Our neighbors, so near, so far

In a little village on the road from Korce to Gjirokaster in Albania, on a recent Sunday afternoon, about 40 Greek students stopped for lunch in the central square as the locals stood around watching them. The 38 students and their two professors, Dimitris Christopoulos of Athens’s Panteios University and Constantinos Tsitselikis of Macedonia University’s Balkan Studies Department, had begun their excursion at Ohrid, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). It was a voyage of discovery, of finding out how different – and how similar – Balkan peoples are to Greeks. At Lake Ohrid, they listened to FYROM’s Citizens’ Ombudsman Ixhet Memeti, an ethnic Albanian, talk about the problems raised by the Ohrid Agreement. Memeti, one of the most interesting personalities in the Balkans today, was FYROM’s justice minister in 2001 when the most important effort was made to reconcile the country’s two main ethnic groups, Albanians and Slav-Macedonians. The Ohrid Agreement signed at that time provided for major participation of the Albanian minority in the country’s affairs. «What has happened since then?» asked the students. Not much, Memeti admitted. The curse of the «forested mountain,» the Persian word «Balkan,» was constantly in the mind of the students throughout their journey. Uranja Pirovska, head of public relations for Memeti’s bureau, surprised the students by talking to them in Greek. She is descended from Greeks who crossed the border to the north during the civil war, a bilingual «Macedonian» who found herself on the other side of the border when the war ended. She was born in Kastoria but is now something of a nationalist on the «other» side of the border. All the same, she was almost apologetic when telling the students that her cousin in Larissa is a Greek nationalist and her other cousin in Kastoria is trying to find a happy medium. These kinds of stories are rarely reported in the media and so the students discovered people facing dilemmas created decades previously, but fed by today’s problems. The educational excursion began on Friday, November 30 in Thessaloniki. A five-hour bus trip later, the Greeks arrived at the lovely Lake Ohrid through fields that are mostly lying fallow and ethnic Albanian villages whose inhabitants are gradually moving to Tetovo, reflecting the dilemma in today’s FYROM – how to enable ethnic Albanians and Slav-Macedonians to live side by side when the dividing line is so clear-cut in Kosovo. The students realized why people in FYROM are monitoring events in Kosovo closely, why the Slav-Macedonians are afraid the ethnic Albanians will become encouraged and why the latter are afraid to do just that. The next day, Saturday, there was a meeting with Memeti and Pirovska. Then it was back on the bus for a trip along one of the most beautiful routes in the region – toward the border with Albania and to Pogradec, the other side of the Balkan mosaic, an Albanian town with a Slavophone population. That evening the students arrived in Korce where they met Litian Broka, an employee of the Albanian Parliament who graduated from Thessaloniki University’s political science department, for a discussion of the sociopolitical situation in the region.