Islam Jusufi, 33, belongs to a new generation of well-trained 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 a lot of hope for his country:
"In 2001, there was a new goal emerging, it happened to be European integration, and this is the challenge now. How fast we are going to get to this goal. It has to happen, not just for the sake that we have 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 former Yugoslavia, Turks were officially recognised as a minority, but in the early years after the Second World War 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 of the position of the minorities because in the former Yugoslavia the country in a sense was decentralised, so you would see much of the services offered at the local level 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 function of the state and providing services to the people became very centralised here in Skopje. For example, in education, in the use of the languages, in the management of the local municipal services and also in terms of participation of the ethnic minorities in the public service."
According to Jusufi, there were no open animosities, but it was normal for the different ethnic communities to divide people in "our [people]" and "their [people]".
"I was most afraid of the police. It was difficult to find people in the police from, let's say, 'ours'. 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, 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 that you are not Macedonian, ethnic Macedonian, you would not receive any help."
As early as 1997, Jusufi's hometown Gostivar witnessed the first ethnically motivated clashes. Gostivar 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 hissed the Albanian flag. This provoked a massive police reaction. When the police took off the Albanian flag, people came to the streets and they protested about this flag, which was being perceived as a very important sign of people living in multiethnic communities. The police reacted harsh, there were deaths and injured people, and it was not a reaction people would expect from the police."
According to Human Rights Watch, misconduct of the police was one of the main human rights problems in Macedonia at the time. In 1997 Gostivar became the scene of the most serious case of police violence. The clashes left more than 200 people injured and three people dead.
"So, people started thinking: aha, there is a hidden agenda towards ethnic communities. And what happened in Gostivar, it was not only Albanians suffering, but also Turks because they were also looking for having their flag hoisted in the municipality. The case of Gostivar was very much remembered by the people 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, today the situation is very different, Jusufi says.
"You find people like yourself represented in the state institutions and in the local institutions as well, in the municipalities, in the local police, and you feel much more comfortable and have confidence in the local state institutions, which was lacking in the nineties."
Apart from political stability and EU membership, the greatest wishes of Macedonians include visa-free travel to the EU, says Jusufi.
"People ask, when this visa liberalisation is going to happen, when I am 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 the place an inspiration. These people need, besides their 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."