What a difference a year makes.
A year ago Ali Ahmeti was a reviled man, the shadowy leader of a few thousand ethnic Albanian guerrillas fighting in the mountainous areas of northern and western Macedonia. Calling themselves the National Liberation Army, he and his fighters seized territory and threatened to plunge this small, ethnically mixed country into yet another Balkan war.
Today the former commander greets visitors in a tie and pressed shirt at the headquarters of his new party, the Democratic Union for Integration. Amnestied by the Macedonian government in March, he is trying to build a political organization from scratch in time for elections in September. Even more remarkably, he has emerged as a leading voice of moderation, disavowing nationalism and calling for reconciliation with the country's Slavic majority.
Mr. Ahmeti's rehabilitation is not quite complete. The American government still shuns him for his role in last year's uprising, and he lingers on a Treasury Department list as one of several "individuals who threatened international stabilization efforts in the Western Balkans." Questions remain about his motives and his abilities as a politician. But Western diplomats in the capital, Skopje, have welcomed his entry onto the political stage as one of the more promising developments in Macedonia's painful search for a peaceful accommodation between Orthodox Christian Slavs and the country's large ethnic Albanian and mostly Muslim minority. "It's hard to think of anyone who would get higher marks," says one Western diplomat. "His inclusion in the political process may be the best thing that's happened here in the past six months."
Ahmeti's transformation from rebel to reformer is a measure of the progress that has been made in Macedonia in the past year. For a while last spring and summer, Macedonia seemed to be heading the way of Bosnia and Kosovo, bringing to a bloody conclusion a decade of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia.
But last July Western arm-twisting brought Macedonian leaders to the negotiating table, where they agreed to unprecedented constitutional changes that would give greater rights to ethnic Albanians, who make up between a quarter and a third of the population. In return, Ahmeti and his fighters laid down their guns.
Much of last year's agreement has been fulfilled. New laws allow Albanians wider use of their language. Power is being devolved onto local governments, giving Albanian communities a greater say in their affairs. But the peace is still shaky. Although the rebels turned in more than 3,500 guns, the country is awash in weapons. Many ethnic Albanian areas remain outside government control. And last year's conflict has left ethnic divisions in Macedonia wider than ever, with persistent talk of partitioning the country. In the meantime, an economy weakened by years of war in the region spreads discontent among Macedonians of all ethnicities.
The country's leaders have made progress difficult.
In many cases, they have added to the ethnic polarization by playing on the fears and prejudices of their constituencies. But Macedonia's worst problem, many say, is widespread corruption that has drained the economy, destroyed trust in government, and undermined the country's stability.
Prominent government officials, including the prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, are suspected of having bilked the state through numerous schemes, including the improperly handled privatization of state companies, the granting of import-export licenses, and the smuggling of guns, cigarettes, and women over the borders.
The disbanding of the rebel army left a vacuum that organized crime has been quick to fill. "There's no security," complains Naidi Asani, an ethnic Albanian who was loading blocks on a wagon in the village of Dobroste. On July 3, a gunfight just outside his village left three men dead. It was only the most recent of a series of violent incidents in western Macedonia. Residents say the police are afraid to go out after dark, leaving many villages to organize their own nocturnal patrols.
Parliamentary elections, scheduled for Sept. 15, promise to be the most critical for the future of Macedonia since it became independent in 1991. But Western officials are bracing for trouble. Macedonia's governing coalition, composed of both Slavic and ethnic Albanian parties, is struggling to stay in power. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe plans to call in 750 election observers, one of the largest groups ever to monitor an election.
Against this backdrop, Ali Ahmeti makes an unlikely figure. He is a slight, stooped, soft-spoken man with a manner that projects neither the bravado of a military commander nor the ease of a seasoned politician. His refusal to indulge in nationalist rhetoric often the surest route to success in this region sets him apart still more. "We want to introduce a new concept, without any nationalistic phrases," he says in an interview with the Monitor. "Instead we will offer solutions and perspective for the future of all citizens, including both Albanians and Macedonians. Not hatred but mutual trust. We want to offer realistic options for European integration, not only in words, but in deeds."
Despite his progressive views, some question whether the former fighter is really the democrat he claims to be. They wonder how his inexperience will serve him in the rough world of Balkan politics. Arben Xhaferi, the leading ethnic Albanian politician and Ahmeti's main rival, is already trying to outflank him by suggesting that he, not Ahmeti, is the more radical defender of ethnic Albanian interests.
But with memories of his wartime success still fresh, Ahmeti commands popularity among ordinary ethnic Albanians. In the village of Studenicani recently, a crowd of ethnic Albanian men gather in a dusty schoolyard for a rally to mark the founding of a local branch of Ahmeti's party.
Afterward the men retire to cafes at the village center, where they drink sweetened tea in the Turkish manner, out of tiny glasses shaped like hourglasses. Like most people in this country, they are loathe to place too much hope in any political movement. But many seem to think that Ahmeti's success in war had earned him a chance to lead in peace.
"God is number one, and Ali Ahmeti is number two," declares a businessman named Gzavid Iseni. "That's the mentality of the Albanian people."