The Macedonian government says that ethnic Albanian militants have been fighting for a Greater Albania. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz traveled across western Macedonia and found no support for the idea among ordinary Albanians. What he did find was praise for the militants for attracting the world's attention to their problems. Here is his report:
Gostivar, Western Macedonia; 29 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the western Macedonian town of Gostivar, Fazli Murati listens with irritation to a foreign radio broadcast reporting that extremists among the country's ethnic Albanian population are fighting to form a Greater Albania. Fazli, an unemployed Albanian language teacher, says nothing could be further from the truth.
"Being together with Kosovo or thinking about a Greater Albania is something that nobody here is talking about. I don't know who is behind the transmission of this news that we are for a Greater Albania. Probably it is somebody that wants to discredit us in the eyes of the European Union and the foreign media so that the world thinks Albanians in Macedonia are bad."
Our correspondent traveled across western Macedonia to speak with ordinary ethnic Albanians and found that Murati's sentiments were almost universally shared. Out of dozens of ethnic Albanians interviewed, all rejected the idea of breaking away from Macedonia to join with the UN-administered province of Kosovo, or with Albania. Public statements by ethnic Albanian militants in the National Liberation Army, or UCK, also reject the notion of carving out part of a Greater Albania from western Macedonia.
Nevertheless, the governments in Skopje, Belgrade, and Athens have all made statements in recent weeks that have stoked fears of a Greater Albanian insurgency. Remarks made by NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson also support the Macedonian government's position that the UCK is fighting in pursuit of a separate state.
But an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians in Skopje and the western part of Macedonia say they want only to live in a truly multiethnic society where all residents have equal rights. Most said they feel their cultural heritage is threatened by intolerance and xenophobia on the part of Macedonian Slavs. Rather than being protected by the country's legal institutions, they complain that the constitution itself allows for repressive policies of assimilation.
Ethnic Albanian political opposition leader Imer Imeri says Macedonia has been faced with an armed insurgency because of a deeply-rooted Slav hatred of Albanians. Imeri, who heads the Party for Democratic Prosperity, says the emergence of UCK guerrillas is the result of a lack of understanding by the Macedonians of the legitimate demands of ethnic Albanians.
Seated on a park bench in the center of Gostivar, a worker named Riza Shefiu told RFE/RL that the solution to the crisis in Macedonia is simple -- providing equal rights to all citizens.
"They should give us our rights. We should have our rights, just like other people. That is the way that things will improve. We should have equal rights like all people in the world. I'm expecting peace. That is only normal. It is good to live in peace, in the normal way, and not to resort to violence. We are people also. They [the Macedonians] are humans and we are humans. We should be treated equally."
South of Gostivar, in the city of Kicevo, many ethnic Albanians say they feel they are treated like second-class citizens.
Although Albanians have limited representation in the state sector of the Macedonian economy, they do have a stake in the system. There are many successful Albanians in the private sector. The Democratic Party of the Albanians, or DPA, is part of the governing coalition and has five ministers in the reformist government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.
Nevertheless, ailing DPA leader Arben Xhaferi has been unable to push through the constitutional changes demanded by his supporters for greater political and economic representation together with a state-funded Albanian-language university.
According to the latest census, about one-third of Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian. But Xhaferi says the census is outdated. He says a new one would show that ethnic Albanians now comprise nearly half of the population -- a claim that is disputed by others.
But ordinary Macedonian Slavs also express fears that they will one day become a minority in Macedonia. Indeed, the country's two main communities of Slavs and Albanians have little communication with each other. Mutual distrust and suspicion appear to be widespread.
Statistics also suggest that ethnic Albanians are worse off than the Slav majority. The unemployment rate among Albanians is twice as high as the national average. Albanian reports say 80 percent of the inmates at the country's main prisons are ethnic Albanians -- with an inference of discrimination against Albanians by the legal system.
Cenan Ameti owns a small shop in southwestern Tetovo -- the same neighborhood from which government forces launched their assault last Sunday (25 March) against UCK fighters in the hills overlooking the city. Ameti says he still has confidence that DPA leader Xhaferi will be able to work within the governing coalition to resolve the grievances of ethnic Albanians through a political dialogue.
"He (Xhaferi) did a lot to bring prosperity during [the last two] years, and even [helped improve the conditions for ethnic Albanians] politically [and economically]."
But like most Albanians interviewed by our correspondent, Ameti offered praise for the UCK fighters who until last Sunday had controlled the heights visible from his front door.
"[The UCK] also was helpful to us. They started the fight so that we can have equal rights with Macedonians."
Nearby, an unemployed teenager named Arsim Loki expressed pro-UCK sentiments that are common among Tetovo's Albanian community -- even thought the homes and shops of ordinary Albanians in the neighborhood were damaged in the recent fighting.
"At the moment, we are happy and the situation is quiet, but there is meaning to the UCK. If they weren't up there fighting, people around the world would not know about the ethnic Albanians in Macedonia -- about [the inequality] of rights for us and about our situation."
But praise for the UCK does not necessarily mean that ordinary ethnic Albanians prefer military action to political dialogue. Ramiz Selimi, a restaurant owner and municipal official in the western Macedonian village of Toplice, told RFE/RL that officials in Skopje are in a position to resolve the crisis immediately. He said they should launch a serious reform process that includes input from all of the country's legitimately-elected ethnic Albanian political parties -- whether from the opposition or from Xhaferi's DPA.
"The situation at the moment is such that only negotiations between [all the ethnic Albanian] parties and the Macedonian government can resolve the crisis. Things will calm down very soon. If the mediation from [western] Europe brings the start of negotiations [on reforms] then the UCK will calm down. Also, the UCK will respond to whatever the [ethnic] Albanian parties say."
Most ethnic Albanians in the country seem to agree on this critical point. They say it is time for the violence in Macedonia to end and for the government to start seriously addressing the Albanians' grievances. But if the political process fails to deal with those complaints, western Macedonia is likely to become more fertile ground for the recruitment of young people by UCK militants.