Clashes between armed ethnic-Albanian insurgents and security forces here near the Kosovo-Macedonia border have international diplomats and local politicians scrambling to avoid spiralling violence on yet another Balkan front.
Yesterday, there were reports that at least one Macedonian soldier was killed and two more were injured near the remote mountain village of Tanusevci, where an estimated 200 ethnic-Albanian fighters seized control more than two weeks ago.
Macedonia's Interior Ministry says ethnic Albanians from neighboring Kosovo are funding, training, and recruiting in at least a half-dozen towns here. Although the goals of the insurgents are unclear, some observers say they appear linked to rebels in southern Serbia who are seeking to extend Kosovo's borders there. "This has to be stopped, and soon, before it rips up the entire country," says one Macedonian official, on condition of anonymity.
In Kosovo last week, a former guerrilla commander smilingly showed off patches and hats destined for the latest "liberation army." "Preparations are well under way," he said. "They are ready to meet any challenge."
Macedonia is home to 2 million residents, more than 25 percent of them ethnic Albanian. Their northern counterparts in Kosovo fought a 1998-99 guerrilla war against Serbian rule that prompted a brutal crackdown and, eventually, NATO airstrikes against Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
Kosovo today remains under a United Nations-led administration that Kosovar Albanians hope will bring independence. Ethnic Albanian fighters in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia are currently attempting to repeat the bloody process.
NATO has political and military missions in Macedonia to assess the situation here and has ordered increased border patrols by international peacekeepers in neighboring Kosovo.
"There is such an incredible growing sense of fear," says Rauf Ramadani. An ethnic Albanian, Mr. Ramadani is chief of police in one of the northern Albanian-dominated regions of Macedonia. He is carefully tracking developments from his headquarters in Tetovo. "So many of us cannot find a reason for this, a logic, and as it gets worse, we are all going to get dragged into it whether we want to or not," he says.
So far, Macedonia's Albanians have managed to avoid the ethnic bloodshed of the past decade through political effort led by Arber Xhaferi and his Albanian Democratic Party (PDSh), which is currently a member of the country's ruling coalition.
Since the coalition won 1998 parliamentary elections, it has made strides toward meeting ethnic-Albanian demands for equal treatment and representation. There are now minority judges, hospital and school directors, and security officers, like police chief Ramadani. The numbers, however, remain one-sided. In Tetovo, more than 85 percent of the police force is Macedonian and the other 15 percent ethnic Albanian, the opposite of the general population.
It is widely feared that the violence could set off a chain reaction, drowning out the "voice" of the majority of ethnic Albanians, especially if insurgents can elicit a government crackdown. Such a development could ignite the rest of the region, forcing the international community further into the fray to prevent another large-scale Balkan war.
Observers hope the coalition can prevent a decline into all-out war between the ethnic groups. "They are stable but shaky, and absolutely must hold it together," says Brenda Pearson, a political analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank. "If the coalition breaks, it will be chaos."
Those inside the coalition are admitting a creeping deterioration among their ranks. "We've made a good start these last two years," says Mr. Xhaferi. "But now we are developing a complicated political situation, set to the backdrop [of] regional problems."
On Jan. 22, assailants fired two rocket-propelled grenades at the windows of a police station near Tetovo. The same week, unidentified attackers derailed a train heading north from the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
Within days, a private television station received a fax from a group calling itself the UCK. The Albanian-language acronym is identical to that of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Yugoslav forces in 1998-99. In this case, however, the rebels say the "K" stands for Kombetare, meaning national, rather than Kosovo. "The uniform of the Macedonian occupier will be targeted until the Albanian people are free," said the statement.
Jane's Intelligence Review has called the group "a creation of Belgrade's misinformation experts." But Aleksa Stamenovski, former head of Macedonian intelligence services, claims the UCK "was formed at the same time as the group" fighting in the Presevo Valley. It is believed to have originated in the Albanian diaspora in Switzerland and Germany and numbers no more than a few hundred active fighters.
Most Albanians here vociferously deny support for the rebels. "I don't want a war, nobody I know does," says Tahidin, a local Tetovo businessman. "But no one is asking what I want."
A war would also put those like Ramadani in the position of having to fight their own people on a large scale. "I have to defend Macedonia," vows the police chief. "That is my duty, and my wish."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society