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Ahmeti’s Next Challenger? Interview with Hisni Shaqiri

June 8, 2005

Ending months of speculation, independent MP Hisni Shaqiri (formerly of Ali Ahmeti’s DUI) has decided to take the lead in forming a new political alternative for Albanians in Macedonia.

Having served in Parliament more or less continuously since 1991, at various time affiliated with each of the existing Albanian parties (PDP, DPA and more recently DUI), the 55 year-old Shaqiri is clearly experienced politically. Hailing from the Kumanovo-area village of Otlja, this NLA veteran of the 2001 conflict also commands respect among Albanians for his war experience. But will Mr. Shaqiri’s populist appeal be enough to compete with the well-entrenched Albanian political interests of Ali Ahmeti and Arben Xhaferi?

In the following interview, conducted on Tuesday, June 7 by Balkanalysis.com director Christopher Deliso, Mr. Shaqiri makes his case regarding the need for political change, and touches on other interesting issues such as the war of 2001, related extremist militant groups and corruption.

Christopher Deliso: First of all, a little about yourself. What were you educated in, and where did you work before beginning your political career?

Hisni Shaqiri: I am from Otlja, a village near Lipkovo in the Kumanovo region of Macedonia. My whole family is from there. A long time ago, I was working as a teacher of history in Goce Delcev High School in Kumanovo. But in 1981, because of widespread Albanian protests, we the so-called ‘irredentists’ were fired. It was a time of demonstrations beginning in Kosovo. The Socialist regime of Macedonia had ordered all high schools to be taught in Macedonian. Until then Albanian students had been taught in Albanian language. So for example, prior to 1981, Zef Lush Marku High School in Skopje had had 16 or 17 classes in Albanian. But after the new laws, this was the only one in Skopje and they had maybe 3 classes in Albanian.

After I was fired, I was kept in jail for 2 months, while they also took away my right to work in the future in the school system. So then I didn’t work for 5 years. However, afterwards I went on to get a job in Kosovo, in Gnjilane, also in the field of education. I worked there for 7 years, until 1991.

CD: And at that time you became interested in politics, in the independent Macedonia?

HS: Yes. Since 1991, I have been a member of parliament. First I ran with the PDP, then as an independent. The third time, I was with DPA but this mandate was truncated by the conflict; on March 27, 2001 I left Parliament to serve my people because the war was going on in my area. I didn’t start the war, but I supported the war, when I concluded that I had to be together with my people.

After the war, I went back to Parliament with the DUI, but now I’m independent again.

CD: As you know, DPA leader Arben Xhaferi recently stated publicly that he and then-Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski had created the war in order to divide Macedonia on ethnic lines. What is your reaction to this?

HS: For me, people like Xhaferi and others with their political declarations are not acting seriously. At that I time was part of the NLA, and so I wasn’t familiar with whatever secret talks they might have had. What I do know from my experience is that we had a very heavy conflict with the government of Macedonia’s forces. And within this government was Xhaferi. But they weren’t able to keep the peace, or to overcome the conflict.

CD: Yes, but that said, what do you think? Was there really such a plan being considered by the government?

HS: It is possible that Xhaferi and Georgievski had talked about this issue, to divide Macedonia according to their interests. And it is possible that they were talking about this as a project – it was publicized by the Macedonian Academy of Arts & Sciences report, which Georgievski and then-President of Parliament Stojan Andov supported.

However, the division of Macedonia would be very dangerous for ordinary Macedonians and Albanians also, because many of the problems would still exist, without solutions.

For instance, what would happen to the inevitable minority of one group left in the other’s regions? The division was planned only for the Western region and Aracinovo. Such a project would be very harmful and not in the interests of the Albanian people. After the division of Macedonia, we would have had even more borders between Albanian populations.

CD: Considering that since 2002 the DPA has been making itself more and more isolated under Xhaferi’s renewed nationalistic rhetoric, what do you imagine could have been his motive in coming out with a statement that would only seem the international community’s worst fears about his policies?

HS: I don’t know, but it is possible that Arben Xhaferi is making these kinds of statements in order to keep himself in the spotlight, to keep some attention on him.

CD: When you left Parliament and joined the NLA in March of 2001, did you feel like you were fighting for Ali Ahmeti, or recognize him as the main leader?

HS: My motive to go to the mountains was to defend my region of Kumanovo, where I had my family, my relatives, and not to follow Ali Ahmeti per se. I know other people who had the same motive as I. As a result of our high morale and this motivation, our results were very successful and we were not defeated. It [the war] resulted in the Ohrid Framework Agreement. A great result, because we stopped the fighting and achieved a political agreement to guarantee stability and peace in Macedonia.

Third, with the help of the Framework Agreement, we achieved a harmonization of interests between Macedonians and Albanians. What was most important was the help of the US, EU and NATO: without them many pieces of the agreement would not have fallen into place.

CD: Nevertheless, Ali Ahmeti definitely was able to take the lion’s share of the credit and turn himself into a widely respected leader among the Albanians, someone that the people would follow. So to what does he owe his success? Military ability, charisma, backers, etc?

