Tempering the dream of a `Greater Albania'

WORRIED that ethnic ambitions in the Balkans could cause war to spread beyond Bosnia-Herzegovina and turn into an international conflict, the West, particularly the United States, is leaning on Albania to temper its support for nationalists beyond its borders.

Strong US diplomatic pressure on Albanian President Sali Berisha to moderate his backing of militants across the border in Serbia's restive southern province of Kosovo and in Macedonia appears, at the moment, to be paying off.

Mr. Berisha and Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov met recently in an attempt to defuse the worsening ethnic crisis in Macedonia, the newly independent and vulnerable former Yugoslav republic, which has an Albanian minority estimated to be about 30 percent of its 2 million population.

US Defense Secretary William Perry visited US troops based in Macedonia July 19. The secretary met with a contingent of 500 Americans assigned to United Nations peacekeeping forces (along with troops from Nordic countries) stationed as observers on the borders with Albania and Kosovo to prevent the spread of ethnic unrest in the region.

``Every peaceful day that passes is a tribute to your success,'' Mr. Perry told the troops during a week-long tour of the Balkans region that includes stops in Albania and Bosnia.

Macedonia has been tense since it voted for independence from the former Yugoslavia in September 1991. It immediately faced a challenge from Greece, which demanded that the country not use Macedonia as its official name, a situation the Greeks insist reveals territorial ambitions in regard to Greece's northern province of Macedonia. Internally, relations between Macedonians and the Albanian minority have become strained, with secessionist sentiment growing among Albanians.

But Macedonian officials say Berisha pledged to support the moderate, integrationist wing of the main Albanian party in Macedonia after backing a younger, radical faction.

Mr. Gligorov's government, too, has offered an olive branch to the Albanians. Responding to a long-standing Albanian demand rejected by Macedonian nationalists, Skopje conducted a national census, which ended July 10.

In regard to Serbia's Kosovo Province, where 2 million Albanians are under Serbian police rule, Berisha has recently switched tack and is calling for talks between the local Albanian leadership and Belgrade.

``Greater Albania,'' a would-be country of some 6 million uniting Albania proper with Kosovo and western Macedonia, remains a dream of Albanian militants everywhere. A yearning has existed among many Albanians, as among other Balkan peoples, for creation of a state encompassing those neighboring areas. The impetus for pursuing a Greater Albania received a major boost with the reemergence of nationalist sentiments fueling the breakup of former Yugoslavia. Many Albanians, including the country's political leaders, harbor these aspirations.

IF attempted in the current combustible Balkan atmosphere, it could turn into an all-out war. But Western pressure on Tirana to recognize the inviolability of its frontiers with Serbia and Macedonia seems, for the moment at least, to have tempered Albanian ambitions.

``For us, the first priority is the prevention of a conflict,'' Berisha said in an interview. ``We have already lost 50 years under hard-line Communism, which in the 20th century is like losing hundreds of years in the distant past.''

Berisha said he agreed that the borders of Macedonia and Serbia must remain intact. He has urged Albanian leaders in both countries to do the same and reach some form of accommodation with Belgrade and Skopje, he added.

With Kosovo, however, the minimum Berisha is prepared to accept is that the province regain the autonomous status it had within former Yugoslavia until stripped of it in 1990 by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Berisha favors the region becoming a republic like Serbia and Montenegro within the rump federation, a claim certain to be rejected by Belgrade, as republic status would also presumably entail enjoying the right to secede.

At present, Berisha seems to have little leverage over the troubled region, whose inhabitants have spent years struggling for independence despite terrible Serbian repression. The undisputed leader of the province's main political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), Ibrahim Rugova, is determined to pursue his policy of passive resistance as a means of achieving statehood, a first step on the path to eventual union with Albania.

In a highly publicized joint statement issued May 27 with Berisha, Mr. Rugova declared that Kosovo Albanians were prepared to hold talks with Belgrade about Kosovo's future, but only in the presence of a third party, a reference to an insistence on Western involvement.

But there are signs of disenchantment within the movement. ``People recognize that the LDK has avoided conflict, but that's about all it's done. There's frustration at the lack of results,'' said Gazmend Pula, a leading Albanian human rights activist in Kosovo.

The harshest denunciations have come from Albanian radicals, some of whom are believed to support armed revolt. They are gaining in strength, and local observers expect them to be elected to key positions within the LDK leadership.

With international peace efforts in the Balkans focusing primarily on ending the Bosnian war, the aspirations of the Kosovars have been largely overlooked. ``To tell us that we have to be a part of Serbia is like telling us that we have to accept Serbian occupation,'' LDK vice-president Fehmi Agani told the Monitor.

If the West continues to reject LDK goals and Serb repression worsens, radicals say they will push for a return to the protests of the early 1980s, when scores of Albanians were killed and hundreds arrested by the Serbian authorities.

While in Kosovo they appear to have spurned him, Berisha has been able to manipulate the radicals in Macedonia to further his own ends. He backed them recently in a power struggle within the country's main Albanian political organization, the Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, which split into moderate and militant factions.

THE main cause of the split was disenchantment with the party's leaders in arguing the minority Albanian case. Despite representation in government and parliament, the leaders have failed to significantly advance the lowly position of Albanians in Macedonian society.

On coming to power, the militants, led by Menduh Thaci, threatened armed revolt if the authorities failed to grant the Albanians autonomy, prompting fears that Berisha was plotting to annex Albanian-populated areas of Macedonia.

Western pressure, however, has been making clear that both sides would be better advised to recognize they need to be allies against the bigger threat of a hostile Serb-Greek axis. The result is that both Berisha and Mr. Thaci are now, publicly at least, voices of sweet reason.

At his headquarters in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, Thaci said: ``We want to be a part of this country - to build it together with the Macedonians. My personal desire could be all Albanians in one country, but I'm a politician with responsibilities to my nation and the people we live with.''

Further evidence that Berisha may be beating a tactical rather than strategic retreat is his continued insistence that Albanians be granted the status of a nation in the Macedonian Constitution. As a constituent nation, they could also claim the right to self-determination, hence secession.

The Macedonian government deeply opposes the demand.

The Albanians hope that the census will prove them to constitute more than a quarter of the population and bolster their case for the constitutional changes.

``I'm for a step-by-step approach to improving Albanians rights,'' Thaci said. But he warned there were extremists among his supporters who would come to the fore if, after elections expected toward the end of the year, the Macedonian authorities show no sign of agreeing to Albanian demands.

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