Ermira Mehmeti is the spokesperson of the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), the biggest Albanian political party in Macedonia. As a young and well educated woman in this position, Ermira Mehmeti also symbolises recent change in the traditional Albanian social structures.
Ermira has always taken a keen interest in politics and the world around her. After the 1999 war in Kosovo, she worked as an interpreter for the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and for the Humanitarian Office of the European Commission.
During the conflict in Macedonia and the peace negotiations in 2001, Ermira worked as a fixer for the news agency Associated Press, helping with contacts, research and translation. That was when she met Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the National Liberation Army (NLA), the Albanian rebels who challenged the Macedonian security forces. When Ahmeti founded DUI and became the party's president, he asked her to assist with translation since she spoke good English and good Macedonian, and with contacts to journalists. Over time, the cooperation intensified.
"In a way I became informally a volunteer during the first election campaign [in 2002]. In December 2002, Mr Ahmeti asked me whether I could take the [spokesperson's] job. For me, it was a surprise. First of all, I didn't expect that someone would actually offer me, first of all as a female, to become spokeswoman for what was still seen as a predominantly male organisation, which was transforming from a military structure into a political structure. So, in that sense I guess I also had a very symbolic role in the process.
"My introduction as a spokesperson was seen as a way to bridge the gap which had been created between Macedonians and Albanians and as a way to show that this military organization is not that bad actually, that it is not so hostile as it was seen."
Ermira finished her studies at the multi-ethnic and multi-lingual South East European University (SEEU) in Tetovo, as one of its first students. The university opened in 2001, following one of the provisions of the Ohrid Agreement. Until 2000 there was no Albanian-language university in Macedonia. More than half of the students who enrolled at the SEEU were women, mostly Albanians, Ermira remembers.
"It was proving to be a great opportunity for women, for young Albanian girls, to study. It was presented as a curiosity in the beginning, but the South East European University had more than 50% female students, the same also applied to the State University of Tetovo [an Albanian-language university that operated illegally and was finally recognized in 2004]. It sent the message that Albanian women want education, but there were factors which deprived them of the right to get a proper education."
The position of women in Albanian society is gradually changing.
"You don't really get negative reactions now, with the new generation. I think young Albanian men are also part, or becoming part, of the global society and relieving themselves of what we used to call the prejudice, which existed in society for so long. For me personally, it was much more of a challenge having to work with some of the people I work with because most of them still belong to an older generation of Albanian men, who are still more traditional – I don't know if I could say conservative, but traditional – and in that sense that was more challenging for me than the fellows at university."
Ermira is proud of the progress her country has made since 2001. A prosperous and stable future is for her clearly linked with EU and NATO membership.
"Macedonia should really be studied as an example of how a country can recover from a conflict that threatened to turn out into a civil war in less than five years after the conflict, and become a candidate country for EU membership. This would not have happened had it not been for the joint commitment of the two largest communities and the political elites, which became rational and realised that Macedonia doesn't have another alternative. Really, [it is] a small country which is surrounded by neighbours who all have their claims over one aspect of the country's identity, be it the church, be it the language, be it the name of the country. So when you are surrounded by such neighbours, you really wonder what is your way out, what kind of alliances you can form. At the end it turns out that the safest alliance would be the EU and certainly also NATO. I honestly want to see Macedonia in the EU."