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Macedonia: Former Rebel Leaders Attempt To Move Country Forward

For most of the past eight months, the guns in northwestern Macedonia have been quiet as local authorities and lawmakers in Skopje slowly proceed to implement last August's Ohrid framework peace agreement. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports from Tetovo on efforts by the former rebel leaders to move the country toward democracy and multiculturalism.

Tetovo, Macedonia; 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The top leaders of the disbanded Albanian insurgency in northwestern Macedonia have left their snowbound Sar Mountains hideouts for the comfort of a well-heated modern villa in a suburb of Tetovo.

The rank-and-file soldiers were demilitarized last autumn and have gone home to their families after handing over nearly 4,000 weapons to NATO-led peacekeepers. Nevertheless, Western diplomats believe the former rebels have hidden considerable stocks of weapons in the largely inaccessible mountains. Thanks to an amnesty that was recently enacted by parliament, the former rebels and their commanders have nothing to fear, provided they do not resume their insurgency.

Macedonian security forces still have only a tenuous hold on the region, paying lightning visits by vehicle or helicopter for brief inspections, but not establishing a permanent presence in remote or largely Albanian areas.

The villa in Mala Recica is now the headquarters of the Coordination Council of Albanians in Macedonia, a shaky grouping established last month. It groups representatives of three political parties, plus the leaders of the disbanded National Liberation Army, or UCK. The UCK, in the words of one of its founders, "continues to exist as a political subject."

Former UCK fighters clearly predominate in and around the villa, though they have traded in their camouflage uniforms for blue jeans and leather jackets or even three-piece suits to meet and greet not only their compatriots, but a steady stream of German peacekeepers, international observers, diplomats, and journalists.

The council is intended to ensure the implementation of the internationally brokered framework peace agreement signed last August at Ohrid that ended the fighting and provided for constitutional and legal changes to broaden the rights of Macedonia's large Albanian community. Albanians make up between one-quarter and one-third of Macedonia's 2 million inhabitants. Albanians boycotted the censuses in 1991 and 1994 but are expected to participate in an internationally monitored census later this year.

Many Macedonians are not happy with the rise of the Council and perceive it as yet another threat to the status quo.

Pavle Trajanov is a policeman and former interior minister who now heads his own small party, the Democratic League of Macedonia, or DSM. Trajanov is skeptical about the Council and its motives.

"It's a really mistaken solution to the problems in our state. This Coordinating Council of Albanians is functioning as a parallel authority in a large part of the territory of Macedonia. The formation of any [coordinating] body is unnecessary since Albanians are [already] represented in the government, in parliament, in local self-administrations, and in a large part of the public institutions [that] they themselves are running," Trajanov said.

In contrast, Albanian politicians are generally upbeat about the council. The Party of Democratic Prosperity, or PPD, initially was wary about joining the council but is now its strongest supporter. PPD lawmaker Rizvan Sulejmani said, "Albanians need the Coordinating Council."

"I personally support the Coordinating Council of Albanians of Macedonia because we know the real pity in Macedonia is that Albanian political parties are very fragmented and no one can say he or his party represents the Albanians in Macedonia. This is the reason why I think Albanians need to have a council [that] coordinates the implementation of the Ohrid agreement and [works] against corruption to build Macedonia into a really democratic state," said Sulejmani.

In addition to trying to ensure compliance with the Ohrid accords, the council also serves another purpose: to enable its chairman, the former UCK political commander Ali Ahmeti, to play a political role in Macedonia and possibly even run in the parliamentary elections in September by being affiliated with a coalition of legitimate political parties.

The council may field a joint list of candidates -- from the UCK and the three parties -- in the September elections.

A member of the council -- Macedonia's Deputy Health Minister Muharem Nexhipi, who is a leading member of Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh -- expects the joint list to be a reality.

"We are well on the way to having a joint list in which respective representatives of all three parties and UCK representatives [are present]," said Nexhipi.

Nexhipi says the council is not preoccupied with how the political spectrum will look after the elections, since in his words, "It's up to the Macedonian voters to decide which parties to vote for."

While various coalitions are possible, he said, one thing is already clear: "They cannot be formed without the participation of Albanian political subjects." Albanian parties have been represented in all government coalitions since the first parliamentary elections in 1991, when Macedonia declared independence from Belgrade.

Ahmeti took a more cautious view, insisting that nothing has been agreed on. "We haven't yet discussed a joint list or the elections because we are facing other, bigger issues on the ground here. But I think in the coming days and weeks, we'll have a chance to discuss this."

The problems "on the ground," to which Ahmeti referred, are an attack on the Council's villa in Mala Recica on 25 March by a radical UCK splinter group and an attack 4 April by unknown persons on a cafe in the center of Tetovo, which belongs to a leading ethnic-Albanian politician.

A fringe element of Albanian fighters who call themselves the Albanian National Army, or AKSh, sprayed the villa with gunfire in a nighttime confrontation with Ahmeti's men. In the words of a Western diplomat in Skopje, "Whatever happened in Mala Recica, it was a challenge to Ahmeti's authority."

But Ahmeti said the shootout had a far more dangerous goal. "I think this was organized by certain circles that want to stop the Ohrid process, which we -- the Albanian parties and the former National Liberation Army -- support. They want to stop the peace process, the Ohrid agreement. But I think we will overcome this situation and move forward."

