Macedonia: Regional Buffer or Source of Sparks?

NATO started plans yesterday to send troops as tensions rise near Kosovo border.

Restlessly pacing his cramped office, where a red-and-black Albanian flag hangs prominently, Arben Xhaferi may appear to be the flint that could set this tiny Balkan country afire.

Mr. Xhaferi, a radical ethnic Albanian political leader, speaks of oppression, nationalism, and even armed insurrection. "If the government refuses to give us our space under the sun," he says, "violence will come to Macedonia just like it came to Kosovo."

Despite the boldness of his rhetoric, however, Xhaferi says ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, 25 percent of the population of 2 million, are better off here than in any other Balkan country.

As ethnic tension rages through the Balkans, Macedonia hangs in the balance. It could become a crucial buffer state, lending stability to the region. Or it could follow the lead of Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania - and erupt into violence.

"If there is all-out war in Kosovo, you will have refugees and hot pursuit of accused terrorists [into Macedonia]," says a senior Western diplomat in the region. "And that would be extremely dangerous."

In addition to Kosovo's violence, Macedonia is threatened by Albania's unrest, Greece's and Bulgaria's historical claims here, and a growing sentiment for independence in Montenegro. A war in Macedonia would likely draw in NATO allies Turkey and Greece on opposite sides.

Yesterday, NATO ordered its military planners to consider troop deployments in Albania and Macedonia if increased allied assistance to those nations fails to prevent the Kosovo violence from spilling over.

Already the United Nations has deployed 750 peacekeeping troops, including 350 Americans, to stabilize Macedonia's border. Macedonia recently signed a joint agreement with Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Romania, and Turkey to form a 2,000- troop peacekeeping force in the region.

Macedonia is poor, with soaring unemployment and a slowly developing market economy. Ethnic Albanians, who are Muslims, and ethnic Macedonians, who are Orthodox Christians, are struggling to define their roles in the country's nascent democracy. President Kiro Gligorov, a former Communist who led Macedonia's peaceful secession from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 and 1992, has ruled cautiously.

"Our orientation and determination [has been to] stay out of the conflicts and wars that were waged in the former Yugoslavia - and the one we are now witnessing in Kosovo," he says.

His approach seems to be working. Unlike their neighbors in Kosovo, most ethnic Albanians in Macedonia participate in the political process. Xhaferi's party has seven seats in the 120-member Macedonian Parliament; another ethnic Albanian party has 11 seats and is a partner in the governing coalition.

"The Albanian people in Macedonia want equal rights in this country - nothing more, nothing less," says Bejtulla Ademi, the Tetovo branch president of the moderate Party for Democratic Prosperity. "We think any problems we have can be solved within state institutions - where the real power lies."

Ethnic Albanians here are underrepresented in state institutions, making up just 4 percent of the police force and 8.7 percent of the Ministry of Interior.

COMPLAINTS of discrimination abound. The mayor of Gostivar, a predominantly ethnic Albanian city, was recently sentenced to seven years in prison for flying an Albanian flag above city hall.

And, like their Kosovo brethren, the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have formed their own underground university because the state Constitution prohibits higher education in a language other than Macedonian.

The Albanian population is largely sympathetic to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the secessionist guerrillas next door.

"The KLA is a patriotic army," says Ferit Semsedini as he sits in a Tetovo cafe. "If Kosovo does not turn out good, every young Albanian man here will join and fight - here and in Kosovo."

But, while it is possible that ethnic Albanians may go to fight in Serbia, it seems unlikely that they are ready to take up arms at home. Though Albanians complain of brutality, the Macedonian police are hardly on par with the Serbian police, who have killed women and children in Kosovo. Macedonians and ethnic Albanians here have a history of fighting as allies, not enemies.

"Macedonian people and Albanian people are two different nations," says Daut Dauti, an editor at the independent Albanian-language daily Flaka. "That's why we want to cultivate our own identity. But we think we can do that within this state."

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