NATO's Big Noise Stirs Macedonia

Yesterday's jet fighter 'exercises' against Serbs may radicalize regional Albanians.

In the tough neighborhood that is the Balkans, the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has so far remained a pocket of relative calm.

But simulated NATO air raids yesterday - part of an effort to pressure Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to halt a crackdown against separatist rebels in Kosovo - heightened concern here that the country may not be spared the blight of the Balkans: ethnic splintering.

"These Albanians," says Brako Stojanosky, as he stands in the streets of Skopje waiting to see NATO's show of strength over Macedonia. "These Albanians may lead us to war to keep our nation together."

For 55 minutes, 40 warplanes, from French Jaguar jets to German Tornado aircraft, zipped across the country's airspace. NATO's four-hour airshow was the greatest display of allied strength in the Balkans since the bombing of Sarajevo in 1995.

In all, 84 aircraft from the United States and 12 other of NATO's 16 member countries staged several hours of aerial exercises over Albania and Macedonia, which border Yugoslavia.

"This is an exercise intended to demonstrate the alliance's commitment to peace and stability in the region and the alliance's ability to project power into the region," said Lt. Gen. Michael Short, commander of NATO air forces in the alliance's southern Europe division.

Western leaders want to halt the violence. But they do not want to be seen giving comfort to the Kosovo Liberation Army, a group that is fighting for independence of the province and which the alliance does not support.

Awakening ethnic strife

Macedonia requested the simulated raids, as did Albania. But unlike in Albania, where there is unified support for action against Yugoslavia, the situation in Macedonia seems confused.

The reason: Macedonia's mosaic of ethnic minorities, which range from small groups of Turks and Gypsies to the dominant and often rival forces of Slavs and Albanians.

Since Macedonia's bloodless secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, President Kiro Gligorov has struggled with the difficult task of trying to avert agitating the country's minorities.

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

In recent years Albanians - who make up about a quarter of Macedonia's population of 2 million - have stepped up protests, accusing the government of trying to stifle their strength and ethnic aspirations.

Just last year, Albanians in Tetovo, in northwestern Macedonia, raised an Albanian flag over the town hall, touching off clashes with Macedonian authorities.

"The Albanian independence drive in Kosovo has whet the appetite of the Albanians in Macedonia," says a senior Western diploma in Skopje, who asked not to be named. "The longer Kosovo rattles, the more radical the Albanians of Macedonia are bound to become."

Indeed, officials indicate that small but increasing numbers of ethnic Albanians, mainly teens, are streaming out of the country and joining the armed struggle of separatist rebels in Kosovo.

But streaming into the country are increasing numbers of Albanian from Kosovo. And that, officials say, is the primary factor of concern for Macedonia.

Next: intervention?

Though the landlocked republic has so far been spared a refugee crisis, Western diplomats say the prospects of one increase daily as the situation in Kosovo continues to deteriorate.

"If we see 50,000 refugees fleeing Kosovo to their ethnic kin in Macedonia, then this may well spell cause for intervention," says the Western diplomat.

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.

In advance of the current air exercise, "Determined Falcon," NATO officials would not say how close planes would come to Yugoslavia. But Col. Emerson Gardner, aboard the USS Wasp in the Adriatic Sea, said: "We will be close enough that the Serbs will know NATO will be there."

All NATO members sent aircraft except Iceland and Luxembourg, which have no air forces, and Canada, which could not deploy planes on such short notice.

In addition to such exercises, NATO ministers are also considering a range of options for future action, including direct intervention in Yugoslavia with air and ground forces.

Yesterday, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev publicly rebuked a top US military commander, accusing NATO of failing to consult with Moscow on the exercise. The Russian Foreign Ministry also said Mr. Milosevic's meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow today would be "potentially decisive" in defusing the Kosovo conflict.

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