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Macedonia: Kumanovo, So Far, Avoiding Interethnic Conflict

The Macedonian government has indefinitely extended a cease-fire in its battle with ethnic Albanian fighters, allowing additional civilians in the conflict area northwest of Kumanovo to seek refuge elsewhere. In Kumanovo, a multiethnic town that has so far managed to avoid involvement in the conflict, fears that fighting in the neighboring Lipkovo district would spread have abated for the time being. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Kumanovo on how the town, and its surrounding district, have remained peaceful so far.

Kumanovo, Macedonia; 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Macedonian government yesterday indefinitely extended a cease-fire in its battle with ethnic Albanian fighters in northern Macedonia. The government had earlier set a deadline of noon yesterday for the fighters to disarm or face a major government offensive.

In a statement yesterday, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said the cease-fire is producing results by enabling hundreds of civilians to leave villages in the conflict zone northwest of the town of Kumanovo. The indefinite extension of the cease-fire will allow additional villagers in the area to seek refuge elsewhere.

The establishment of a broad coalition government Sunday (13 May) and the subsequent cease-fire have eased fears in Kumanovo that fighting in the villages of the neighboring Lipkovo district would finally engulf the town. One of the largest towns in Macedonia, Kumanovo is a bustling, multiethnic market center near the border with Serbia.

In contrast to the Lipkovo district, which is 99.5 percent ethnic Albanian, the Kumanovo district is ethnically mixed. Macedonians comprise nearly two-thirds of its population of 94,000. The district encompasses 29 villages and the town of Kumanovo which, with 70,000 inhabitants, is comparable in size to Tetovo and Bitola, two other Macedonian multiethnic towns where unrest has erupted in the last two months. Ethnic Albanians make up at least one-fifth of Kumanovo's population, Serbs one-tenth.

The mayor of the Kumanovo district, Slobodan Kovacevski, is an ethnic Macedonian and a member of the Social Democratic Party. Some influential Albanian residents credit him with having done more than anyone else to prevent unrest in the district.

When the troubles started in mountain villages along the border with Kosovo more than two months ago, Mayor Kovacevski says he quickly met with mayors from neighboring districts as well as with representatives of all political parties in his district to condemn the fighting.

"We condemned the actions by armed groups and their incursions [from Kosovo] on our territory, as well as their attacks on the lives of our soldiers and police. We also urged the political parties to contact their rank and file, especially young people, so that there would be no incidents between young members of the Albanian and Macedonian population."

Kovacevski says he also maintained contact with local nongovernmental organizations in an effort to get the word across to the local population to maintain peace and stability among the district's Macedonian, Albanian, and Serbian communities. In addition, he called into session the district assembly's interethnic commission, which warned against any attacks on property and urged Albanians and Macedonians to remain at peace with each other.

Still, after the fighting erupted in the Lipkovo-district villages of Vakcince and Slupcane two weeks ago, Albanians in Kumanovo kept their children home from school and have yet to let them return. Similarly, Albanian teachers refused to go to work, on the grounds that schoolchildren were not safe as long as Macedonian security forces were attacking Albanian villages just across the valley. Mayor Kovacevski says he has appealed to Albanian parents to end their boycott of district schools.

In addition to keeping the peace in his district, the mayor says he has urged the authorities in Skopje to allow humanitarian organizations to deliver food and medicine to the beleaguered Albanian villagers across the valley in the Lipkovo district. At the same time, he says there is no place in Macedonia for the ethnic Albanian fighters, whom he refers to as "terrorists."

"An attack has been made on the foundations of the Republic of Macedonia. The security forces have to defeat them. This is aggression and terror directed at Macedonia and its existence. It certainly is not like the way we lived until now, with all the nationalities together. What is needed now is reason, otherwise there won't be anything left."

The mayor has a stack of photographs showing him meeting over the past few days with virtually every village council in the district. Talking with our correspondent, he points out the council members by name and nationality, and says they are all capable of working together -- Macedonians, Albanians, and Serbs.

