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Yugoslavia/Macedonia: Year-Old Border Treaty Still Rankles

Events in Macedonia and Kosovo this week point to an increase in tensions on several fronts. Macedonia is warning that the refusal by Kosovo's new prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi, to recognize their common border as delineated in a treaty between Belgrade and Skopje one year ago is "extremely dangerous" and is a "declaration of war."

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The border agreement signed by the presidents of Yugoslavia and Macedonia in Skopje in February 2001, and later ratified by their parliaments, was a key factor in the uprising by Albanian insurgents in the months that followed.

Albanians on both sides of the Kosovo-Macedonian border were quick to denounce the accord, saying they had not been consulted. Moreover, the accord appears to have violated UN Security Council Resolution 1244 because the UN administration should have been consulted concerning the Kosovo sector of the border with Macedonia.

Until Macedonia seceded from Yugoslavia a decade ago, the boundary between Kosovo and Macedonia was solely an administrative one. In the Black Mountains north of Skopje, isolated communities of Albanians survived by farming, woodcutting, and, in recent years, smuggling.

Until a year ago, contact with Macedonian authorities was minimal. Some residents were not even sure which side of the border they lived on. Many possessed none of the documents issued following the break-up of Yugoslavia and, as a result, faced occasional harassment.

The first communities to rise up in the 2001 rebellion were on the border -- Tanusevci and Brest. Their residents were directly affected by the border agreement and the increased presence of armed Macedonian security forces. Their alienation through harassment and beatings by Macedonian security forces contributed to the speedy rise of the insurgent National Liberation Army.

The same border treaty is once again in the spotlight because of a series of tit-for-tat comments in Pristina and Skopje this week.

In an interview last night with Kosovo public TV (RTK), Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, declared Kosovo will raise the border issue with the UN. "We will be very decisive about this issue, but we don't want to aggravate the situation now," Rugova said. He added that Kosovo has called on the Macedonian government not to provoke the situation and to allow people access to their property across the border.

While the international community continues to view Kosovo as de jure part of Yugoslavia, the province is an international protectorate. Yugoslavia has virtually no influence on the province. In talks in Prishtina yesterday with Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, UN chief administrator Michael Steiner made it abundantly clear that he will tolerate no interference from Belgrade.

"I will not mix into Belgrade affairs, and Belgrade will not mix in Pristina's affairs," Steiner said.

Steiner said establishing government institutions in Kosovo and filling posts will be done in Prishtina in direct consultation with the Kosovo Serb coalition "Povratak" (Return). The Serbs have yet to accept the post of agriculture minister, which has been offered to them, and are demanding instead control over the province's energy sector.

Steiner also dismissed Covic's allegations that Kosovo's newly elected prime minister, Bajram Rexhepi -- who worked as a surgeon for the UCK insurgents in Kosovo during the fighting with Serb forces in 1998-99 -- had participated in killing two Yugoslav soldiers in May 1999. One of the soldiers was allegedly beheaded surgically.

"The competent organs have looked into things we have received. We don't have material which in any way substantiates allegations that Dr. Rexhepi is involved in crimes," Steiner said.

For his part, Rexhepi told the Reuters news agency yesterday that Covic made the accusations "to block the further development of the democratic institutions, to cause a delay."

Rexhepi, who previously served as mayor of the Albanian part of the divided northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica, angered Serbs and Macedonian officials by denouncing the Yugoslav-Macedonian border treaty of February 2001. He announced that Kosovo's parliament -- having a broad new mandate following elections on 17 November -- will discuss the treaty and will probably adopt a resolution about it, which will be forwarded to the UN Security Council. However, Rexhepi, after further talks with Steiner today, clarified that Kosovo would only contact the UN Security Council once the province becomes independent, a development not foreseen by the international community anytime in the near future.

Rexhepi insists the border agreement is unacceptable and must be amended. After a meeting 5 March with General Marcel Valentin, the commander in charge of the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force, Rexhepi told reporters: "Kosovo institutions do not recognize the border demarcation agreement signed by Skopje and Belgrade, based on which some 2,500 hectares were taken away from Kosovo and added to Macedonia." As Rexhepi put it, the issue cannot be ignored "as long as people cannot work their lands because of the presence of a border."

Macedonian authorities were quick to denounce Rexhepi's remarks.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Slobodan Casule called Kosovo's failure to recognize the Yugoslav-Macedonian border agreement "extremely dangerous."

"Unilaterally revising borders without the necessary mechanisms of agreement is a declaration of war which shakes Europe's very foundations," Casule said.

Casule announced that he is sending a protest note to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, asking them to call a session of the Council to reaffirm its approval of the border treaty, which he says must be respected by all. He said the alternative -- not to respond to Rexhepi's challenge -- would be catastrophic.

Meanwhile, Macedonia continues to face difficulties in resolving the year-old conflict with members of its Albanian community. Parliament is meeting today to debate a bill on granting amnesty to former insurgents. While the leaders of the four major parties have officially agreed to the amnesty, the parliamentary committees for domestic policy and defense oppose the bill.

Meanwhile, despite a six-month-old cease-fire, scattered shooting continues in the hills above Tetovo, Gostivar, and Kumanovo, according to the Macedonian news media, mainly in areas where ethnic Albanians continue to bar entry to Macedonian security forces.