Skopje, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Strike up a conversation with any Macedonian about NATO air strikes on neighboring Yugoslavia and the Kosovo refugee crisis and the word that inevitably crops up is "destabilization."
At least twice a day, Macedonian government ministers feel compelled to go on television declaring that -- as Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Kiprjanova put it this week -- "Macedonia is a stable country with good interethnic relations." But all of the protestations about stability only fuel fears of destabilization.
It's a concern with at least three elements. The most immediate is a suspicion that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- following a long history of provoking crises in neighboring countries -- is seeking to spread violence from Kosovo and draw Macedonia into a regional war. Macedonia is the only former Yugoslav republic that broke away from the old federation without a war.
Then there's the well-justified fear of economic disaster that may inflict an already economically depressed Macedonia if it has to cope on its own with a flood of refugees from Kosovo.
But most serious -- and most far-reaching -- is the fear that Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian refugees will stay in the country and upset the hard-won and seemingly fragile balance between the majority Slav Macedonians and Macedonia's own ethnic-Albanian minority, estimated to make up 25 percent of the country's 2.1 million people.
Elections four months ago were won by two ethnic-Macedonian parties -- the toned-down nationalist VMRO and the pro-business Democratic Alternative -- who did not need the backing of any Albanian members of parliament to form a majority government. The fact that they invited the ethnic-Albanian party led by Arben Xhaferi into their coalition and gave the Albanians five cabinet posts was seen as a gesture of goodwill and a pragmatic move to preserve ethnic peace.
But as Macedonian television screens fill these days with images of the thousands of refugees fleeing Kosovo, sympathy for Kosovar Albanians among much of the Macedonian population is limited by suspicion of Macedonia's own ethnic Albanians.
The problem is that Macedonia's ethnic Albanians are now agitating to reverse what they say were years of neglect -- both political and economic -- suffered during the communist era.
Ekrem Ebibi -- an official in the municipal government of Kondovo, an ethnic Albanian village just west of Skopje -- feels that the demands of ethnic Albanians are well justified.
"Now you have the situation where the Albanians demand a better life and to be involved in all state institutions. They demand that the problems of higher education in the Albanian language be resolved, the question of national emblems, they want the ... Albanian language as a second official language and bigger investment by the state of Macedonia in the industry and economy of western Macedonia."
This assertiveness has caused a backlash among non-ethnic Albanian Macedonians. One 30-year-old Skopje woman complains that she feels like a second-class citizen in her own country because of what she says is discrimination favoring ethnic Albanians. As she puts it, "They get all the good jobs and better-qualified Macedonians are unemployed."
Macedonia has a tiny minority of ethnic Serbs -- about 2.5 percent of the population -- and their anger has been aroused by the NATO air strikes against Serbia.
Sladjana Volkova -- a medical student -- is an ethnic Serb who has lived in Macedonia for all of her 34 years. She says she's never felt as Serbian as she has since NATO air strikes started against her fellow Serbs in Yugoslavia. Anger shakes her voice as she calls ethnic Albanians "Mongoloids" and "Shiptars," a pejorative term. She and her architect husband, Svetislav, voice the fears of many fellow Macedonians when they say they are afraid Kosovar refugees -- currently numbering some 20,000 but expected to increase -- will never go back to Yugoslavia and will upset Macedonia's demographic balance. Specifically, they fear ethnic Albanians -- concentrated in western Macedonia -- will seek to join the land where they live with Albania proper and form a "Greater Albania." Macedonia, Svetislav says, could be wiped off the map.
"What is scaring me now is that it may happen tomorrow that Albanians in Kosovo will want to join with Albania to make a Greater Albania. Tomorrow the Albanians in Macedonia can also do that. So from this little country, Macedonia, would remain nothing ... It could be possible that the rest of the country would be united with Bulgaria."
Ethnic-Albanian leaders -- and the Kosovar refugees themselves -- insist that the refugees have no intention of staying in Macedonia and dream only of returning home once peace is restored.
Xhaferi -- the ethnic Albanian leader in the governing coalition -- says the relatively small number of ethnic Albanian refugees should not upset the ethnic composition of Macedonia.
"All the statements that they are here in huge numbers and are going to change the ethnic map of Macedonia are just malicious allegations."
With Macedonia's ethnic Albanians fully behind the NATO air strikes, and ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Serbs increasingly uneasy about the presence of some 12,000 NATO troops on Macedonian soil, observers say they are impressed at how well the young coalition government appears to be weathering the strains.
Xhaferi says the government is aware of the challenges it faces and is determined to remain strong.
"Our duty is to politically stabilize Macedonia. There is a strong political consensus in the government that we should come out of this more strengthened and unified."
A political organizer for one of the two ethnic-Macedonian parties in the three-party coalition government says he believes the appearance of ethnic harmony in Macedonia is deceptive, that Slav Macedonians and the ethnic Albanian minority don't live as well together as is often believed.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Macedonia's best hope for ethnic harmony is membership in the European Union. He says: "If we all start working and raise the standard of living, then with prosperity, the ethnic tensions will disappear."