Macedonia: from war to talks

After more than 48 hours of calm, ethnic Albanians and Macedonian Slavs began talks yesterday.

For the people of this ethnically mixed village in western Macedonia, the crisis has passed, at least for now.

Artillery no longer booms from Army positions down the valley. The "crisis committee" formed by Slav and ethnic-Albanian villagers has ended its 24-hour vigil. Farmers are back in their fields.

The new Balkan war some feared might engulf Macedonia has not come. But as the threat of war recedes, the hopes and fears of people here now fasten on this week's talks between ethnic-Albanian and Macedonian-Slav leaders, who face greater pressure than ever to come to a political accommodation that has eluded them for the past 10 years.

"This situation is not good for anyone," says Vladimir Serafimovski, a Macedonian Slav in Tearce. "They're afraid, we're afraid. We don't know what is going to happen next."

At stake in Macedonia is not only peace in the south Balkans, but the survival of the most multiethnic state in the region. Ever since the breakup of Yugoslavia a decade ago, Macedonia was held up as a rare example of ethnic tolerance. More than half of Macedonia's 2 million people are Slavs; a third are Albanian.

But the threat of violence has by no means passed. After its successful offensive around Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, the Army shelled the hills north of the capital, Skopje, last week, driving the rebels back into Kosovo. Macedonian officials say the rebels used Kosovo as a staging ground, and that they are most likely regrouping there now.

"It's entirely possible that from time to time we'll have to go through with this all over again," says one Western diplomat about the recent fighting.

But for the moment, attention has shifted to the political front. Macedonia's government yesterday launched urgent talks with leaders of the country's ethnic-Albanian minority. European Union security chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson were expected to travel to Skopje for the talks, and to push for a negotiated settlement between the parties. "It's going to be very hard," says a senior Western diplomat. "But the political leadership is committed to do this peacefully. As long as you have that, you have to have hope."

The rebels won the sympathy of ordinary ethnic Albanians, but not enough real support to continue. Yet ethnic-Albanian leaders are warning that Albanian patience is limited.

"One of the good things that came out of this conflict was that we didn't have a lot of victims," says Teuta Arifi, a professor of Albanian literature at the University of Cyril and Methodius in Skopje. "That's a sign that people don't like violence here. But if the tension remains, we can expect difficult times in the future."

On the agenda for the talks will likely be a change in Macedonia's Constitution to make ethnic Albanians and other minorities equal to Macedonian Slavs. Other grievances will take longer to address. These include: demands for greater authority for local governments, more ethnic Albanians in the police force and other government positions, and state-sponsored university education in the Albanian language.

In the meantime, the country faces other serious problems that officials say are exacerbating ethnic tensions. Many ethnic Albanians see Macedonia's coalition government - which includes an ethnic-Albanian party - as little more than an arrangement to share power and corruption. Unemployment is high, especially among the young - one of many problems that cross ethnic lines.

And while long-term peace may demand new political accommodations within Macedonia, it also depends on the resolution of problems beyond its borders. These include the unresolved status of Kosovo and the increasing threat posed by organized crime, including the smuggling of drugs as well as trafficking in women and children.

Eran Fraenkel heads the Macedonian office of Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based organization devoted to defusing ethnic conflict. He says the ties that bind Macedonians will prove stronger than the forces that drive them apart.

"I've been coming to this country for the past 31 years," he says. "I've seen both the beautiful and ugly side of ethnic relations. I think when people have the chance to self-reflect, there are still more commonalities than differences."

Life in Tearce, a village of 5,000 inhabitants at the foot of the Sar Mountains, illustrates the possibilities and limitations of ethnic tolerance. Most people are ethnic Albanian, but the village also has a large Slavic minority, as well as some ethnic Turks. For the most part, the different ethnic groups live in different neighborhoods, speak different languages, and practice different religions. They hold sharply different views of the recent fighting. To the Slavs, the rebels were "terrorists." To the ethnic Albanians, they were brothers.

Still, there is plenty of cooperation and socializing. Village children all go to the same grade school, where they attend classes in their own language. Their parents shop at the same outdoor market. Abdulla Ramadani, a farmer, rents land from Slavic Macedonians. Last fall, he says he borrowed a plow from an ethnic Macedonian after the harvest.

"If you want to divide the three ethnic groups here, you can't do that," he says. "So we're afraid of fighting, of civil war.... In war, everyone loses."

A vivid example both of cooperation and of the anxieties that underlie it came when Macedonian forces began shelling the mountainside above Tetovo more than two weeks ago. Seven miles away in Tearce, ethnic Albanians feared the Macedonian police. The Slavs feared ethnic-Albanian fighters. So village leaders met and decided to keep a permanent watch, together, at the village school.

"The purpose was to keep our heads cool ... and to protect them from misinformation," says Qamili Ramadani, an ethnic Albanian who is village president. "We were concerned just to keep the villagers together, and not to have any problem. In that way we succeeded." He says they succeeded in part by avoiding any talk of politics. "If you can't talk about politics, you can talk only about sports and music," he jokes.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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