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War hits Macedonia's fragile peace

Refugee crisis threatens to undo recent progress between Macedonians

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 1999


From the outside, life in this Old World, Turkish-flavored capital city seems normal, despite a deadly war for loot and land only 30 miles away across the snow-topped Shara Mountain range that separates Macedonia from Kosovo.

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The cafes are full. A 10-year-old girl in a pink leotard has a birthday party at McDonald's. Banners for a music festival read: "Make Blues, Not War."

Yet many ordinary people here say they worry that their struggling economy will crumble further, since 70 percent of Macedonian exports go to war-torn Serbia. Many also worry that a pro-Serbian sentiment after the NATO bombing will push them further away from ties to the West - leaving them isolated in a Balkan neighborhood of Bulgaria, Greece, Albania, and Serbia that has historically been hostile.

But what most concerns them is that the flow of refugees in recent days could upset the delicate social contract between Macedonians and Albanians here, and turn the country into another Bosnia - or Kosovo. They worry that problems of potential instability are not taken seriously by policymakers in NATO countries.

"Do you know what kind of impact even 60,000 people make in a country of only 2 million?" says Ljuben Paunovski, a member of Parliament and spokesman for the largest ethnic Macedonian party in the ruling coalition. "For us, the question is how long the Albanian refugees will stay. If they don't leave quickly it will be a problem, economically and socially."

Since the Serb ethnic cleansing of Kosovo started a year ago, some 250,000 refugees have found their way to Macedonia. About half of those have come in recent days, and between 60,000 and 100,000 are living with local families. Many are bitter about the treatment they received at the now-notorious Blace border crossing, when the Macedonian government left Kosovar Albanians to stand in the mud for days grabbing for bread, and where many were separated from their families. The Macedonian Army redeployed Albanian regulars to Albanian-majority towns like Tetovo and Gostivar, leaving the border to be patrolled by ethnic Macedonians.

THAT official treatment angers the 30 percent Albanian citizenry here, which has long felt suppressed and excluded from jobs and equal rights. Officially, the Albanians of Macedonia have remained quiet during the NATO bombing, which they support. Since December, a new government in Macedonia has included, for the first time, an Albanian party in its ruling coalition - something widely regarded as a promising step toward greater ethnic harmony.

But the rhetoric of Albanian nationalists, particularly in western Macedonia, which borders Albania, has slowly been radicalizing its constituency at the grass-roots level. During the Blace event, the Albanian party was kept out of the decisionmaking process in government, with many of its Cabinet ministers forced to get information from Western television. Arber Xhaferi, who heads the Albanian Democratic Party Alliance, said in Parliament that the Macedonian government was treating Albanians "the same way Serbs are treating Albanians." Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, a statesman during the Bosnian crisis when he kept the ardent Macedonian nationalists at bay, took sides last week in a statement that the Kosovar refugees should be "sent to Albania."