One of Kovacevski's closest aides, present at many of these meetings, is Feriz Dervishi, an ethnic Albanian who chairs the district's interethnic commission. Dervishi also heads the Kumanovo chapter of the ethnic Albanian Party of Democratic Prosperity, or PPD, a former opposition group which joined the new national unity government on 13 May. Dervishi gives credit for the peace in Kumanovo to the mayor:

"Thanks to the actions since 15 March of Mayor Slobodan Kovacevski, we have succeeded in ensuring that interethnic relations in Kumanovo have not been damaged, even though the situation has escalated in the Lipkovo [district] villages. Kumanovo has remained relatively calm and interethnic relations have not been violated."

Dervishi says that he and Kovacevski persuaded the political parties in the district to refrain from holding gatherings or rallies and to maintain a calm and tolerant atmosphere. He says they also made contact with NGOs, sports associations, and school principals to persuade them to help maintain peace.

Dervishi describes the Albanian school boycott as an expression of baseless panic. Nevertheless, he says, the security situation in the schools should be improved.

Ridvan Jashari is a member of the Kumanovo district assembly and an activist in the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, a member of both the old and new Macedonian coalitions. He says the situation only began to stabilize in Kumanovo after the formation of the national government on 13 May and the cease-fire that followed. Jashari says Kumanovo residents are now breathing easier than they did a week ago. But he adds that it is too early to say whether this stability will be long-lasting.

"I am not exactly an optimist. Only if this [new coalition] government seeks to satisfy the demands made by the political parties and the UCK (that is, the ethnic Albanian fighters' National Liberation Army), guaranteeing implementation of all the rights demanded by the Albanians' political parties and by the insurgents. Otherwise, there can be no improvement of the situation of the inhabitants."

On Tuesday (15 May), the head of PDSh, Arben Xhaferi, for the first time publicly called for the UCK to be included in a dialogue with the ruling parties on resolving the plight of Macedonia's Albanians, Earlier, ethnic Macedonian politicians consistently rejected the idea of talking with the UCK.

But Jashari now thinks Macedonia can only be stabilized and function normally if the government talks with the UCK. He says that Kumanovo's Albanians deeply believe that the UCK fighters launched their uprising with a specific aim in mind. As he puts it, "something drove them to take up weapons."

"The UCK enjoys some authority among all people, all Albanians living here with whom I am in contact. But no one perceives them as terrorists the way Macedonians and the Macedonian authorities do."

Jashari describes interethnic relations in Kumanovo as "relatively peaceful," but he says they are not stable and "attempts to portray them as normal are [merely] cosmetic." The PDSh activist says that for decades the authorities have regarded the Albanians as "a destabilizing people," when in fact, he insists, the Albanians "are a peace-loving people."

Jashari himself served three years of an eight-year prison sentence for protesting in 1988 against the Yugoslav Macedonian government's attempt to abolish classes in Albanian in middle schools.

Resentment among ethnic Albanians in the district clearly persists. Florim Zulfiu, an Albanian, lives in Kumanovsko Naselje, a village just outside of the town of Kumanovo. He commutes to his job as a music teacher in his native town, Lipkovo. but he hasn't been able to get to work for two weeks.

"We have always felt like second-class citizens. We are well aware of what percentage of the population of Macedonia we are. I think we are more than 30 percent. We expect -- we hope for -- a better life. But it is not in our hands. [Rather,] it is in the hands of the Macedonians and the authorities."

But other ethnic Albanians are proud of the multiethnic community having so far maintained peace and calm. Nexhat Aqifi is the director of a local Albanian-language television station (TV Festa) in Kumanovo that broadcasts throughout the conflict zone. He says:

"Today Kumanovo is peaceful, stable, and full of hope that it can succeed on its own in keeping the peace and serve as an example to other towns such as Bitola, where rowdies recently attacked Albanian properties. Luckily, the most intelligent minds in Kumanovo, from [both] the Albanian and Macedonian populations, prevailed and the town is slowly reverting to its normal pace of life."

Aqifi believes the only long-term solution to Macedonia's interethnic conflict lies in a patient dialogue among its communities. That could lead to a return to the kind of peaceful coexistence that, he says, prevailed in the Kumanovo region for the past 50 years.