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Macedonia: Albanians Fear Insurgencies Damaging Prospects

  • Jolyon Naegele

The entry today of Yugoslav soldiers into the southernmost part of the buffer zone along Yugoslavia's border with Macedonia and Kosovo is seen by many Kosovar Albanians as a setback as well as a signal of worsening relations with the international community. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele spoke with several ethnic Albanians in Kosovo about the insurgencies in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia and the effect they are having on Albanian political perceptions in the region.

Pristina, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The return of the Yugoslav Army to Serbia's border with Kosovo followed an agreement Monday with the commander of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force and a NATO-brokered cease-fire with ethnic Albanian insurgents. The move has set alarm bells ringing both in Kosovo's capital in Pristina and in Tirana, the capital of Albania.

Albanian President Rexhep Meidani and Prime Minister Ilir Meta hastily invited several Kosovar Albanian politicians and intellectuals, including at least one former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army -- or UCK -- Democratic Party leader Hashim Thaci, to Tirana for talks late yesterday (Tuesday) on coordinating policy.

The meeting followed similar consultations in Tirana on Sunday (March 11) between Albanian Prime Minister Meta and leaders of Macedonia's two main ethnic Albanian political groups, Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians and Ymer Ymeri, leader of the Party of Democratic Prosperity. They agreed on the need to preserve Macedonia's stability and territorial integrity and that a resort to violence was unacceptable. The day before (Saturday), at a meeting in the eastern Albanian town of Peshkopi, Albanian Foreign Minister Paskal Milo told his Macedonian counterpart that "the Albanian government supports the sovereignty of Macedonia."

Critics in Pristina note the haste with which the latest Tirana meeting was arranged. They say that diminishes its significance since several key politicians -- most notably, the pacifist Ibrahim Rugova -- were either not invited or unable to come. Rugova is currently in Germany on an official visit.

One of Kosovo's top journalists, Zenun Celaj, a former editor in chief of the province's second-largest daily, "Zeri," says the talks in Tirana are necessary because "an agreement is needed to know what Albanians really want." He says no Kosovar Albanian political leader called for the current insurgencies.

Celaj says the Tirana talks are in the spirit of a meeting organized nine years ago in Pristina organized by Rugova that brought together all ethnic Albanian political leaders in the former Yugoslavia. They drew up a document about their vision of the future of Albanian-inhabited areas. That document set out a number of goals: independence for Kosovo, the right of Albanians in Macedonia to be a constituent -- that is, state-forming -- nation with the Macedonians, cultural autonomy for Albanians in Montenegro and southern Serbia, and the possible annexation of southern Serbia's Presevo Valley by Kosovo.

The international community has repeatedly called on Kosovar Albanian politicians to help stop the current violence. But Celaj says Albanian politicians in Kosovo are powerless to do so. He says the real power in the province is with KFOR and UNMIK, the UN administration in Kosovo.

"Unfortunately, the last 10 years of the century we just left barred us from any activities in Albanian political society. Ibrahim Rugova -- as the political leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo -- promoted a policy of peace and failed."

Celaj says the leaders of the UCK started the war in Kosovo but were unable to finish it. Rather, he notes, it was NATO that brought the war to an end with its air strikes in Yugoslavia, which led to the withdrawal of Serbian forces from the province. Today, Celaj says, Kosovar Albanians "blame the UCK for the tragedies they suffered in the war." As a result, he says, even those who became politicians as a result of the war -- people like Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj -- "have lost whatever authority they once had."

In Celaj's words: "Kosovo suffers from a leadership crisis because it has no real leaders, no one who has authority and commands widespread respect." He says this is unlikely to change as long as KFOR and the UN retain the real power in Kosovo.

Xhafer Shatri is the chief editor of the Pristina weekly "Pasqyra." In 1974, a Yugoslav court sentenced him to 11 years in prison for distributing an underground newspaper, the "Voice of Kosovo (Zeri i Kosoves)." Shatri escaped a Pristina jail in 1982 thanks, he says, to help from fellow-Albanian prison guards. He made his way to Switzerland where he gained asylum, then began militating for Kosovo's independence and eventually became information minister in a Kosovo government-in-exile led by Bojar Bukoshi.

Shatri says the recent violence in the Serbia's Presevo Valley was necessary:

"Armed resistance in the Presevo Valley was unavoidable because without it some 80,000 Albanians would have been completely destroyed -- as had been going on since the 1980s when most [Albanians in the area] were expelled or assimilated."

Shatri says the situation in Macedonia is similar. He cites an Albanian adage: "When the gun appears, politics has failed." He says rebels of today's National Liberation Army -- also known as UCK -- in Macedonia are being demonized, branded "terrorists" by the Macedonian government, and "extremists" by the international community. But he says the rebels' political platform, published last weekend, is a "realistic policy since it calls for constitutional changes making Albanians and Macedonians equal partners in forming the state and an end to discrimination in all walks of life."

