Islam Jusufi, 33, belongs to a new generation of well-rounded, well-educated Macedonians. He has studied and worked in Ankara, Washington, Amsterdam, Sheffield, Budapest, Brussels, Strasbourg, Moscow, Geneva and Beijing, focusing on international relations and politics.
In 2001 he joined the cabinet of late Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski as an adviser on NATO and EU affairs. Trajkovski was a moderate, reform-oriented politician who played an important role in resolving the 2001 conflict. He died in a plane crash in 2004.
Today, Jusufi works for the European Union in Skopje, managing EU assistance programmes. He has high hopes for his country’s future:
"In 2001, there was a new goal emerging; it was European integration, and this is the challenge now. How fast are we going to get to this goal? It has to happen, not just for the sake of having the Balkans integrated in the European Union, but for the sake of – and building up on the success of – a multiethnic Macedonia."
Islam Jusufi belongs to Macedonia's Turkish minority, which makes up 4 percent of the population. As a Turk, he knows how important it is to integrate different ethnic groups and minorities in a multiethnic society. In the former Yugoslavia Turks were officially recognised as a minority. In the immediate wake of the Second World War, however, there was pressure on them to leave. Of 200,000 Turks who lived in Yugoslavia in 1953, more than 90,000 had emigrated to Turkey by 1960. Today, there are 78,000 Turks left in Macedonia (and a few thousand in Kosovo).
Following the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the situation of minorities became precarious in Macedonia, says Jusufi.
"In the 1990s, there was a perceived change in the position of the minorities, because in the former Yugoslavia the country in a sense was decentralised, so much of the services offered at the local level would directly benefit the local communities and particularly the ethnic communities. With the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the birth of the new Macedonia, we saw that the state, and its provision of services, became very centralised here in Skopje: in education, for example, in the use of the languages, in the management of the local services, and in terms of the ethnic minorities’ participation in public service."
According to Jusufi, though there were no open animosities it was normal for the different ethnic communities to distinguish among "our [people]" and "their [people]".
"I was most afraid of the police. […]You couldn't find people from your community being represented in the local police. The feeling was that you should avoid the police. Just avoid any problems, avoid any accident, and avoid any situation that may lead to an encounter with the police, because you are going to lose. The feeling was that when they see your name and realise you are not Macedonian, ethnic Macedonian, you would not receive any help."
As early as 1997, Jusufi's hometown of Gostivar witnessed the first ethnically motivated clashes. Gostivar, located in north-western Macedonia, has 80,000 inhabitants, of whom 64% are ethnic Albanians, 22% ethnic Macedonians, and 10% ethnic Turks.
"In July 1997 the municipal authorities hoisted the Albanian flag. This provoked a massive police reaction. When the police took down the Albanian flag, people came to the streets and they protested: the flag was perceived as a very important sign for people living in multiethnic communities. The police reacted harshly, there were deaths and injured people; it was not a reaction people would expect from the police."
According to Human Rights Watch, police misconduct was one of the main human rights problems in Macedonia at the time. In 1997 Gostivar became the scene of the most serious incidents of police violence. The clashes left more than 200 people injured and three dead.
"So, people started thinking: aha, there is a hidden agenda towards ethnic communities. And what happened in Gostivar, it was not only the Albanians suffering, but also the Turks, because they were also looking to have their flag hoisted in the municipality. People often recalled the Gostivar incidents when the conflict broke out in 2001. It was the beginning of what was to come in 2001. It remained isolated, but people could not forget that event."
However, the situation is very different today, says Jusufi.
"You find yourself represented in the state institutions, in the local institutions, in the municipalities, in the local police, and you feel much more comfortable and have confidence in the local state institutions. This was lacking in the nineties."
Apart from political stability and EU membership, Macedonians’ greatest wishes include visa-free travel to the EU, says Jusufi.
"People ask, ‘When is this visa liberalisation going to happen, when am I going to be able to travel freely to Europe and come back and do something here?’ They find Europe an inspirational place, they do not think of going there and taking somebody's job, they just find inspiration. These people need, besides hope, some motivation and inspiration for change. Look at the new generation. I studied abroad! I came back and I have a number of colleagues – all of them came back."