Fri, 23 Feb 2001

Ethnic violence looms over Macedonia border

By Anatoly Verbin

LOJANE, Macedonia (Reuters): This dusty village high in the mountains bordering Yugoslavia's volatile Presevo valley is the unlikely focus of rekindled fears that ethnic violence will spill across the Balkans.

Gunfire rings out through the night, setting on edge the nerves of villagers who wonder if they will soon be swept up in the conflict close by between Serb police and ethnic Albanian fighters in Presevo, bordering Kosovo and Macedonia.

Concern that Macedonia's delicate ethnic balance, two-thirds Slav and a third Albanian, will be upset by nearby violence is nothing new. For nearly a decade western diplomats have sought to prevent conflict in Yugoslavia destabilizing tiny Macedonia.

But hopes that the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic from the Yugoslav presidency would bring calm have been dashed as new ethnic fires have been lit and Balkan separatist movements recharged.

"We're simply in a bad place on the map," said former Macedonian interior minister, Pavle Trajanov, a nationalist who voices the Slav majority fear that Kosovo's independence-seeking Albanians will join forces with local Macedonian Albanians.

Western concern was roused last month when Macedonia blamed former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters for a grenade attack on a police station that killed a Macedonian policeman and talk emerged of a "Liberation Army of Albanians in Macedonia".

NATO officials pledged quickly to prevent Albanian extremists from converting their violent drive to rid the Presevo area of Serbs into a pan-Albanian freedom movement.

Tension has eased, however, with Macedonian officials noting that two police injured in the grenade attack were ethnic Albanians. They now say the incident was likely criminal.

For decades, ethnic Albanians in former Yugoslavia lived as one oppressed community, and though the collapse of the federation cut them apart into different states, family and business links are still very close.

So far violence has not spread across the thinly-guarded border that separates the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia from its unstable former patron. But concern persists.

"How can you save your house if neighbors throw rocks at each other? A stone will hit you," said Macedonian writer Kim Mehmeti, an ethnic Albanian.

Macedonian officials have sought to reassure. Interior Minister Dosta Dimovska said the government was concerned but there was no serious danger of Macedonia being involved.

Menduh Thaci, deputy leader of the ethnic Albanian party DPA, a pillar of the government coalition, told Reuters: "As long as we are alive and well, and we intend to be so, I can guarantee there will be no destabilization."

"The vision of Macedonian Albanians is -- Kosovo is another country, Albania is another country, our state is Macedonia and our future is here. Our future is in Europe," he said.

Western diplomats say they are impressed with how the government, "panic-stricken" in 1999 when some 250,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees fleeing Serb attacks flooded Macedonia, has maintained ethnic calm and made economic progress since then.

The DPA and its veteran leader Arben Xhaferi have strong influence among ethnic Albanians, especially in the west of Macedonia which borders Kosovo and Albania.

The area is buzzing and some say that booming business with Kosovo, including smuggling, will keep Macedonian Albanians too occupied to think about politics.

But few doubt there are considerable caches of arms in the high mountains that separate Kosovo from Macedonia.

The situation is different in the north of Macedonia where small and poor Albanian villages are scattered among settlements populated by Macedonians and local Serbs.

Lojane is one of them. It is subdued and scared but defiant.

"I do not care what Xhaferi says," said a teenage boy. "If I feel that I should join fighting there, I will. They are Albanians and I am Albanian".

With shooting heard nearly every night and the border marked by little more than a heap of garbage local people are nervous.

"The border is the government's top current priority and they have made good progress in securing it," said a Western diplomat in Skopje involved in security issues.

But a Reuters crew crossed into the Presevo area without even realizing they were moving from one state to the other.

A Macedonian border patrol arrived some 20 minutes later to say: "You were lucky there were no Serb police on the other side".

Macedonia and the new reformist government in Belgrade are to sign an agreement demarcating the border on Friday at a Balkan summit but it will take two years to put into practice.

But even if the violence in Presevo can be stopped the bigger issue of Kosovo's unresolved status still looms.

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations as a de facto protectorate within Yugoslavia since a 1999 NATO bombing campaign drove out the Serb army. Its final status has been left deliberately vague by the international community.

Kosovo Albanians want independence with some nationalist hotheads still dreaming of a Greater Albania which would unite ethnic Albanians from Albania, Kosovo, western Macedonia and southern Serbia into one state.

"They are planning it in phases, first independence of Kosovo, then annexing southern Serbia to Kosovo and then the same will happen to western Macedonia," said ex-minister Trajanov.

Albanian leaders in Macedonia reject the theory.

"I believe God gave enough intelligence to Albanians in Macedonia to realize that would be deadly for us," said Thaci.

The writer Mehmeti backed independence for Kosovo, saying it was a pre-condition for peace in the region and would satisfy the separatist urges of the region's Albanians.

"Macedonia will become really stable only after the issue of borders is settled. It is Montenegro, it is Kosovo. The key Albanian issue is the independence of Kosovo."