HS: I wouldn’t say that Ahmeti has charisma, but he’s associated with the victory. 2001 was a crossroads for the Albanians in Macedonia. There were some political results achieved, also the constitution was changed. The introduction of all these changes had the effect of making everything seem to be the direct result of the war. However, Ali Ahmeti was all the time in Prizren during the agreement negotiation. I’m sure that Xhaferi and [Imer] Imeri had consultations with him during the negotiating process, so he had a role.

But behind Ahmeti was an organizational structure, commanded from Prizren. We had war in Aracinovo, Lipkovo and Sat Planina, but with the ending of the war Ahmeti went to Sipkovica.

CD: During the war, before the peace agreement was made, did you meet with him?

HS: I went one time in Prizren in Kosovo, because on May 15, 2001 Ali Ahmeti asked me to come. I went and was back to our positions in the Lipkovo hills by the 23rd of May. I was in the 5th battalion of the 113th brigade. Ali had wanted me to come so he could ask me about how the fighting was going in my area.

Robert Frowick, a US diplomat, offered all Albanian politicians to sign a declaration. I was asked for my opinion of that declaration. It was signed on 23 May by Ahmeti, Xhaferi and Imeri. I had a positive opinion of this declaration as I thought it would help end the fighting.

CD: Did you yourself meet Mr. Frowick?

HS: I didn’t meet Frowick, because after this act Macedonia declared him persona non grata.

CD: What about Aracinovo. Do you believe the allegations that American military trainers were found together with the NLA fighters that NATO escorted to safety?

HS: That, the 17 MPRI guys story – that’s just the speculation of some journalists… The US, NATO and the EU were all interested deeply in stopping the fighting. The fighting in Aracinovo was seen as very dangerous because it was close to Skopje and could spread there. The Americans had the wise opinion that if the fighting could endanger Skopje and spread to the city then we would have a very large conflict indeed.

CD: Aside from Aracinovo, did the US provide your side with military supplies during the war?

HS: No. They asked by all means to stop the conflict, but not by direct contribution to the fighting.

CD: So nothing? No humanitarian equipment, no Western medical supplies, perhaps?

HS: No. It was only in the political aspect that we had help.

CD: During the war of 2001, what was the role of Kosovo in supplying and leading the NLA?

HS: As for Kosovo, we cannot talk about training and supplies from institutions. There were maybe some people acting on their own, but not officially.

CD: Yes, but what of the many stories of involvement from high figures like Agim Ceku or Daut Haradinaj?

HS:When I talk about Kosovo institutions not taking part, I am including for example Agim Ceku as a representative of an institution. But of course there were individuals acting independently. The conflict was a surprise to Kosovo as much as it was to Macedonia.

CD: Would you like to say anything about the so-called “Albanian National Army” (ANA or AKSH) which has taken responsibility for various terrorist attacks and vows to fight on for the creation of a single pan-Albanian state?

HS: The AKSH fell out of the public eye after the ending of the war and the signing of the Ohrid Agreement. Those persons [in the group] weren’t involved in the fighting, they didn’t do anything during the war, but only presented themselves afterwards!

As a result of this, they know very little of the conflict of 2001.   Maybe they watched it from Prizren like Ahmeti did. If they were present during the fighting, maybe they would talk a little differently. The fighting was very dangerous… they should not play with fire.

Because I’m an Albanian, I think we should not solve problems only by war. I stress once more that if those people of AKSH knew what happened in these villages, they would talk differently and be much more responsible when they speak publicly.

CD: Critics claim that leaders like Idajet Beqiri are drastically overstating the popularity of the group among average Albanians, and that the general support level is quite low. From your perspective, what can you say?

HS: Speaking frankly, when I talk with the people in the conflict region, it is clear that they don’t want another conflict. I don’t know Mr. Beqiri directly, and I don’t know why he thinks the conflict is not over. He has a right to think what he wants, like anyone else, of course. But I’m talking as a man who was part of the conflict. I saw it and I experienced it. People like that, who weren’t involved in the fighting, can speak, but from a different perspective. I believe that if they had been involved they would not speak like that and would try to be more responsible.

CD: It is often said that such groups have less popularity here than with the Albanian diaspora, which helped fund the Albanian fighters in Kosovo and Macedonia. What is the current mood in the diaspora regarding donating to the cause? Have things progressed?

HS: These issues are very serious. I believe that the Albanian diaspora is tired now of giving money. So far they have done so for 3 wars – in Kosovo, South Serbia and Macedonia. I don’t know if they would take you seriously now, to get up in front of all these people, in front of the entire diaspora who already gave so much for these 3 wars, and to ask for more. I think that would not be accepted.

Besides, all of them have family ties here, and in Kosovo and in South Serbia, and they know from these ties that the Albanians here are tired of fighting.

CD: In quitting the DUI publicly last year, you cited corruption and cronyism as among your reasons for becoming an independent. Can you elaborate on this?

HS: One way of creating an oligarchy in a party is to staff it with all the same people, and eliminate the opportunity for skilled people to make their contributions. That is the way it is in DUI. This is something very harmful for all Albanians. In, DUI skilled and educated people don’t get the chance to get their way.

CD: Has this caused practical problems?

