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Macedonia: NGOs Seek To Improve Interethnic Relations

Perhaps the main casualty of the clashes between security forces and ethnic Albanian militants in Macedonia has been interethnic relations. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Skopje on a non-governmental group in the capital called Search for Common Ground which is working through education and media to increase understanding among the communities of Macedonia's multiethnic society.

Skopje, 3 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Public opinion surveys in Macedonia suggest that in recent years citizens have been more fearful of corruption, unemployment, crime, and poverty than of the dangers of interethnic hatreds.

But those findings are based on polls undertaken before the outbreak of recent violence between ethnic Albanian fighters and government security forces.

Informal interviews conducted by our correspondent in Skopje during the past two weeks suggest that fear of ethnic conflict is now foremost in the minds of most Macedonian Slavs.

At the same time ethnic Albanians across the country say that they are losing trust in state institutions -- particularly in the police forces -- as a result of a government offensive against the insurgents in the western and northern parts of the country.

Elected political parties are now intensifying their dialogue in an attempt to resolve the crisis. But analysts say that even if a political solution is reached among parliamentary groups, it could still take years before interethnic relations can overcome the suspicions and fears now evident in both Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian communities.

President Boris Trajkovski implicitly acknowledged the problem last week when he issued a plea to non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to step up their efforts to help prevent future ethnic conflicts.

A group called Search For Common Ground is one of the few local NGOs that has directed its work specifically toward the goal of improving interethnic relations in the country.

Search for Common Ground operates through projects in media and education. The director of media programs for the group, Ibrahim Mehmeti, tells RFE/RL that he sees a special role for NGOs in reducing interethnic tensions.

"To build an understanding within a society, it is not possible simply by passing laws in the parliament. You need a different approach. You need people working together, doing things together, reading about each other, getting to know each other's culture -- in a word, having more frequent contact and communication. And that can not be organized only by government. It is impossible. NGOs have a very important role in this."

Mehmeti says that improving interethnic relations ultimately depends on ordinary citizens from all of Macedonia's communities. But he says that NGOs provide an organized structure for efforts to improve the situation.

Search for Common Ground receives grants totaling nearly $700,000 a year from the European Union, the Netherlands' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. Using those funds, the group works with local television stations to illustrate the multiethnic reality of Macedonia.

One TV project has resulted in 16 episodes of a children's program called "Our Neighborhood." The main characters in that program are children who experience different problems due to their ethnic backgrounds, their ages, or their gender. Mehmeti says that the program points the way to resolving such problems.

Another important broadcast project by the NGO is its work with local television stations to help produce documentary films with a news magazine format. Stations in six different cities each contribute a 10-minute segment to the hour-long programs.

By educating viewers about the different religious and cultural traditions across Macedonia, Mehmeti says his group hopes to foster better understanding among ethnic groups. Stations involved are based in Tetovo, Stip, Strumica, Bitola, Ohrid, and Struga.

Search for Common Ground is also active in print media. A regional project of the group called Bridges for the New Balkans produces a magazine that includes articles by journalists in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece, Albania, Montenegro, and the UN-administered province of Kosovo.

The magazine is called "Karavan." Its first edition, published last month, focuses on border issues in the Balkans. Mehmeti says readers who are quite familiar with border questions in their own countries will be surprised to learn that all of their Balkan neighbors have concerns similar to their own -- whether they are trade and smuggling issues, visa regimes, or territorial disputes.

The author of one article noted that 18 of the 23 borders in the Balkans today are contested. The article says that in order to satisfy all of the nationalist ambitions in the region, the Balkan peninsula would have to be doubled in size.

Mehmeti calls attention to "Karavan"'s unusual editorial structure -- the result, he says, of its goal of finding common ground among Balkan peoples. The magazine's editorial board is comprised of journalists in all six of the countries involved. Each board member reviews all of the articles before publication to determine whether any of the material is offensive from his own national perspective.

Another journal published by the NGO, called "Multiethnic Forum," focuses on ethnic issues within Macedonia. That publication is aided by cooperation from the Macedonian daily newspaper "Dnevnik" and from the country's main Albanian-language daily newspaper "Fakti."

Mehmeti says the aim of "Multiethnic Forum," like all of his group's projects, is to create opportunities for discovering what can bring people closer together in Macedonia -- or to uncover the causes of their disagreements.

"This is a very sensitive and very complex issue. So to deal with something like this is very risky for everybody. Sometimes, when you are between two sides, it is very difficult to keep your image of neutrality because somebody always will think that you are leaning toward one or [the other side.]"

Mehmeti says that in the aftermath of the recent violence in Macedonia, Search for Common Ground is all the more determined to push forward with its mission. He says that opening channels of communication among all ethnic communities in Macedonia, and across the Balkans as a whole, is the first and most important step toward lasting peace.