THE minaret spires and Orthodox domes that cohabit Skopje's skyline are fogged-in almost every other day - which seems a perfect metaphor for this impoverished and still unrecognized former Yugoslav republic. To the 2.5 million Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Vlachs, and gypsies that make-up Macedonia, both daily life and the future seem murky.
Macedonia is the only multiethnic republic to emerge peacefully from Yugoslavia. But how stable it will remain is as cloudy as the local skies. If Kosovo is the fuse for a larger Balkan war, say diplomats, violence in Macedonia is the dynamite that could throw it into Greece, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Unlike hairtrigger tensions between Albanians and Serbs in neighboring Kosovo, the atmosphere here is not incendiary. "It isn't that Macedonia will suddenly explode," one Western diplomat says, "it's more likely to implode" from external pressures.
Several factors could cause such an implosion: lack of recognition, loans, and trade. Macedonia's economy is subsistence: Gas, only available on the black market, is $5 a gallon; the average salary has plummeted from $200 to $60 a month; a recent European study shows a $2 billion loss in exports and trade in 1992. In the country, boys bicycle in front of their parent's fields with gas cans swinging from the handlebars, hoping truck drivers will sell them a few drops to fuel the farm's tractor.
Political tensions between Albanians and ethnic Macedonians are high, though the anger that led to riots in Skopje between Albanians and police this fall has eased.
The biggest worry is the recent reelection of nationalist Serb president Slobodan Milosevic and a "Greater Serbia" government in Belgrade. Serb rioters clashed with police New Year's Eve when the police tried to take down Milosevic posters.
Many Macedonians think war will erupt in Kosovo in just a matter of time.
"The election threw a chill over everything," says Dimitar Mircev, Macedonia's ambassador-designate to Slovenia.
If Serbs begin an "ethnic cleansing" attack on Albanians in Kosovo, says Jeminic Idrizi, president of a small Albanian party in Skopje, "Albanians here will not sit with our arms crossed."
"Outwardly, things look calm. But underneath, we are close to the edge," a popular Albanian journalist says. "Albanians in Macedonia must get their rights before we can have stability."
The more typical view, expressed by Albanians and Macedonians alike, is that of a young businessman at Delmetfu's, a popular Skopje restaurant: "Nothing is going to happen here because it is too dangerous for anything to happen, and everyone knows it." Hopes for recognition
Still, in recent weeks a quiet hope is building here based on a belief that the world is beginning to support Macedonian recognition - despite a strong Greek lobby that has argued the name "Macedonia" implies long-term territorial ambitions.
There is evidence to support Macedonia's hope. The United Nations Security Council begins considering Macedonia's application for UN membership this week. (Greek Foreign Minister Michalis Papaconstantinou said last week that countries voting against Greece can expect relations to "deteriorate.") Also, while the European Community in its December summit upheld Greek desires not to recognize Macedonia unless it changed its name, some EC member states may break rank. Two weeks ago the Dutch and Italian parl iaments voted for their governments to recognize Macedonia; the German Bundestag is expected to look at a similar resolution.
Moreover, last Tuesday, as a preventive measure, the first of 800 UN peacekeepers arrived. Stationed on the Kosovo-Macedonia border, their purpose is twofold: to stop waves of Albanians from flooding Macedonia and creating instability if violence occurs in Kosovo, and to make Serbs think twice about pursuing the Albanians across the border. "The troops provide an enormous psychological boost," says Risto Nikovski, Macedonia's deputy foreign minister.
The polarization between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian nationalists here poses the greatest threat to stability.
Matters reached a head in November with riots that left four dead after police arrested and beat a young Albanian cigarette salesman. Shots were fired from Albanian apartment buildings, and for weeks afterward police carried machine guns on the streets.
Albanians, who make up 30 to 35 percent of the population, say their standard of living and rights have deteriorated since the fall of communism. Macedonian officials acknowledge that only 2 percent of the students at the university in Skopje are Albanian. Of three TV channels, only one hour on one channel has Albanian language news. "The situation is something like what blacks experienced in the American South during the 1940s and '50s," one diplomat says.
On the other side of the social chasm are the nationalists, taking political form as the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Party (VMRO). The name, borrowed from a radical and violent 19th century Bulgarian-Slavic cult, is less a platform than an inchoate set of right-wing sentiments ranging from instant privatization, to denial of Albanian rights, to deposing ex-communist President Kiro Gligorov, to (on the fringe) an alliance with Bulgarian nationalists and a land grab in Greece.
VMRO, which won a 33 percent plurality in parliament last spring, inspires fear among some Macedonians who tend not to criticize it openly. After the collapse of the "government of experts" in Skopje last spring (one week after the EC voted not to recognize it) VMRO came to power but was unable to form a government. Macedonian moderates and Albanians formed a coalition against VMRO that still holds. Against the backdrop of violence in the Balkans, VMRO is showing some signs of weakening. As a young Maced onian clerk put it: "It's no good here. An ecology party, yes. A free-market party, yes. A socialist party, yes. A nationalist party, no!"
The country's main problem, says ambassador-designate Mircev, who is also Macedonia's leading political scientist, is that the communist system masked Macedonia's ethnic and economic realities by providing employment, education, schooling, health, and housing for everyone.
Today, Macedonians look at Albanian families with 10 or 12 children, and feel they are too costly; VMRO rhetoric exacerbates the feeling. The Albanians, who have always thought the nationalists blocked their jobs, now feel their prospects are even more limited. "Our main policy now must be to counter these feelings," Mr. Mircev says.
Enter President Gligorov (Interview, right), who came out of retirement last spring to lead his country. A moderate who is highly respected both at home and abroad, Gligorov has fought to neutralize extremists from both sides who want to align with Albania or Bulgaria.
Last spring, Albanians voted unanimously to create a separate state called Illyria. They were influenced by extremists, many of whom came from Kosovo in the early 1980s and who talk-up in Macedonia the "Greater Albania" denied them in Serbia. By the fall, however, most Albanians renounced the idea. "Gligorov handled it well," one diplomat says.
Dealing with VMRO has not been so easy. As recently as last week, nationalists in parliament called for Gligorov's resignation. A new constitution
Along with eloquently making the case for a peaceful multi-ethnic Macedonia, Gligorov's legacy may be the creation of a constitution unique in the Balkans. In most Balkan states (Croatia, for example) "the people," or narod, are defined ethnically as "the nation." In Macedonia, however, Gligorov's new Constitution makes citizens preeminent. Thus citizenship ideally becomes more important than ethnic identity.
"Whether he can make this stick is the question," one diplomat says.
"A slow but sure policy of change for more rights is our only option," Mr. Nikovski says.