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Macedonia’s Cooling-Off Period

The country tries again to devise a single history curriculum for its different ethnicities, but one subject remains too hot to handle.

by Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska 28 September 2012

SKOPJE | Macedonia has two recent histories: one for ethnic Macedonians and another for the ethnic Albanians who make up about a quarter of the population.

 

The two sides fought a short-lived conflict in 2001 for which they have no shared definition. Was it an armed conflict (the most commonly accepted term), a terrorist campaign, or a war for Albanian civil rights?

 

That divide has left the history classroom a potential minefield, and this summer a group of European and Macedonian history teachers launched the latest of several attempts to mine-sweep the curriculum.

 

A Macedonian army reservists tank crew at the battle for the village of Aracinovo. Photo by Military Journal/Wikimedia Commons.

 

Some of the resulting recommendations – to focus on agreed-upon historical events and avoid contested issues – can hardly be called bold. Those involved, however, hope the approach can hold until a time when the facts and not the myths of the conflict can get an airing in the classroom.

 

History teachers “need training on how to teach history by respecting the diversity in the country but also supporting a sense of belonging by overcoming the present separation in Macedonian and Albanian narratives,” said Jonathan Even-Zohar, a senior manager in the European Association of History Educators, which worked on the project along with the History Teachers Association of Macedonia.

 

Not that children are learning much about the conflict anyway. Mire Mladenovski, president of the Macedonian teachers group, said primary and secondary school students do not learn about the history of Macedonia since its independence in 1991, simply because the last 21 years are not treated in the history books. Albanian and Macedonian students use the same textbooks.

 

Most educators agree that most recent history should no longer be avoided. Mladenovski said the effects of Macedonia’s transition from socialism to capitalism, for instance, should be included in history books; although it’s recent, it’s hardly a divisive subject. 

 

“People from different nationalities were and still are facing high unemployment. That’s common for many people, regardless of their nationality or religion,” he said.

 

But the conflict is another matter.

 

“In order for a historical event to be processed in the books, you have to have a historical distance from it,” said Todor Chepreganov, director of the Institute of National History.

 

Chepreganov said he supports the effort to write a common history book, but aside from issues of timing, he is skeptical that it can succeed, given that any new curriculum or books must be approved by ministers who are the product of the country’s rancorous and divided politics.

 

“Everybody involved in the writing of the new history will have their own starting point of view about the historical facts and events," he said. "We, the historians, might find some common ground. But, in the end, the final word must come from the politicians. And that’s doubtful.”

 

Indeed, while historians search for a model that helps students of different nationalities learn to communicate, the country’s politicians embrace policies that emphasize their differences.

 

A recent rift between the two largest parties in the governing coalition, the VMRO-DPMNE and the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), has been exacerbated by the VMRO-DPMNE’s support for a measure that would confer special benefits on those who fought in the 2001 conflict on the side of the Macedonians and exclude the Albanian fighters.

 

The political crisis peaked on 18 August – the Day of the Army of the Republic of Macedonia – when Defense Minister Fatmir Besimi, an ethnic Albanian from the DUI, placed flowers at a monument to Albanian Liberation Army fighters in the northern village of Slupcane. Inhabited largely by Albanians, Slupcane was heavily shelled by the national army in the 2001 conflict. The act angered many Macedonians, including inside the government.

 

Xhabir Deralla, the president of the CIVIL – Center for Freedom think tank and human rights watchdog group, said the parties in Macedonia’s dysfunctional politics have an interest in keeping the nationalist fervor alive, since it gives them a way to distract people from ineffective governance and more pressing issues. Macedonia’s unemployment rate has been stuck above 30 percent for years, and the average monthly wage is 30,323 denars ($638).

 

At least on paper, however, the effort to write a shared history has the support of the government.

 

“All nationalities living in this region fought together for the freedom, the independence, and the statehood of Macedonia, even though everybody writes their own history,” said Deputy Education Minister Safet Neziri in a statement. “Instead of uniting, the facts present in history books are dividing the students.”  

 

A working group of historians is advising the ministry on a revision of history books, but the group has not said which events will be included in the new versions. The European history teachers association has criticized the process as opaque and called for members of the Macedonian teachers group to be included. The review is likely to take years.

 

Among the recommendations in its August report on history education in Macedonia, the European association also called for new online educational materials to better engage students and more transparent procedures in the Education Ministry for textbook writing and publishing.

 

TRY, TRY AGAIN

 

The country’s recent past is littered with attempts to devise a shared history curriculum.

 

In 2001, under the aegis of the European history teachers group, education officials in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania teamed up to train teachers in a curriculum that promoted democratic values, human rights, and multiculturalism. The program also aimed to create apposite teaching materials, including textbooks.

 

Five years later, the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights launched a reconciliation project for Macedonian and Albanian students at one high school in Skopje. In a debate, students presented radical versions of each side of the 2001 conflict. The point was to make the history teachers – one Albanian and one Macedonian – who oversaw the debate try to bring those competing versions closer together.  

 

Then in 2008 Macedonia was one of 12 countries in southeastern Europe to take part in a project that examined how schools across the region taught about the Balkan Wars, the Ottoman Empire, World War II, and the establishment of Balkan nation-states.

 

It’s not clear if these efforts have made a lasting impact on schools.

 

Macedonia-born Shadije Rushiti Ibraimi is a junior researcher at the Swiss Center for Peace Studies in Basel who is studying whether there are effective models already in place in Macedonia for teaching peace and reconciliation.

 

Given that new textbooks will take years to produce, Ibraimi said the short-term focus needs to be on teaching methods. Specifically, she said, teachers should encourage their students to spot discriminatory language and passages in textbooks and to seek out other sources of information that could provide a different angle.

 

But she said real progress will depend on politicians, who “set the agenda of the system,” as well as parents and the media, who help shape children’s attitudes.

 

Deralla, of the CIVIL think tank, said it’s worth waiting to get the “common history” approach right. He said communities need to hash out their own history before they can start talking to each other.

 

“Once the silly nationalist myths and ghosts are cleared out within each community, the historians will be ready to work together to create a common understanding of history," he said. "If this doesn’t take place first, this initiative will be sidelined by politics.” 

Ljubica Grozdanovska Dimishkovska is a TOL correspondent in Skopje.

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