Skirmishes are continuing near Macedonia's northern border with Kosovo, where three Macedonian policemen were killed on 4 March. Authorities in Macedonia blame the NATO-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Kosovo for failing to do enough to secure the border from armed Kosovar Albanian infiltrators seeking to enter Macedonia illegally. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Skopje that Macedonian authorities may be at least equally to blame for the violent dispute over the border village of Tanusevci.
Skopje, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The dispute over the ethnic Albanian border village of Tanusevci in northern Macedonia has been simmering for months. But its origins predate Macedonian independence more than eight years ago.
Tanusevci lies within earshot of the border with Kosovo, high in the Black Mountains (Crna gora/Karadak) north of Skopje. The village is about 24 kilometers from the capital as the crow flies, but nearly double that distance over winding roads. There is no bus service. The nearest school and clinic are in the southern Kosovo town of Vitina/Viti, about an hour away on foot.
The border in the Black Mountains was never marked, and as long as the former Yugoslavia existed it was nothing more than an administrative boundary. Most residents considered themselves Kosovar Albanians. The break-up of Yugoslavia had little immediate impact on Tanusevci. But starting in the late 1990s, the village became a funnel for arms to the Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK. Serb forces on occasion entered Tanusevci.
Last year, Tanusevci became a transit point for weapons bound for Albanian insurgents in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, some 30 kilometers to the northeast. A U.S. KFOR intelligence officer in Vitina told RFE/RL in June that KFOR was monitoring the movement of weapons just across the border in northern Macedonia but, beyond informing the Macedonian authorities, lacked a mandate to respond.
In the wake of an incident last September in which Macedonian military vehicles were fired upon near Tanusevci, Macedonian police went to the village and checked the identity cards of residents. Those without proper documentation were told to leave.
Macedonian officials -- who ask to remain anonymous -- say that before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia two years ago, Tanusevci had some 750 inhabitants. Even before the current violence erupted, the officials says, that number had been reduced by more than half -- to about 300.
The most recent shootings began three weeks ago when police went to investigate a report that a Skopje television news team had been surrounded by armed Albanians, some in uniform, who confiscated their equipment and ordered them to leave. Those in uniform wore patches with the letters UCK, standing no longer for the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army but rather for the National Liberation Army ("Kombetar" is Albanian for "National").
Professor Abdulhenaf Bexheti is a member of one of Macedonia's two main ethnic Albanian parties, the opposition Party of Democratic Prosperity. As Macedonia's minister for transportation and communications in the mid-1990s, Bexheti visited Tanusevci several times in an effort to end the village's isolation from the rest of Macedonia. Bexheti says he understands why the villagers resorted to arms.
"I fully excuse their bid to establish their own fundamental civic rights for the simple reason that for the last 50 years all their educational, health and business affairs were with Vitina, a town in Kosovo, rather than with Skopje, from which unfortunately they were isolated due to wholly inadequate transportation and [communications]."
Bexheti says the people of Tanusevci were never provided with Macedonian identity papers and they also failed to register their births in Macedonia. He says Macedonian authorities should have foreseen that there would be trouble when they signed and ratified a treaty with Yugoslavia last month defining their countries' common border, including the Macedonian-Kosovo border.
"It is possible that [these] problems will expand to other parts of Macedonia. There are some who foresee that the current situation in Macedonia regarding the constitutional and legal status of Albanians will result in what is happening now [but on a broader scale]. We must think seriously about changing the constitutional and legal status [of Macedonia] from a nation-state to one with a civic character -- that is, to establish a civil or binational state of Macedonians and Albanians, embracing the two main ethnic groups that live here and together make up 93 percent of all the citizens."
Tanusevci's rebels have been secretive about their aims and only publicly declared their goals on 5 March. In a fax to Deutsche Welle radio, they said they were fighting for the equality of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.
Bexheti says he believes the government has responded to the uprising as best it could. He says Skopje had no choice but to send in troops and police and try to avoid direct confrontation, while seeking increased cooperation and understanding from the international community.
