Saving Macedonia

Macedonia should feel like a country that is about to blow. The ongoing fighting between Serbs and Albanians in bordering Kosovo threatens to upset the uneasy balance between Albanians and Macedonians in Macedonia. And with Bulgaria to its east, Greece to its south, and Albania to its west, Macedonia has lingering disputes over territory and identity. If the fighting in Kosovo spills over into Macedonia, war may well spread throughout southeast Europe.

Yet a strange calm prevails in this country of 2 million. Although the capital Skopje is only 20 miles from Kosovo, cafes are full, and life goes on as usual. Macedonians and Albanians - comprising 30 percent of the population - live side-by-side, but without the tension and hostility in other multiethnic Balkan states.

Should the war in Kosovo continue, the flow of Albanian refugees into Macedonia could rapidly scuttle Macedonia's fragile multiethnicity. Even if the fighting in Kosovo stops before it polarizes ethnic relations in Macedonia, the two communities here risk growing apart unless the government takes deliberate steps to deepen integration and beat back growing nationalist sentiments. It is precisely because Macedonia could turn from a fire wall against the southward spread of ethnic conflict into the corridor for a wider war that the international community must urgently take three steps.

* The United States and its main European allies must move quickly to stop the war in Kosovo. If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic continues to reject political resolution of the conflict, NATO should carry out air strikes against Serb forces in Kosovo. To ensure that separatist Albanian forces don't take advantage of NATO intervention to pursue a greater Albania, air strikes should be coupled with the deployment of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo. Ground troops would help return refugees to their homes and patrol Kosovo's border with Macedonia and Albania. The endpoint to which diplomacy and force should work is an autonomous Kosovo within Yugoslavia.

* The international community needs to encourage the Macedonian government to move ahead with domestic reforms and take steps to prevent the social marginalization of the Albanian community. Political power should be decentralized and municipal government strengthened to give Albanians more say in local governance. Skopje should also legalize the Albanian-language university in Tetovo, a predominantly Albanian town. In return for official recognition and state funding, Tetovo University must ensure its programs meet national standards and that its graduates pass a standardized exam demonstrating fluency in Macedonian. An educated Albanian community capable of participating in the mainstream life of the country is preferable to one that becomes a permanent underclass.

* The international community must help develop an integrated regional economy in the south Balkans, including a transportation infrastructure linking Macedonia to its neighbors. This wouldn't just improve relations among the states of the region, it would foster a middle class. This would help to moderate strains of extremist nationalism that have proven so deadly in the Balkans.

Over the past seven years, Macedonia hasn't just survived as a peaceful, multiethnic state, but helped to ensure that the third Balkan war of the 20th century, unlike the first two, not turn into a regionwide conflict. At this critical moment, however, regional turmoil again appears ready to engulf Macedonia and its neighbors. Shutting down the war in Kosovo and setting Macedonia on a course that will promote multiethnicity and prosperity are the best ways to ensure that the Balkans finally escape their past.

* Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international relations at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Denko Maleski, a former foreign minister of Macedonia, is a professor of international politics at the University of Skopje, Macedonia.

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