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Albania: Neighbors Gird For Further Unrest

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 6 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - The armed rebellion in southern Albania has caused deep concern in Athens, Skopje, and Prishtina.

Greece is worried about the possibility of yet another wave of Albanian refugees. But is has also other concerns: the security of its border, the fate of the ethnic Greek minority in southern Albania and nationalist demands at home.

Greece's Eighth Army based at Ioanina, about 100 kilometers southeast of Saranda and Gjirokaster, is reported to have expanded patrols along the mountainous frontier. But the Greek Interior Ministry has also deployed several units of special anti-riot police and police helicopters.

The Greek media appear increasingly agitated. Greece's leading daily "Te Nea" has trumpeted that "the collapse of Albania threatens the region as a whole." Another daily, "Exousia," has said that "Greece should have made it clearer to the world that we are the only country that can promote stability in the region."

Several more nationalistically-oriented Greek dailies this week have called on the government in Athens to seize the opportunity created by the anarchic rebellion and intervene in Albania. "Eleftheros Typos" has said "now is the time... for dynamic intervention so that we can shape developments." Similarly, "Adesmeftos Typos" has called on Greece to "save northern Epirus" -- Greece's name for the southernmost region of Albania currently rocked by unrest. Meanwhile, "Apoyevmatini" spit out incendiary headlines such as "Tanks Against the Minority," "They are Planning for a Massacre" and "Plans to de-Hellenize northern Epirus."

The Greek government is of course unlikely to march on northern Epirus. Rather, Greece has engaged in diplomatic efforts to help settle the situation by lobbying both with Albanian President Sali Berisha and with the European Union in Brussels. Greek secretary of state for foreign affairs, Yannos Kranidiotis is due in Tirana this weekend "to pursue efforts for peace and stability, especially since a large Greek community lives in Albania."

Athens says that the Greek minority residing in the rebellious districts of Gjirokaster, Vlora and Sarande may number as many as 250-300,000. Albania says this figure refers to all eastern Orthodox residents regardless of whether they are ethnic Greeks or Albanians. Large numbers of ethnic Greeks fled Albania in early 1991, eventually receiving asylum and Greek citizenship. But some Greek refugees later returned to Albania with money to invest and opened small businesses. Tirana says only about 55,000 ethnic Greeks remain in Albania.

In the neighboring Macedonia ethnic Albanians constitute about 22 percent of the population of slightly over two million, according to the 1992 EU-supervised census. The country has been wracked by anti-Albanian demonstrations for weeks. But so far the unrest in Albania does not appear to have had any effect on Macedonia, although the government has decided to raise the level of readiness of the Macedonian army's border units, as well as police and special forces.

The Skopje daily "Nova Makedonija" has said the defense and interior ministries are coordinating preparations to deal with what the paper terms a possible refugee exodus or armed raids from the other side of the border. The paper has said the military and police are focusing their attention on two border crossings from southern Albania -- Sveti Naum on Lake Ohrid and Stenje on Lake Prespa.

The Macedonian Defense Ministry has said Macedonia faces no direct threat of war or aggression from Albania. All preventive measures are said to be part of a continuing program to control the joint border. But the ministry has also noted that Albanian police units guarding the Albanian side of the border have withdrawn, leaving the border unprotected.

The Macedonian news media has been noting with some alarm that the United Nations this week began dismantling the first of three UN peacekeeping observation posts along Macedonia's border with Albania. The move is in accord with a Security Council decision made last November that evaluated the situation as stable and concluded that the UN mission had completed its task on the Albanian border.

Meanwhile, demonstrations by ethnic Macedonian students against the use of the Albanian language at Skopje University's Pedagogical Faculty have been a daily occurrence in front of the Macedonian parliament in recent weeks.

Ethnic Albanian students from the faculty sent a letter to the Council of Europe last week complaining that "Macedonia has become a bastion of xenophobia, racism and ethnic intolerance."

Similarly, the Union of the Albanian Intelligentsia in Macedonia issued a statement last week warning that the protests in Skopje threaten fundamental values of the Albanians' existence and prospects. They accuse the protest organizers of "trying to create an Albanophobic political environment leading to open inter-ethnic confrontations."

Some ethnic Albanians in Tetovo recently called for civil resistance that included refusal to pay taxes and efforts to establish a city state. Residents of Debar, where only nine percent of the population is ethnic Macedonian, called for the suspension of the use of the Macedonian language in their town. Macedonian Justice Minister Vlado Popovski responded that the state would intervene if what he called "para-state institutions" are established.

To the north, the situation in Kosovo province is even more tense. Here, some 90 percent of the more than two million inhabitants are ethnic Albanians. The region is effectively under a Serb-imposed state of martial law. The self-styled Albanian President of the Republic of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, who supports an independent and neutral Kosovo, has urged Albania's "authorities and all political forces in Albania to commit themselves to forming a coalition government with the consent of all the relevant political forces in the country." Rugova called for the adoption of a constitution and early elections.

In a brief congratulatory message to Berisha on his reelection by the Albanian parliament Monday to another five-year term, Rugova said that "we hope to see Albania emerge from the prevailing situation and further its economic and democratic order, because this is to the benefit of both the Republic of Albania and the Republic of Kosovo, as well as the Albanian nation as a whole."

The main Albanian party in Kosovo, the Democratic League of Kosovo issued a statement two days ago deploring the violence, anarchy and terror in Albania that "directly or indirectly serve the enemies of Albania and of the Albanian nation as a whole."

But the Forum of Albanian Intellectuals has issued a statement blaming Albanian President Berisha for what it terms "authoritarian regime" and for having provoked the crisis.

Still, a tension is heightening. Yesterday, a bomb went off in a trash can at Prishtina University injuring two Serbs and two Albanians. Two other explosive devices discovered yesterday, one in front of a Serbian monument in Prishtina and the other in Prizren, failed to go off. It appears that a new wave of violence may be in the offing. There have been reports of Serb police torture of ethnic Albanian detainees.

Even if the unrest in neighboring Albania is still nowhere near their common border, the Albanian powder keg in Kosovo presents a constant danger of being detonated. It could happen elsewhere as well.