"If the international community wants to avoid a repetition of the events in the former Yugoslavia, then it has to adopt a more constructive policy in Macedonia." Part of the problem, Shatri says, is that many ethnic Albanian politicians in Macedonia are corrupt and have subordinated the interests of their electorate to lining their pockets. In addition, he says, pressure for change in Macedonia has increased rather than decreased in the more than eight years since it attained independence.

Astrit Salihu is a lecturer in philosophy at Pristina University and an analyst at the Center for Humanistic Studies. He says nationalism takes different forms among Albanians depending on the state they live in.

"Nationalism among Albanians is very different. It is not unique. It depends on the context. For example, we have a different nationalism in Macedonia, different in Kosovo, and also different [in Albania]."

Salihu says nationalism in Albania is not that strong because, as he puts it, "they already have their own state." In Macedonia, he says, the rebels and the Albanian political parties share the view that equal rights for all ethnic communities should be their goal, rather than separation -- which is not seen as a solution.

In Kosovo, according to Salihu, the question of statehood remains unresolved. That means, he says, an uncertain, insecure future for everyone. He describes Kosovar Albanian nationalism today as "a kind of defensive mechanism to overcome insecurity."

Salihu cites a recent analysis of a Kosovar Albanian focus group that found 60 percent considered the Serbs to be their greatest source of insecurity for the future. Land mines came in second -- with about 40 percent -- and crime took third place. In Salihu's words, "it is very reasonable to consider the Serbs a threat if there is any chance at all that Kosovo will ever be returned to rule from Belgrade."

Salihu recently co-authored a social assessment study of Kosovo for the World Bank. The study concluded that Kosovar Albanians do not hate Serbs but fear them.

He says that in the nearly two years since the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo, Kosovar Albanians have become more rational and are thinking increasingly about the future. Nevertheless, Salihu adds -- with social issues such as jobs, education, pensions, and health care increasingly take center stage -- disillusionment has replaced euphoria as the prevailing mood among Kosovars.

But the solution, Salihu says is not a new leader.

"Albanians don't need a leader. Actually Albanians need the institutions, the system, state, and constitution, because a leader who could solve the problems which we are facing now -- it's like insisting on some old political models of solving problems which is not good for our future."

Salihu says Kosovars need to "professionalize politics" by electing people who can manage the state rather than merely "spout patriotic phrases." He also says unemployed, disenchanted veterans of the old UCK -- who form the backbone of the rebel forces in southern Serbia and northern Macedonia -- must be integrated into the prevailing systems in Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia.

Salihu calls the situation in Macedonia "very dangerous." As a result, he says, any response by Kosovo's political leaders would be fraught with consequences. In his words, "things are very unpredictable here. There is the danger of doing something that would have a negative impact on Kosovo's future."

In a recent interview (March 10) with the Kosovo daily "Koha Ditore," the respected Albanian writer Ismail Kadare said the entry of Yugoslav forces into the buffer zone "is fatally wounding the Albanian nation."

Kadare, a native of Albania who fled the communist regime to Paris in 1990, also told the Pristina daily that "it is time for Albanian politicians to set aside their internal differences and support leaders who offer a solution to the future." He mentioned only one leader by name, Arben Xhaferi, the ailing chairman of the Party of Democratic Albanians -- a junior partner in the Macedonian government.

Kadare denounced the insurgents for killing Macedonian policemen, accusing them of being "out of touch with reality." He said no act of injustice in the Balkans -- including the alleged violation of Albanians' rights in Macedonia or even inside Serbia proper -- can "serve to justify [such] horrible acts."

Nasir Zyberi is a member of the Macedonian Parliament representing the largely Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Progress. A former deputy prime minister, Zyberi blames the Skopje government for overdramatizing a complicated but essentially local problem.

"Calling the [UN] Security Council into emergency session, calling on NATO to discuss the situation in a village of barely 100 houses, closing the border [crossings with Kosovo] and ordering a mobilization. I think that none of these steps by the government led to an easing of the situation, but rather to just the opposite."

Zyberi accuses the Macedonian government of stirring up trouble in an effort to get KFOR peacekeepers to secure the country's northern border. Last month, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and his Yugoslav counterpart, Vojislav Kostunica, signed a treaty defining their countries' common border, including the Kosovo-Macedonian frontier.

Kosovar Albanian parties have denounced the border treaty as unacceptable on the grounds that they were not consulted. Some Albanian politicians in Macedonia, including Zyberi, have criticized the Skopje government for taking "a false step" by signing a treaty with Belgrade in regard to Kosovo's territory. The province remains a part of Yugoslavia de jure but is de facto an international protectorate occupied by KFOR and administered by the UN.

The Albanian party in the Macedonian coalition government, the Democratic Party of Albanians, organized a protest march in the center of Skopje yesterday. Some 10,000 thousand peaceful Albanian protesters demanding equal rights chanted "we are not terrorists" and jeered at policemen. The party's deputy chairman, Menduh Thaci, told reporters that the marchers sought to show that Macedonia's Albanians want stability and to press the government to accelerate the process of granting Albanians equal rights.