HS: The people in government now are not prepared to implement even basic processes. I often say that if it weren’t for the international community, DUI wouldn’t know how to implement anything!

CD: Well, how do you propose fixing the situation? What about the presence of organized crime and corruption, for example?

HS: The situation has many aspects and different influences. Definitely, organized crime is present. But in Macedonia should function a legal state, and to secure this we should first of all implement judicial reforms. This most of all will help lower levels of corruption.

But this can’t be done within the existing structures. We need new political options for a true and real approach to solving these problems – and preferably with people who don’t have criminal records and other negative features. Because after all, thieves can’t be judged by other thieves!

CD: So can you point out some specific cases of corruption you feel to be especially destructive?

HS: I don’t want to point out any specific examples, but this is the general characteristic of political life. I’ve talked with people in the DUI base who said that to get a job, they had to pay 1000 euros to a party person – just to get their name on the list! Because we’re talking about corruption, I will mention someone you may already know of, Abdulhalim Kasami, the finance director of DUI. I want to know what kind of finances he’s director of. What is his role? To racketeer people in private firms, or what?

CD: I have no idea. Why do you think he got the job, and what does it actually involve?

HS: I’m just interested because of his position, his very title is connected with corruption. For his role and function you should ask Ali Ahmeti, who appointed him. He’s from Tetovo but they spent a lot of time together in the diaspora.

CD: So now about your new party. There has been a lot of speculation about this and now we find that you are starting to make something happening. How is progress so far?

HS: We are at the beginning phase now of the party. We formed an initiation board, and published a political statement. By the end of this month, we will register the party. Now it is called NDF, New Democratic Forces (Forcat E Reja Demokratike in Albanian).

A few days ago, our political declaration was made public to the media. This set the basic pillars of the political program, and the vision and ideals we have. We aim to be an alternative for citizens, and to uphold 5 basic principles: honesty; trust; courage; transparency, and foresight.

CD: Can you give us a list of any co-leaders or members you’ve already signed up?

HS: Yes. We have the members of our initiation board, from several parts of Macedonia. From Skopje, we have Agron Zajazi. From Tetovo, Arben Rusi. From Gostivar, Vebi Ramadani. From Debar, Ljuan Haxhirexha. From the municipality of Saraj near Skopje, Nasar Hamiti, and from Kumanovo… me.

CD: What about the popular former Gostivar mayor, Rufi Osmani? There was talk that he might be joining a new opposition bloc.

HS: No- for the moment, Rufi Osmani is not with us.

CD: Can you tell us something about the men you have just named. Where do they come from? Do they have party ties? Were they NLA fighters like you?

HS: The characteristic common to all these people is that I think all of them have a clean and honest past. They weren’t fighters, actually most are intellectuals, but of course in the future some former NLA fighters may join.

For example, Ljuan has a PhD in Mining, and Rusi is an architect. Hamiti is an economist, Agron, a medical doctor and Vebi, a linguist.

In the near future, we will start to form branches and sub-branches and hopefully have more input from young people.

CD: Still, despite the widespread dissatisfaction with the established order among the general population, can you hope to be ready to compete in next year’s elections, considering you are just beginning operations now?

HS: We cannot give promises like other parties who enjoy better established positions. We can only point out a better way to try to solve economic problems. I think we will have the support of professional and educated people most of all.

CD: Your critics say that since you are from Kumanovo and therefore even if you have popularity there, it will be hard for you to command the loyalty of Albanians from the west of Macedonia, which is home to the DUI and DPA leadership.

HS: This is a problem that we must analyze. Albanians in Macedonia have the same problems wherever they may happen to live. First we should find the proper standpoint for assessing the problem with our political life. We should insist on explaining that the situation was created by the existing structures. And we should always defend the truth, and in this way we will get support from the Tetovo and Gostivar people, even though I am from Kumanovo region.

It is true that Xhaferi and Ahmeti are from the west of Macedonia. But I think the people have already seen everything they’re going to see from those guys. If the people think that they deserve political support…. Okay, what the people think should be respected. But this present bad situation can be overcome with a new vision, to show that the problem can be solved.

CD: What do you think is the number one problem for Albanians in Macedonia today? The economy?

HS: Yes. The economic situation is for the moment the biggest problem for Albanians. All the other issues will not be solved without that. Macedonia as a country is not capable of very fast and fruitful industrial development. But the climate is very promising for Macedonia in agriculture, for very good and environmentally clean produce for the EU market. I think Macedonia should give priority to agriculture, but unfortunately investment in this area is very low. In tourism there is also a possibility. Their developments will condition the change in economy to allow the development of more heavy industry. Along with agriculture I include animal products, like dairy.

CD: So what has been the reaction to your new political initiative from the internationals? Have you had any meetings with the diplomats?

HS: Yes, now the diplomats have started to express their interest; I have met with representatives of the British embassy and the OSCE. They were interested in my initiative. In fact, tomorrow morning US officials will visit me here in parliament.

Immediately now we will start to build a structure with the base, according to what we plan to offer. We should define ourselves as distinct from the existing parties and take a standpoint for progress. We must offer a real alternative for the future.

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