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Macedonia: Local Albanian Leader Complains Of Discrimination

Tetovo, Macedonia, 23 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - Arber Xhaferi, leader of the semi-legal Albanian Democratic Party (PDSA) in the Macedonian region of Tetovo says that ethnic Albanians are bracing up for trouble there.

Official estimates show there are 400 to 500 thousand Albanians in Macedonia but Xhaferi says there are at least 800 000.

Albanians make up the majority in the regions of Tetovo and Gostivar in the former Yugoslav republic.

Xhaferi has recently told RFE/RL that his party is demanding the formal recognition of the right to use Albanian language in offices and schools. Xhaferi says that the Albanians will not settle for a regional minority status because they make up to 80 percent of the local population. Instead, he says, they would like to be considered a constituent nation in Macedonia.

According to Xhaferi, the Macedonian constitution of 1991 defines the state as being 'Macedonian' and gives 'minority status' to some ethnic groups. But Albanians are in fact majority in some areas.

The Albanian language is not banned in Macedonia and is even taught in some primary schools. But the authorities request all official documents to be in Macedonian.

The public display of the Albanian flag is banned in Macedonia except at 'sports and cultural' events.

"Skopje uses the so-called international factor in order not to give us what we want," Xhaferi says.

"There is a lot of confusion here. The majority here wants to be Slavs and call themselves Macedonian and that is not acceptable to either Greece, Bulgaria or Serbia with whom the former Yugoslav republic has no settled border. This boils down to a potentially lethal cocktail,'" says Xhaferi.

Xhaferi says his party will accept Macedonia's borders if the Skopje government recognizes what he calls the "political realities," that is that one third of the country's population is ethnic Albanian. "Macedonia is a multi-ethnic state, like Bosnia, but the Slav politicians will not admit this," he says.

"We must have an agreement with the ethnic Macedonian community to define our rights and obligations," Xhaferi says, "we must re-write the constitution, and we must ensure that all citizens are loyal to the state."

Xhaferi complains that the current constitution defines Macedonia as a Slav state. "They ask us to be loyal to a state that does not protect us," he says, "but this is a vicious circle as they want dialogue within a system that is governed by a law that we object to."

Xhaferi quotes various international documents and agreements made during and/or after the Yugoslav wars that secure the protection of ethnic communities that live outside their "mother" states. But he says that the government in Skopje refuses to implement them.

Xhaferi is an independent deputy in Macedonia's Parliament. He founded the PDSA eight months ago. Currently, seven parliamentary deputies belong to the party but because the PDSA is semi-legal they present themselves as independents. Xhaferi says that eleven local mayors belong to the party as well and the organization has considerable following among the ethnic Albanians.

The Macedonian authorities have refused to register the PDSA on the grounds that its requests are unconstitutional. "We want the law changed but how can we change it peacefully if we are not allowed to form a political party?," asks Xhaferi.

Commenting on rumors in Skopje that the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia are engaged in arms and drugs trafficking, Xhaferi says that some people do own arms but these weapons are "primitive" and cannot compare to those used in either the Macedonian or the Serb armies. On the trafficking issue, Xhaferi says he is prepared to work with the Macedonian police to halt criminal activities but "a whole nation cannot be criminalized because of some individual activities."

"We are a reality here. We are a large community with the potential to make our own policies. Skopje must take this into account instead of trying to isolate us as citizens and as Albanians," asserts Xhaferi.

Most of the ethnic Albanians came to Macedonia from Kosovo after the 1970s anti-Serb riots and stayed on after Macedonia declared independence. Xhaferi confirms he has close connections with Kosovo, with Albania proper and with the Albanian diaspora.

"Everyone says it's better to have bad peace than a good war. They tell us we must be calm and patient. But we are going down step by step because this is a repressive system that uses the police and the military against us. We live under occupation," says Xhaferi, referring to the bloody riots in Gostivar last year when ethnic Albanians were maltreated by the Macedonian authorities.

According to Xhaferi, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia are left with no option but to go and find jobs abroad. "This is actually profitable for Skopje as the money earned in Germany, Switzerland and Denmark -- estimated at 500 million D-marks a year -- is being spent in Macedonia."