Troubles shared as Macedonia looks to N. Ireland for ethnic fix
While it may be badged as a former Yugoslav republic, the recent history of Macedonia has been nothing like as troubled as that of its more fractious neighbours, Kosovo and Bosnia. But the last decade has been far from settled. An uprising of ethnic Albanians in 2001 tore apart what had been a relatively peaceful country.
In the wake of continuing ethnic tensions, education officials there are calling on the expertise of a team of internationally renowned educationalists from Northern Ireland who specialise in conflict resolution.
The group, from the school of education at Queen's University Belfast, are advising policy-makers in Macedonia on how to promote peace through schooling.
The two-year project is designed to help schools there promote cultural diversity. It began last week when 15 representatives from the ministry of education and science and local authorities arrived in Northern Ireland to visit schools and education officials there.
The visitors were told that there are three main strands to intercultural education in Northern Ireland: integrated schools, school collaboration and the citizenship curriculum.
Professor Joanne Hughes, research director at the school of education and leader of the project, said: "They were particularly interested in school collaboration. There are more difficulties in Macedonia because the different groups have different languages.
"Some of our conversations about the possibilities for collaboration were about whether it would work for subjects like music, art and extra-curricular activities."
In Northern Ireland, school collaboration brings together neighbouring Protestant and Catholic secondary schools to work on a combined timetable - so, for example, biology GCSE may be offered in one school and drama GCSE in the other.
Pupils spend two years travelling between the schools and sharing a common goal with their peers from the "other" group.
Professor Hughes said the common goal and sustained contact has been shown to help improve relationships.
Queen's researchers will travel to Macedonia next year to help develop school programmes to promote inter-cultural understanding.
Professor Hughes said: "Our curriculum emerged from our context and their (the Macedonians') curriculum will, too. What they are looking for is guidance on what is possible in a jurisdiction where there are ethnic divisions. We will work with them for the next couple of years on what approaches are best and what barriers need to be overcome.
We are presenting a warts-and-all picture of what's happening. There is an ongoing teacher-training issue in Northern Ireland, for example."
International children's charity Unicef said this project is part of a larger programme of promoting a tolerant multi-ethnic community in Macedonia.
Macedonia gained its independence peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991, although Greece objected to the new state's use of what it considered a Hellenic name and symbols.
In 1995, Greece lifted a 20-month trade embargo and the two countries agreed to normalise relations.
Some ethnic Albanians, angered by perceived political and economic inequities, launched an insurgency in 2001 that eventually won the support of the majority of Macedonia's Albanian population and led to the internationally brokered Ohrid framework agreement, which ended the fighting by establishing a set of new laws enhancing the rights of minorities.