The armed gain upper hand

Even as West stepped up pressure for talks yesterday, civilians lack optimism for a speedy political solution.

Sreten Tomevski, a Macedonian Slav factory worker, says he came to three conclusions this week: First, you can't trust trust NATO or the European Union; you can't trust Macedonian politicians; and finally, there can be no peace with the ethnic-Albanian minority in Macedonia.

"There are terrorists occupying part of our country," he says. "The government hasn't achieved any military victory or a cease-fire agreement in four months of fighting. The politicians have proved that they only think about their pocketbooks.

Even as the European Union yesterday sent former French Minister of Defense Francois Leotard here as a mediator (see story, below), parliamentarians said intraparty peace talks are at a dead end.

Many political analysts and party officials here fear that Macedonia has reached the point where paramilitary forces, rather than politicians, call the shots.

"We do not want a civil war, and a political solution is the only way to avoid violence," says Slobodan Casule, a Macedonian intellectual and president of the New Democracy Party. "Unfortunately, time has run outfor the political process. The conflict has destroyed the citizens' faith in democracy. Anything the politicians put forward now will only deepen the crisis further."

Negotiations between ethnic-Albanian and Macedonian Slav political parties started in May with the formation of an interethnic coalition government. The 30 percent ethnic-Albanian minority is demanding changes in the constitution that would make Macedonia a bi-national state, as well as an amnesty for members of the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army.

Macedonian Slavs fear that greater rights and autonomy for ethnic-Albanians would lead to the break-up of the country. "This week is the turning point for Macedonia," says Iso Rusi, editor in chief of the Albanian-language magazine Lobi. "If we are lucky, our politicians may have one last chance before they become irrelevant and the unmentionable happens. Unfortunately, I don't see any sign that they are aware of that."

Public backlash

On Monday night, Mr. Tomevski was among 5,000 demonstrators who gathered in front of the Macedonian parliament to protest a Western-brokered deal to evacuate armed ethnic-Albanian rebels from their besieged stronghold five miles from the Macedonian capital, Skopje.

The Macedonian public saw the deal as an easy out for the guerrillas, and an imposition on Macedonia by NATO and the EU. Protesters broke into the parliament building shouting anti-Western slogans, ransacked offices, and fired automatic rifles into the air from balconies.

Later, a group of rioters turned into the ethnically mixed old Turkish quarter across the river and fired on ethnic-Albanian-owned shops. The incident is being heralded as the launch of Macedonian paramilitary organizations.

"The Macedonian paramilitaries are what I'm most afraid of," Casule says. "At this point, all we need is one hot-head who will claim to be a national savior, and Macedonia will make Bosnia and Croatia look like a fairy tale. This is exactly how Bosnia started, and it ended in ethnic cleansing."

Fear of civilian violence has left many streets in Skopje deserted. Packing material floats aimlessly in the breeze across a wide expanse of concrete that was once a teeming vegetable market.

Squatting in the back of his truck, trying to sell a few boxes of lemons, Nurdan Rushiti is one of the few ethnic-Albanian merchants to defy the threats of a group called Macedonian Paramilitary 2000, which distributed leaflets in the area on Sunday telling ethnic-Albanians to leave or face ethnic reprisals.

"They gave us three days to pack up the market and leave the country," he says. "They haven't come for us yet, but they could come any time. I am staying though. I have nowhere else go."

Driven out

Mr. Rushiti has already been chased out of his home.

Last week, he fled the village of Stracince with his wife and two children after Macedonian Slav police reservists, who had been armed by the ministry of interior, fired on the village mosque and houses.

Foreign observers indicate that at least 14,000 Macedonian civilians have been armed as paramilitary police and Army reservists.

Macedonian Slav villagers near Stracince confirmed that they had been given weapons by police officers.

The Interior Ministry refuses to comment openly on the arming of civilians, but one police commander said unofficially, "There are many different paramilitary groups in the country. We can't keep track of them all, but there is only one thing to do with the Albanian terrorists - eliminate them. How that happens is not important."

Under these circumstances, Western diplomats are scrambling to get the political parties back to the negotiating table.

On Wednesday, Mr. Leotard suggested that the Macedonian government should negotiate with the NLA, a subject that is taboo in Macedonia. Hours later, the new envoy retracted his comment. "Albanian-speaking guerrillas have no place in the political dialogue, which should be conducted only with the legitimate representatives of the political parties," he said in a statement.

But it raised questions among some analysts. "The question stands: Is the West and the Macedonian government negotiating with the real decisionmakers?" says Sam Vaknin, Balkan analyst for Central European Review and United Press International.

"There are extremist elements and, if they are not fully satisfied, warfare will re-erupt regardless of how many political agreements are signed."

Many Macedonian politicians say only forceful international intervention to disarm the NLA and paramilitaries could defuse the conflict. There are signs the call may be heeded. The British government is speeding up plans for a rapid intervention force and President Bush has indicated the possibility of sending more US troops to Macedonia.

Readying for battle

Meanwhile, civilians on both sides appear to be preparing for battle.

In a crooked cobblestone street in Skopje's old Turkish quarter, Azis Bajrami's shoe shop is riddled with bullet holes. "We heard shots at about 1 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and this is what they did," he says, holding up shoes with bullet holes in them.

Seven other shops on his street were similarly attacked. "People are ready to explode," he says.

"My grandfather and father had this shop here, and I have worked at this shop since I was 10 years old. I'm staying and if they come back, I'll be ready to defend what is mine."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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