the time of Ottoman rule.
During the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Albanians were the largest nationality without the status of a nation; they were concentrated in Macedonia and Kosovo. Although Tito introduced a range of measures to protect Albanian identity, including in the fields of education and culture, national grievances persisted. During the late 1980s Albanian protests in Macedonia grew in response to worsening conditions in neighbouring Kosovo. In response, Macedonian authorities clamped down on Albanian educational facilities and other alleged vehicles of Albanian nationalism, including personal names ‘which stimulated nationalist sentiment and adherence to the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania’. Albanian civil servants and teachers were dismissed and a number of Albanian-language schools closed. Walls traditionally built around Albanian homes were razed on the grounds that they had become fortifications. Ethnic Albanians countered these measures with a school boycott in several areas and increasingly violent demonstrations.
Since independence in 1991, the country’s politics politics has been heavily driven by an ongoing political dialogue between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Macedonians. Albanian parties have participated in coalition governments. However, Albanians continued to face exclusion, including in the areas of private and public-sector employment. Tensions also rose around the issue of the Albanian university in Tetovo. Previously, Albanians from Macedonia had attended the University of Pristina, but after 1990, their participation declined on account of deteriorating conditions in Kosovo. No alternative facilities were arranged, and higher education continued almost exclusively in the Macedonian language. An attempt to establish a private Albanian-language university in Tetovo was blocked by the authorities. Tensions culminated in 2001 with violent interethnic conflict. The conflict ended with the Ohrid Framework Agreement, and the position of ethnic Albanians has improved since then, although problems remain.
In 2007, rising tensions over Kosovo’s final status appeared to be the spark for sporadic outbreaks of violence in the western border region. Ethnic Albanian extremists, citing neglect from Skopje, were seeking to break away from Macedonia to join Kosovo.
As a result of the Ohrid Framework Agreement, important guarantees have been provided for ethnic Albanians, particularly as regards language use and participation in public life, including public-sector employment. The Albanian-language University of Tetovo has been recognized by authorities.
A significant step was taken in January 2019 when an Albanian-language bill became law. Previously, Albanian was the official language only in areas where the community comprised at least 20 per cent of the population. According to the new legislation, its use will become more widespread, especially at the national level.
However, ethnic Albanians remain overrepresented amongst the unemployed, still underrepresented in state employment, and those who live in areas where they do not constitute 20 per cent of the population face problems with language use in public administration and access to education in their mother tongue. Ethnic Albanians are often victims of hidden discrimination, including by public officials. As all groups in North Macedonia, they face problems because the education system is segregated and heavily influenced by political parties.
In July 2020, supporters of Albanian opposition parties protested in Skopje following national elections that they alleged had been manipulated by the ruling party. In September, community representatives called for job subsidies to encourage increased Albanian employment in the private sector to address their low levels of representation in business. However, the proposals were rejected on the grounds that they would be discriminatory and increase inter-ethnic tensions.
Updated October 2020