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Zajas. Photo: Panoramio/Ardian Arifi

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

During the industrialisation campaign in socialist Yugoslavia many ethnic Macedonians in the region left their villages in search of jobs in the factories of Kicevo. For residents of Albanian villages like Zajas, this option was much more difficult. The communist authorities looked at the Albanians – many of whom had collaborated with the Germans during the war – with a great deal of suspicion; they were reluctant to give them jobs. Albanians thus had little choice but to stay in their villages or emigrate, mostly to Western Europe or America. In 2002, municipal officials estimated that almost every household in Zajas had at least one relative abroad. The rebel leader Ali Ahmeti is no exception. In 1986 he left Zajas and sought political asylum in Switzerland, where he lived until his return in 2001.

Members of the Zajas diaspora support their relatives back home. Some have built large houses, symbols of foreign wealth, though 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 not even a single formally employed family member. The 2002 census registered 4,127 women over the age of fifteen. Only 48 of them were employed.

Private sector development in Zajas is also hampered by low education levels. A 2002 study found that 87.5 percent of the village’s population had failed to attain secondary-level schooling. 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 1996 reforms in local government, when the number of municipalities was increased from 34 to 123. Municipal boundaries are a sensitive issue, as they determine whether a town or district is predominantly ethnic Macedonian or Albanian.

Zajas municipality was one of four new rural municipalities carved out of the former socialist municipality of Kicevo. 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. Its 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 presence of the Macedonian state in the village was virtually non-existent.

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

The Kicevo area was one of the most contested cases. The 1996 boundaries had left some 20,000 Albanians spread across two completely rural municipalities, Zajas and Oslomej, thus providing 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 partners in the DUI was that Kicevo would be "reunified", but only in 2008 (the date, in the meantime, has been postponed to 2009). This triggered huge local protests, however. A "committee for the rescue of Kicevo" was set up, including local SDSM representatives. In the summer of 2004 numerous demonstrations took place; these included the blocking of the main road to Ohrid on weekends, which caused tremendous traffic jams. After a couple of weeks, however, the protests died down. During the municipal elections which took place less than a year later, the reunification was no longer an issue.

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 employees had increased to 10.

Rifat Huseini is the mayor of Zajas, the village where Ahmeti was born. He sees the impact of the Ohrid Agreement on the villagers’ lives. Tensions, he says, 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. Cooperation has become much better. This is the result of the 2001 Ohrid Agreement and the events of 2001. Since then the Albanians are better represented in the administration."

May 2008

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