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Zajas. Photo: Panoramio/Ardian Arifi

Zajas is an Albanian village a few kilometres north of Kicevo. It is the village of Ali Ahmeti, the leader of the National Liberation Army (NLA) during the conflict in 2001. The demands of the Albanian community and the need for the provisions made in the Ohrid Agreement can be better understood in rural places like Zajas.

In the time of industrialisation under socialist Yugoslavia many ethnic Macedonians in the region left their villages in search of jobs in the factories of Kicevo. For the people in Albanian villages, such as Zajas, this option was much more difficult. The communist authorities looked at Albanians, many of whom had collaborated with the Germans, with suspicion and were reluctant to hire them. Albanians thus either stayed in their villages or emigrated, mostly to Western Europe or America. In 2002 officials in the municipality estimated that almost every household in Zajas has at least one relative abroad. The rebel leader Ali Ahmeti is no exception. In 1986 he sought political asylum in Switzerland where he lived until his return in 2001.

Zajas' Diaspora supports their relatives remaining in the village. Some migrants have built large houses, symbols of foreign wealth, but many of these are vacant. Remittances have been a form of support rather than a source of productive investment. Jobs remain scarce in the village. In 2002, the largest private company in Zajas had 10-12 employees. Official statistics showed 155 registered shops, a restaurant, a motel and a bakery. 135 people were employed as teachers in Zajas' primary schools. These figures suggest that the great majority of Zajas' 2,000 households had no family member in formal employment. The 2002 census registered 4,127 women over the age of fifteen. Only 48 of them were employed.

Development of the private sector in Zajas is also hampered by low education levels. A 2002 study found that 87.5 percent of the population in Zajas had lower than secondary education. This, in addition to earlier systematic discrimination, was also a barrier to jobs in the civil service.

One of the key provisions of the Ohrid Agreement concerns the decentralisation of government. A strong centralisation drive after independence in the early 1990s had left villages like Zajas largely cut off from the state's resources and services. This isolation became particularly acute after the reforms to local government in 1996, when the number of municipalities was increased from 34 to 123. Municipal boundaries are a sensitive issue, because they determine whether a town or district is predominantly ethnic Macedonian or Albanian.

Zajas municipality was one of four new rural municipalities created out of the former socialist Kicevo municipality. These new municipalities found themselves detached from their traditional administrative centre, Kicevo town, with little or no public institutions or infrastructure. In 2002 Zajas municipality had seven staff working in a temporary shelter the size of a family apartment. The core budget was 54,000, roughly 5 per inhabitant. The municipality was home to 19.3 percent of the Kicevo area's population, but received only 1.9 percent of the funds allocated for the water and canalisation programme between 1997 and 2001. It would be fair to say that the Macedonian state was largely absent in the village.

The Ohrid agreement set out a plan for new laws on local government, strengthening local responsibilities and increasing financial resources. Also a series of the municipal boundaries were redrawn.

The Kicevo area was one of the most contested cases. The 1996 boundaries had left some 20,000 Albanians in two completely rural municipalities, Zajas and Oslomej, and thus provided Kicevo town with an ethnic Macedonian majority. Albanians now wanted the rural areas to reunite with the urban Kicevo municipality, while ethnic Macedonians were against.

The compromise reached in 2004 between the ruling Social Democrats and their Albanian partner DUI was that Kicevo would be "reunified" in 2008 and not immediately (in the meantime postponed to 2009). But this triggered huge local protest. A "committee for the rescue of Kicevo" was set up, including local SDSM representatives. In summer 2004 there were numerous demonstrations, including the blocking of the main road to Ohrid on the weekends, causing tremendous traffic jams. After a couple of weeks, however, the protests died down. At the municipal elections that took place less than a year later, the reunification was not an issue any more.

The entry for Zajas municipality in the Directory of Macedonian Municipalities provides evidence of a modest improvement in public resources. The provisional budget for 2005 was equivalent to 183,000 or 16 per inhabitant. The municipality's number of employees had increased to 10.

Rifat Huseini is the Mayor of Zajas, the village where Ahmeti was born. He sees a change for the people in Zajas since the Ohrid Agreement has been signed. Tensions have almost disappeared.

"Before 2002, there were only two Albanians working at the Zajas police station. Today, out of 23-24 policemen 17 are Albanians, and there is respect between the police and the people. The cooperation has become much better. This is the result of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement and the events in 2001. Since then the Albanians are better represented in the administration."

May 2008

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