Fulfillment of the Ohrid agreement has been slow, in large part, Western diplomats say, due to obstacles created by the ruling Macedonian nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE. This, in turn, has played into the hands of some Albanian extremists.

Nevertheless, Ahmeti said, the AKSh rebels are isolated and lack support among the Albanians in Macedonia. "They are an irresponsible, immoral element in Macedonia and Kosovo. They are manipulating young people and even children. They should be taking care of people instead of provoking a conflict to make a political point."

Ahmeti said what is needed now is vigilance and self-confidence to enable the peace process to move forward.

The UCK's eminence grise, Fazli Veliu, alleges the AKSh is being steered by fanatic exiles living in Switzerland and Germany, who he says are intent on fomenting unrest and destabilizing Macedonia.

The difference in that sense between the AKSh and the disbanded UCK in its heyday is that while the UCK's masterminds -- led by Veliu and his second cousin, Ahmeti -- always claimed to want Macedonia to succeed as an inclusive, multiethnic state, the AKSh's leaders in some of their recent declarations are demanding a common state of all Albanian regions and are denouncing as traitors Albanian politicians who support the Ohrid agreement.

Veliu describes those in the AKSh as "psychologically destabilized." He says they have ignored repeated warnings to disperse and go back to Kosovo and above all not to interfere with what he terms "the constitutional process of establishing full rights for the Albanians in Macedonia."

While the ex-UCK says the AKSh has only about 20 men in the field, almost all Kosovar Albanians, Macedonian government officials insist the AKSh is larger, numbering between 100 and 150 men, and is based mainly on the Kosovo side of the border. Government officials say the group is widely dispersed, lacks an organizational structure, and poses no threat to Macedonia's stability.

It remains unclear whether the AKSh was involved in the attack on Tetovo's Cafe Dora, a popular hangout for leading politicians of Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians. The cafe belongs to PDSh Deputy Chairman Menduh Thaci's brother and is around the corner from PDSh headquarters.

Thaci and Xhaferi were inside the cafe at the time of the attack. In the ensuing shootout between their bodyguards and the attackers, several cars, including Thaci's BMW, as well as shops and residential apartments, were damaged.

Theories abound about the motive for the attack. One theory is that AKSh wanted to foment mistrust between PDSh and the other members of the council. Another theory is that the attack was an attempt by a local gang to settle accounts with Thaci, who has considerable commercial interests in the area. Thaci in the past has denied allegations of involvement in illicit trafficking.

Yet another theory is that Macedonia's Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski was behind the attack in a bid to remind Thaci and Xhaferi of political obligations the PDSh may have to the ruling VMRO-DPMNE. This is seconded by ethnic-Albanian lawmakers from the rival Party of Democratic Prosperity who say the attack on the cafe may have been Boskovski's way of telling Thaci, "Don't forget all the business we've done together -- you belong to me."

Vladimir Milcin is the head of the Open Society Institute in Macedonia. He says the "partnership" between Xhaferi and Boskovski is so close as to all but rule out an attack by Boskovski's people, except as a possible warning.

Ahmeti and his fellow former commanders decline to speculate on what was behind the cafe attack, beyond quoting a PDSh allegation that at least one local ethnic-Albanian police officer participated in the attack.

A senior Macedonian official told RFE/RL that if PDSh's allegations are true, this would indicate the involvement of the interior minister. Some government officials are currently refusing to speak on the record on any subject because, as they say, "it is too dangerous to go against Ljube Boskovski."

Senior Macedonian associates of Boskovski's, insisting on anonymity, described him as "crazy" and "totally unpredictable." The interior minister has declined repeated requests for an interview with RFE/RL.

Western diplomats have said the attack was so ineptly handled that it does not appear to have been an attempt on Thaci's life, unless it was undertaken by "someone crazy," and that it may well have been staged by the Macedonian security forces.

One MP from each of PPD and the third party in the Coordinating Council, PDK, subsequently denounced the attack as being a settling of accounts between criminals. The PDSh leadership took umbrage and is now threatening to withdraw from the council unless the two apologize. Ahmeti says the parties' leaderships should resolve the disputes.

Ahmeti is a charismatic, though rather nervous, 42-year-old native of the village of Zajaz near Kicevo. He has spent most of his adult life in Switzerland, where his wife and two children live. He speaks very little Macedonian and has no Macedonian citizenship papers or passport -- yet.

Swiss authorities have yet to lift a ban on Ahmeti and other UCK leaders that Bern imposed on them during last year's insurgency. Ahmeti and other UCK leaders are also barred from the U.S. as suspected terrorists, though that ban may also be lifted in the coming months since Ahmeti, in the eyes of Western diplomats, has been saying and doing all the right things since the Ohrid agreement -- supporting peace, democracy, and multiculturalism, while opposing a return to violence.

Deputy Health Minister Nexhipi, who represents PDSh on the Coordinating Council, is effusive about Ahmeti's qualities and the need to remain united behind him. "Mr. Ali Ahmeti is a significant figure with great authority among the Albanians and certainly he is the only one who can be expected to be a significant political figure," Nexhipi said.

Similarly, PPD lawmaker Sulejmani described Ahmeti as "a solid politician and a good political leader" because he has shown he is ready to accept all the rules of democracy in a single, multiethnic state and because he opposes "all the people and groups that are against democracy and against the Ohrid agreement."