July 19, 2024

After drawing up a plan for 20 hires this year by the city administration, the head of the municipal personnel department plugged it into the Balancer — a website run by the government of the Balkan nation of North Macedonia.

Seconds later, he received a chart giving the mandatory ethnic breakdown of the people to fill the jobs: 16 ethnic Albanians, three ethnic Macedonians and one Roma.

The computer-generated quotas, which match the size of different communities in the heavily ethnic Albanian city of Tetovo, in the country’s northwest, are part of one of the world’s most comprehensive and rigidly mathematical government programs aimed at enforcing ethnic diversity through affirmative action.

It is also deeply contested. Critics say it puts ethnicity above merit, while supporters credit it with helping to pull the country back from ethnic civil war. Both sides agree the program has become riddled with fraud, especially as ethnic-based political parties try to game the system, and that it and other efforts to promote diversity have contributed to the proliferation of unnecessary state sector jobs.

Many in the ethnic Macedonian majority see such efforts as unfair social engineering, contributing to a big election win on May 8 for a nationalist-tinged political party, VMRO-DPMNE, that appeals mainly to the majority and has pledged to scrap the Balancer.

Initially spared the violence that convulsed neighboring Kosovo and other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, North Macedonia, an independent state since 1991, tipped into a brief but bloody conflict in 2001 when ethnic Albanian militants, aided by fighters from Kosovo, took up arms against the predominantly ethnic Macedonian security forces.

The conflict, which raged in mountain villages around Tetovo, ended when the National Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian force, agreed to disarm and drop any demands for a separate state or merger with Kosovo and Albania. In return, the government, led by ethnic Macedonians, committed to “equitable representation” in public administration and “positive discrimination” in university admissions.

It also accepted Albanian as a second official language and allowed pupils in state schools to be taught in their own language.

Fatmir Sabriu, the Tetovo personnel director, said government job quotas “worked” insofar as they brought more ethnic Albanians into the state structure, particularly the police; they now account for 79 percent of city employees. But he said the diversity program had been deformed by “the cancer of our society — the influence of politics on everything, especially getting a job.”

Ethnic-based political parties, he said, exploited quotas to place their supporters in a bloated state sector, sometimes by telling them to fake their ethnicity to meet the Balancer’s demands. New jobs have been created to ensure that each group is represented according to the Balancer’s calculations, in addition to those added to staff new agencies aimed at promoting diversity.

The city administration today has 362 employees, up from 125 in 2006, Mr. Sabriu said.

Shefkete Hamza, a Roma woman in Tetovo who said she got a city job through the Balancer, recalled that five other applicants — three ethnic Macedonians and two ethnic Albanians — had all falsely declared themselves Roma, a particularly disadvantaged community. “I was the only real Roma,” she said.

Since North Macedonia does not list ethnicity on birth certificates or identity cards, applicants merely have to self-identify as a member of the ethnic group for which a job is open, even if their true identity is clear from their name and or language. That, the personnel director said, made it impossible to call out fakes.

The 2001 settlement led to a proliferation of government agencies responsible for enforcing its terms. Aleksandra Temenugova, a researcher who has studied diversity programs, said many public institutions had hired “a lot of people who receive salaries but don’t go to work.”

A 2020 study by Ms. Temenugova’s Institute for Communication Studies, a Skopje research group, found that one ministry set up to supervise implementation of the 2001 diversity commitments had 1,410 employees, mostly ethnic Albanians, on its payroll but only 44 who reported to work.

Hostility to the quota program is most pronounced in the majority ethnic Macedonian population, which accounts for around 60 percent of the country’s 1.8 million people.

“We have focused too much in this country on ethnicity instead of merit and competence,” said Timco Mucunski, the deputy leader of the victorious party, which won the presidency and a large plurality of seats in Parliament.

Before the recent election, the prime minister as well as the ministers of finance and foreign affairs were all ethnic Albanians. (Because of the splintered nature of the electorate, ethnic Macedonian parties that win elections without majorities usually have to partner with Albanian ones in return for key jobs.)

Mr. Mucunski’s party campaigned on a slogan that rivals denounced as a dog whistle against minorities, particularly ethnic Albanians: “Macedonia — Yours Again.” Mr. Mucunski said it was merely a promise to all groups to “take back your country kidnapped by political elites.”

The Constitution recognizes six official minorities: Albanians, who account for nearly 30 percent of the population, Roma, Bosniaks, Serbs, Turks, and Vlachs.

There is no official registry of individual ethnic affiliations. A government move last year to record ethnicity on birth and marriage certificates was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s top court.

Last week’s election delivered a crushing defeat to the Social Democratic Union, a progressive party that came to power in 2017 promising to uproot corruption and bring ethnic communities together. It failed on both counts.

Bisera Kostadinovska-Stojchevska, a university professor who served as culture minister in the defeated government, blamed progressives’ rout on a revival of ethnonationalist sentiment among both Macedonians and Albanians and widespread disgust at abuse of a system designed to promote equal opportunity.

She was dismayed last year to discover that two senior officials in her ministry in positions designated for ethnic Macedonians were actually Albanians. They kept their jobs. “If people say they feel Macedonian or feel Albanian there is nothing I can do,” she said. “If you raise the issue you can get taken to court for discrimination,” she added.

The 2001 peace settlement promising “equitable representation” had “solved the problem of war but now they have all gone back to nationalism,” she said, referring to the main ethnic Albanian and Macedonian parties. “They are drunk on it.”

Before the election, the leader of the biggest ethnic Albanian party called a rally in the center of Skopje, the capital, and shouted “U.C.K., U.C.K.,” the Albanian abbreviation for the National Liberation Army that in 2001 terrorized ethnic Macedonian villages. To many voters from the majority population, it sounded like a call to arms.

Ethnic communities have steadily drifted further apart as once mixed schools that taught mainly in the Macedonian language have given way to separate classes and divided schools catering to different language groups.

“Instead of cooperation between communities, there is only more polarization,” said Ms. Temenugova, the researcher.

Dzelal Hodzic, the Bosniak deputy director of the Agency for Community Rights Implementation, said feelings among many ethnic Macedonians of being relegated to an inferior status flowed in part from a view typical of majority groups everywhere. “They think: We need to be the bosses and everyone else should be second class.”

But he described the Balancer as a “broken tool.”

“When people with political connections apply for a job they get notified what ethnicity they need to be,” he said.

Supporters of promoting diversity complain that well-intentioned efforts to reverse severe imbalances have been corrupted by ethnic politics.

“We don’t get the smartest and most competent people but we get people who are loyal to a party,” said Petrit Saracini, the ethnic Albanian president of the Institute for Media and Analytics in Skopje. The result, he said, was a public administration “filled with party soldiers.”

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