Fighting continues in Macedonia's Sar mountain range between the town of Tetovo and the Kosovo border. Eight Macedonian policemen were wounded last night when Albanian insurgents attacked their patrol. Tetovo is the headquarters of Macedonia's largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele spoke in Tetovo with the party's chairman, Arben Xhaferi, about prospects for peace in his country.
Tetovo, 23 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Arben Xhaferi, the ailing 53-year-old chairman of Macedonia's largest Albanian political party, is widely considered the sole statesman among the country's ethnic Albanian political leaders.
The international community has repeatedly placed its faith and hopes in him to help find a solution to the ongoing crisis over ethnic Albanian rights in Macedonia. Xhaferi appears to have regained his standing after the rebellion last March in and around Macedonia's northwestern ethnic Albanian stronghold of Tetovo, in which young protesters jeered whenever his name was mentioned and cheered whenever they heard gunfire from the nearby hills.
Xhaferi suffers from Parkinson's disease and members close to him in his Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, tell RFE/RL they expect Xhaferi will step down as party chairman within about a month.
PDSh was a junior member in the previous (1998 to 2001) government of nationalist-oriented Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski. Ten days ago (13 May), Xhaferi and Georgievski's parties helped form a new government of national unity -- together with the Liberals, the opposition Social Democrats and the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity -- in an effort to share responsibility for the fate of the country.
One of the main purposes of forming a unity government, which the international community had urged, is to open a dialogue among the country's political leaders to try to develop a solution to the crisis.
But Xhaferi is wary of parties jockeying for position in advance of early parliamentary elections to be held no later than January. In an extensive interview with RFE/RL at his party headquarters in Tetovo -- during which he spoke in a voice barely louder than a whisper -- he said the parties in the new government "should stop trying to destroy the dialogue by turning it into a farce."
"We must choose dialogue on the essential issues which led to this crisis. And the issue of the legal position of Albanians in society, their place in Macedonia's Constitution. You know, we have to correct the cause of the crisis and create a truly multiethnic society in a multiethnic state." But, says Xhaferi, "that is not possible to accomplish without changes to the constitution."
Xhaferi rejects suggestions that Albania's Socialist Party-led government may be clandestinely supporting the ethnic Albanian fighters in Macedonia. He says the Albanian government and "all Albanian political subjects" constitute a factor of stability not only in Macedonia but in the region as a whole. The ethnic Macedonian parties reject out of hand any suggestion of negotiating with representatives of the armed fighters of the National Liberation Army, or UCK, whom they call "terrorists."
But Xhaferi says the UCK is a factor in the dispute and should be included in some discussions. "The UCK is not a part of the government, structurally, and cannot participate in these negotiations. But if an international conference were to be organized in Macedonia, there certainly ought to be space for the UCK to participate."
Xhaferi insists the UCK is not a terrorist organization, but rather a military one. He says that it conducts itself as an army and does not organize terrorist acts, limiting its targets to the military and police. And, he says, the UCK fighters "identify themselves by their uniforms, first and last names, and by their concrete actions."
Other Albanian politicians in Albania note that international law does not define what constitutes terrorism. "They are not working in illegality [underground], nor do they engage in attacks on the civilian population of Macedonia. They are not fighters of a terrorist organization operating illegally."
Xhaferi insists that his party, PDSh, "does not have any real contacts at the level of party organs" with the UCK, though he acknowledges that personal relations between PDSh activists and UCK activists clearly do exist. He says it would certainly help if some formal channel of communication could be established between his party and the UCK to enable an exchange of information and a joint search for a solution acceptable to Macedonian society as a whole.
Sources close to PDSh -- who asked not to be identified -- tell RFE/RL that Xhaferi's chief of cabinet, Izak Sherifi, recently quit his post and went over to the UCK. But Xhaferi says Sherifi has personal problems, adding that he was "absolutely sure he [Sherifi] is not in the ranks of the UCK."
Xhaferi says the government of neighboring Albania, as well as all of the country's institutions, are factors of stability in Macedonia and the region as a whole. The problem, he says, lies with the Macedonians, who constitute at least two-thirds of the population and who insist on having a nation-state rather than a state based on civil principles.
"The Macedonian [Slav community] in Macedonia makes [the country] appear to be a state of Macedonians, regardless of whether they give any rights to the Albanians. So it is not a problem between the Albanians and the international community but rather one of perception of the state. They (the Macedonians) perceive the state as belonging to their own [ethnic Macedonian] people -- that is, just to one nation -- although they live with other peoples in this state."
He adds: "The state ought never to be based on ethnic groupings but rather [should represent] all its citizens. [The] Macedonians have to change their perception of the state into one that serves all citizens." Xhaferi predicts that once the Macedonians change their perception of what the state is and view it as serving all citizens, then the major interethnic problems will soon be amicably resolved.
However, Xhaferi warns that if fighting and economic difficulties continue to weaken Macedonia in the coming years, the country will face a growing risk of collapse. He says that whether the current fighting by ethnic Albanians spreads now depends on the willingness of the various sides to quickly engage in what he terms "a rational, productive, permanent dialogue on changes in the concept -- or perception -- of the state so as to avoid [further] conflict."
Xhaferi says that if the dialogue proves to be half-hearted, then the end result will be a further militarization of the crisis and more armed conflict in Macedonia.