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Yugoslavia: Parade Of Western Visitors Shores Up Shaky Macedonia

  • Kitty McKinsey

Skopje, 11 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- From generals to prime ministers to a First Lady, top representatives of practically every Western country are making a trek to Macedonia these days to bolster the morale of the country that feels it's suffering the most from the Kosovo refugee crisis.

The list of prominent people journeying to Skopje is a veritable Who's Who of Western political, economic and military leaders.

Within the space of three days last week, two leading European prime ministers -- France's Lionel Jospin and Britain's Tony Blair -- arrived in Macedonia on hastily organized trips. They pledged money and moral support to the country as it staggers under the weight of what Macedonian authorities estimate are some 240,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from its northern neighbor, Kosovo.

Over the weekend, Macedonia hosted the Acting European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, Emma Bonino. At the same time, German Foreign Minister Joshka Fischer, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, touched down in the country for a few hours.

Yesterday (May 10), Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro paid a visit. Tomorrow, it's the turn of NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, followed by a courtesy call on Friday by Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of the U.S. president.

There's a definite pattern to the visits -- private talks with government ministers, optimistic statements to the Macedonian and international media, and film footage of the visiting dignitary touring a refugee camp and holding heartfelt conversations with desperate, destitute Kosovars huddling in tents.

The visits have become so routine that the daily newspaper Vecher has sarcastically dubbed them "humanitarian tourism." Macedonia is such a chic destination that even the American movie star Richard Gere paid a six-day visit last week.

But cynical though Macedonian politicians and journalists may be about the flood of Western dignitaries, there is careful calculation behind the trips, however brief they are.

As a NATO official confided to our correspondent privately, "the Macedonian government feels a bit neglected and that they haven't been thanked enough for their efforts with the refugees." Solana and the parade of Western presidents and prime ministers are here to encourage Macedonia to keep its borders open to those still wanting to flee Kosovo -- and to hold out promises of rewards for doing so.

Typical was the pledge on Sunday from Fischer, representing both Germany and the EU:

"The European Union is ready to commit itself to the states of the region continuously and permanently, and I think this offers a good prospect for the future, with the inclusion of a democratic Serbia."

Albania, the poorest country in Europe, has taken more Kosovar refugees, but they are fellow ethnic Albanians. Macedonia, on the other hand, feels its own internal ethnic balance is threatened by the influx of refugees now equal to about 12 percent of its own population.

Macedonia took advantage of the Kosovo refugee crisis from the very beginning to advance its case for EU associate membership and full membership in NATO. But as prospects for quick acceptance into the two institutions recede, disappointment has set in -- from President Kiro Gligorov on down.

Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Trajkovski, well known for his lack of diplomacy, bluntly told the newspaper Vecher over the weekend that "I now sincerely doubt the promise of associate membership in the EU."

He further charged that the EU is trying to, as he put it, "blackmail" Macedonia by holding out the prospect of associate membership if Macedonia continues to accept refugees who, it believes, threaten its economic, political and social stability.

The government was especially disappointed that last week's international donors' conference in Paris came up mainly with offers of credit to Macedonia, rather than ready cash.

Government ministers have frequently said they are tired of lectures on the human rights of the refugees from Western governments that, they say, are not willing to shoulder any of the burden by giving cash or taking in few refugees themselves.

As Trajkovski told Vecher: "I openly say that we are sick and tired of being fooled." He said the EU has given Macedonia a stark choice: "if we let more [refugees] in, we will practically explode. If we don't let them in then we won't see a penny."

All the recent visitors -- especially Britain's Blair, who offered Macedonia $65 million -- have tried to sooth such hurt feelings. Fischer, on his short visit, emphasized the need to look to the future after the war in Yugoslavia ends, and proposed a stability pact for Macedonia and the rest of Southeastern Europe, the details of which are still vague.

"Today we must above all concentrate on an end to the war, a solution to the refugee catastrophe, but at the same time, we must make preparations so that after the silence of the weapons there will be lasting peaceful development in this region. The region of Southeastern Europe is an integral part of Europe and therefore must be led into European integration. That is the task of the stability pact of Southeastern Europe."

But Deputy Prime Minister Dosta Dimovska told the Nova Makedonija newspaper last weekend that she was not convinced by the stream of prominent visitors. As she put it, "most of their promises end up to be only words of propaganda."

And Western efforts to boost Macedonia's morale were undermined by Bonino, who was openly harshly critical of Macedonia's attitudes and actions towards the refugees. At a diplomatic reception over the weekend, two ambassadors from EU countries publicly rebuked Bonino for not being sympathetic enough toward her host country.

Within the Macedonian government itself there seems to be a difference of opinion on whether the country should act offended or conciliatory in its dealings with the West.

On the same weekend that Trajkovski's and Dimovska's harsh comments appeared in the local press, Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov astonished Macedonian journalists with his warm words of praise for his visiting counterpart, Fischer, and the West in general.

Dimitrov stressed Macedonia's desire to cooperate with Western institutions. In his words: "Only with the support of the European Union, NATO and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) will this region no longer be a problem and will come near to Europe and to European standards."