Profile 22 Feb 13

Talat Xhaferi: Macedonia's Controversial Defence Chief

A row has erupted over the appointment of former ethnic Albanian rebel commander turned politician Talat Xhaferi as Macedonia’s new defence minister.

Sase Dimovski

Defence minister, Talat Xhaferi | Photo by: morm

“The NLA [ethnic Albanian rebel National Liberation Army] is now in charge of the army,” said Xhaferi’s party, junior government coalition partner the Democratic Union for Integration, on its Facebook page after he was appointed this week.

But the appointment has sparked a backlash from ethnic Macedonian veterans of the 2001 conflict between Albanian rebels and government forces, who have threatened to protest against the new minister who once fought against them as commander of the NLA’s 116th Brigade.

“As a result of the units headed by Xhaferi and their bullets, I am missing half of my internal organs,” retired general Stojance Angelov told BIRN, showing his wounds and the scar that still remind him of the numerous surgeries he had in 2001.

Angelov now heads the small Dignity opposition party that represents Macedonian war veterans.

Xhaferi meanwhile has insisted that his goal is to make the armed forces “a symbol of coexistence, tolerance and respect for differences”.

He was born in 1962 near the western Macedonian town of Gostivar.

Leaving Macedonia in his teenage years, he was educated at a military school in Belgrade, capital of the then Yugoslav state, where he later joined the Yugoslav People’s Army and advanced through its ranks until the federative state fell apart in the early 1990s.

After Skopje’s declaration of independence in 1991, Xhaferi became a high-ranking officer in the newly-formed Macedonian army.

He was stationed in Tetovo, the town that saw much fighting during the brief but violent 2001 armed conflict.

When the 2001 conflict started, Xhaferi deserted the army and joined the Albanian guerrilla units that fought against Macedonian security forces.

His 116th NLA brigade conducted military activities in Gostivar, but little else is known for a fact about his activities during that period.

His official biography at defence ministry’s web page does not mention what he was doing during 2001.

The conflict ended the same year with the signing of the Ohrid peace accord that granted greater rights to ethnic Albanians.

As a result, Xhaferi with his co-fighters were amnestied by the state.

For ethnic Albanians, the appointment of the former NLA commander is a great victory for the military wing of the former NLA that is now part of the DUI. 

NLA veterans were until now largely side-lined in the party and were hardly ever appointed to senior positions.

Shortly after the end of the conflict, Xhaferi joined the DUI, which has become the single most popular political party among Albanians in Macedonia and has regularly formed part of the government.

From 2004 to 2006, Xhaferi served as deputy defence minister.

Some former colleagues said he was a fair man who did not discriminate according to ethnicity.

“I worked in the cabinet of the then deputy minister. When [Xhaferi] came, he brought with him an Albanian assistant… But he was not satisfied with her work and decided to keep me as his associate. He told me, that he needed a person who knows things, and that nationality is not important,” one ethnic Macedonian woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told BIRN.

In 2008, Xhaferi became a legislator in the national parliament, a role that he maintained until his appointment as new defence minister.

He hit the public spotlight last autumn when he blocked the adoption of a disputed army law by making marathon speeches.

By using a procedural gap that places no limit on the time that a speech must take at the commission where the draft got stuck, Xhaferi played on the patience of his colleagues.

They had to listen to him reading poetry, citing foreign literature and reports on Macedonia, mumbling or simply remaining silent, waiting for the time to pass.

Designed to grant benefits to ethnic Macedonian war veterans, but leaving out former NLA fighters, the bill proposed by the main ruling VMRO DPMNE party was unacceptable for the DUI.

“The DUI and I will do everything in our power to block the law,” Talat Xhaferi then told journalists.

However, his current stance as defence minister on the proposed legislation that is still stuck in parliament is not known.

The appointment of Xhaferi was part of a reshuffle of ethnic Albanian cabinet ministers, previously agreed between the main ruling VMRO DPMNE party and its DUI junior partner.

The reshuffle occurred after several ethnic Albanian ministers quit to run as mayoral candidates in the March local elections.

The move has generated lots of criticism of prime minister and VMRO DPMNE leader Nikola Gruevski, with some recent posts on his Facebook calling the appointment “treachery” and a “humiliation for the army”.

In his biography on the defence ministry’s website, Xhaferi says he speaks Albanian, Macedonia, Serbo-Croatian and English.

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