In contrast to Bexheti, whose party has been in the opposition for more than two years, the deputy chairman of the Tetovo-based Democratic Party of Albanians, Menduh Thaci, is in a more difficult position. The crisis in Tanusevci has developed at a time when his party is the junior partner in a coalition government with the main Macedonian nationalist party, known by the acronym VMRO/DPME. Thaci says outside interests are taking advantage of Tanusevci residents.
"I think that the people who are responsible for the incidents and problems in Tanusevci may be working for [other] services, for other interests, but there is nothing to suggest that they are working in the interest of Albanians. I think in this situation one must look at the context -- or mosaic -- of the latest, very arrogant attempts to destabilize the Macedonian government and eventually the entire state."
Menduh Thaci says those behind the violence, whom he suspects of being connected with the Serbian and Russian secret services, are weakening his party's position in the government. He concedes that Macedonian police may have mistreated some Tanusevci residents, but he insists the police made no attempt at ethnic cleansing. In his words, "that's not precise."
Only those without identity papers were forced to leave Tanusevci by Macedonian police. But others left to escape the shooting between rebels and Macedonian security forces. In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 500 residents, mainly women and children, left the village for Kosovo late last month.
Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told our correspondent today that there are now 300 armed men in the village, many of them recruited in Vitina.
Menduh Thaci estimates that out of a total ethnic Albanian population in Macedonia of between 700,000 and 800,000, "well under 100,000" lack Macedonian papers. Official estimates of the Albanian population are closer to 500,000.
In contrast to Bezheti, Thaci does not see the unrest in Tanusevci spreading to the rest of western Macedonia, where most of the country's Albanians are concentrated.
"They don't have a chance. These same people -- perhaps 90 percent of them -- six or seven months ago tried this [to ignite unrest] in Upare, a village near Tetovo. But we as a political party were decisive in putting a halt to this within 24 hours. So it's complicated because: they picked Tanusevci this time since it is in terrain that is inaccessible for us."
Thaci, echoing the views of the Macedonian government, says his information is that most of the rebels in Tanusevci are from Kosovo. He describes them as a mixture of UCK veterans, criminals, and smugglers.
Kim Mehmeti is an ethnic Albanian independent political analyst who heads the Skopje-based non-governmental Center for Multi-Cultural Understanding and Cooperation. He says Macedonia has been very slow to take an interest in Tanusevci following years of isolation and harassment of the villagers by Serbian police that ended only with the NATO air strikes in 1999. He says the border treaty Macedonia signed with Yugoslavia last month only added to the nervousness and mistrust felt by Tanusevci residents, which culminated in their rebellion.
Mehmeti says the Macedonian government should amnesty the rebels.
"We [Albanians] are for the stability of this country. As far as I know, not a single Albanian has said he wishes to see this state dissolved. Where is the problem now? I have information that only ethnic Macedonians [police and soldiers] are being deployed [around Tanusevci]. What does that mean? [It means] that they don't trust us. These are the realities that I see. An organized state should not let such matters result in hysteria."
Mehmeti says the "them and us" mentality has been reinforced ever since the establishment of an independent Macedonia in 1992. He says he bristled every time Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, or his predecessor Kiro Gligorov, addressed the nation and said, "Macedonian citizens and other citizens." That implies, he says, that the 40 percent of the nation's population who are not ethnic Macedonians but rather Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Muslims, Roma, and Vlachs are second-class citizens.
Moreover, Mehmeti says, current tensions and the loss of life in Tanusevci -- one Albanian resident three weeks ago and three Macedonian policemen on Sunday (4 March) -- have, in his words, "lowered the level of Macedonian-Albanian ethnic relations to zero -- where they were in 1990."
Mehmeti says Albanians and Macedonians alike are being manipulated. He notes that Macedonian politicians and news media insist, in his view without a shred of evidence, that Albanians set the mine that killed two policemen on patrol near Tanusevci Sunday morning. Mehmet says the mine could have just as easily been set by others in an attempt to compromise the Albanians.