Part of the Balkans that hasn't exploded

As national politicians negotiate a peace on paper, town mayors are working among the neighbors.

This bustling town in northern Macedonia could be a perfect petri dish for fermenting a culture of "ethnic cleansing."

The government has given arms to men of fighting age from the ethnic-Macedonian majority. Macedonians fear that ethnic Albanians - who make up a quarter of Kumanovo's population - harbor sympathies for the guerrillas battling government forces. For five months, tensions have mounted with every thump of artillery from the nearby hills.

Yet while politicians in Skopje negotiate a new political system to resolve the crisis, local leaders in Kumanovo and elsewhere are working hard to keep a lid on a potentially catastrophic situation.

The nervous residents of this town have not so much as broken one another's windows, and for this they credit ethnic-Macedonian Mayor Slobodan Kovacevski, who is working closely with Feriz Dervishi, an ethnic-Albanian friend and fellow city councilor.

On the street, on the phone, and on television, the two men carry a joint message to their respective communities, says Mr. Kovacevski. "Macedonians have to understand that they must not attack their neighbors, and Albanians must not think of every soldier and every policeman as their enemy."

It is not easy to make that message heard in a country teetering on the brink of civil war. Ethnic-Albanian guerrillas in the National Liberation Army (NLA) have been pushing back Army troops from Macedonia's northern border with Kosovo, fighting for greater rights for their minority community.

The ethnic-Albanian mayor of Tetovo - 50 miles west of here - has had similar success in his town, with its dominant Albanian population. "Everywhere I go, I appeal for calm and tolerance, so that we can look each other in the eye tomorrow," says Mayor Murtezan Ismaili. "Neither community has anywhere else to go."

Dispelling rumors

Mr. Kovacevski, once an executive in a leather factory, and Mr. Ismaili, a former chemistry professor, are vigorously doing the daily work of calming angry spirits. A large part of their job is squashing provocative rumors before they fan the flames of fear among mistrustful people who are often too ready to believe the worst of their neighbors.

Recently, Kovacevski says, he sent an assistant to investigate reports that armed ethnic Albanians were digging defensive positions on the outskirts of Kumanovo. The scout discovered a single unarmed man with a shovel, digging a well in his back yard. Kovacevski went on local television to explain the truth.

Likewise, he recalls, he recently summoned local ethnic Albanian shopkeepers who had shuttered their businesses after a mob in a southern Macedonian town had attacked Albanian stores.

He explained that ethnic Macedonians in Kumanovo believed they had closed up because they had advance word of a guerrilla attack, and convinced them to open their doors again.

Mr. Dervishi, meanwhile, channels ethnic-Albanian worries to the authorities. He has persuaded the local police chief to forbid ethnic-Macedonian Army reservists from carrying their weapons on the streets, and ensured that there was no repetition of the incident when police in camouflage uniforms and balaclava masks descended on the town market to check IDs, terrifying ethnic-Albanian shoppers.

Keeping the violence at bay is not always possible, though. Last week, Tetovo's Mayor Ismaili sat talking in his downtown office to a reporter about his peacemaking efforts when an Army helicopter gunship roared by, drowning out his words as the pilot fired rockets at rebel positions on a nearby hillside.

"This sort of thing only undermines my position as mayor," he complained, gesturing through the window at the flames belching from the gunship's rocket pods. "Citizens don't understand that there are some things I simply cannot control."

Rectifying economic disparity

Both Kovacevski and Ismaili say they are trying to address deeper communal grievances over discrimination by distributing municipal jobs more evenly - a direct challenge to the pork-barrel tradition here that a mayor gives jobs to people only from his own party and ethnic group.

"I cannot claim that I love you, but deny you a job," says Kovacevski, who found only three ethnic Albanians among 30 municipal employees when he took office last October.

Slowly, he is trying to rectify that situation by setting up one multiethnic committee to sift through tenders from local businesses for city construction projects, and another to choose laborers to work on them.

Other small steps help build trust, city officials say. Kovacevski spent some of the money he received from the United Nations Development Project to build a fence around a Muslim cemetery, which had long stood unprotected. Ismaili makes sure he is seen drinking coffee in local cafes with his ethnic-Macedonian friends.

Both men say that the imminent danger of civil war has pushed them to new limits in their discovery of the other side's feelings.

"I wasn't always like this," admits Kovacevski. "I used to be completely different. But I have a son, and when you have children who might have to go to war, you think differently."

In Tetovo, Ismaili says he has come under fire from ethnic Albanians who voted for him and now accuse him of being too soft on ethnic Macedonians.

"Some people may say that I am too moderate," he acknowledges. "But I don't care whether I am re-elected or not. I just care that this madness ends."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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