Macedonian Schools Join Bid to Bridge Ethnic Divide

Ten Macedonian elementary and high schools have joined a project run by the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, which aims to unite children of different ethnic backgrounds.The project aims to encourage setting up multiethnic classes by offering financial assistance to renovate school buildings as well as training awareness in teachers, students and parents.

The four-year project is worth $5 million.

“This is critical in building social and interethnic cohesion throughout the country,” US ambassador Paul Wohlers said at the memorandum-signing ceremony in Skopje.

The USAID project, though long in the pipeline, has taken on a new relevance following an upsurge in March in ethnically motivated incidents between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians.

Tension increased after the gruesome murder in April of five men near Skopje, as rumours spread that the killers were Albanians.

Police on May 1 arrested 20 Albanians in an operation in several villages around the capital. Five people were later named as suspects.

“Multiculturalism and multiethnicity are an advantage in a society. Some individuals are skeptical about the existence of such a society but we are convinced that this characteristic is of use to societies on their path to progress,” Macedonia’s Vice Prime Minister, Musa Xhaferi, said.

In 2001, Macedonia experienced a short-lived armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and the security forces.

The conflict ended that year with the signing of the Ohrid Peace Agreement, an internationally brokered accord guaranteeing greater rights to the Albanians who make up about a quarter of the population of 2.1 million.

But ethnic divisions in Macedonia remain strong and are particularly pronounced in the educational system in which there is little or no contact between ethnic Macedonian and Albanian students.

USAID is not the first such organization to support the introduction of multiethnic classes in Macedonia.

In 2005, the NGO Nansen Dialogue Centre initiated a programme on “Dialogue and Reconciliation” in the north-western municipality of Jegunovce. This led to the opening of the first Integrated Bilingual Primary School in that municipality in 2008. The NGO supports similar projects in several other schools across the country.

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