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Balkan Report: March 9, 2001

9 March 2001, Volume 5, Number 18

THE TANUSEVCI STORY. Skirmishes have continued recently near Macedonia's northern border with Kosova, where three Macedonian policemen were killed on 4 March. Authorities in Macedonia blame the NATO-led peacekeeping force in neighboring Kosova for failing to do enough to secure the border from armed Kosovar Albanian infiltrators. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Skopje that Macedonian authorities may be at least equally to blame for the violent dispute over the border village of Tanusevci. Here is his report.

The dispute over the ethnic Albanian border village of Tanusevci in northern Macedonia has been simmering for months. But its origins predate Macedonian independence more than eight years ago.

Tanusevci lies within earshot of the border with Kosova, high in the Black Mountains (Crna Gora/Karadak) north of Skopje. The village is about 24 kilometers from the capital as the crow flies, but nearly double that distance over winding roads. There is no bus service. The nearest school and clinic are in the southern Kosovar town of Viti, about an hour away on foot.

The border in the Black Mountains was never marked, and as long as the former Yugoslavia existed it was nothing more than an administrative boundary. Most residents considered themselves Kosovar Albanians. The break-up of Yugoslavia had little immediate impact on Tanusevci. But starting in the late 1990s, the village became a funnel for arms to the Kosova Liberation Army, or UCK. Serb forces on occasion entered Tanusevci.

Last year, Tanusevci became a transit point for weapons bound for Albanian insurgents in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, some 30 kilometers to the northeast. A U.S. KFOR intelligence officer in Viti told RFE/RL in June that KFOR was monitoring the movement of weapons just across the border in northern Macedonia but, beyond informing the Macedonian authorities, lacked a mandate to respond.

In the wake of an incident last September, in which Macedonian military vehicles were fired upon near Tanusevci, Macedonian police went to the village and checked the identity cards of residents. Those without proper documentation were told to leave.

Macedonian officials -- who ask to remain anonymous -- say that before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia two years ago, Tanusevci had some 750 inhabitants. Even before the current violence erupted, the officials say, that number had been reduced by more than half to about 300.

The most recent shootings began in February. At that time, police went to investigate a report that a Skopje television news team had been surrounded by armed Albanians, some in uniform, who confiscated their equipment and ordered them to leave. Those in uniform wore patches with the letters UCK, standing no longer for the disbanded Kosova Liberation Army but rather for the National Liberation Army ("Kombetar" is Albanian for "National").

Professor Bexheti is a member of one of Macedonia's two main ethnic Albanian parties, the opposition Party of Democratic Prosperity (PPD). As Macedonia's minister for transportation and communications in the mid-1990s, Bexheti visited Tanusevci several times in an effort to end the village's isolation from the rest of Macedonia. Bexheti says he understands why the villagers resorted to arms. "I fully excuse their bid to establish their own fundamental civic rights for the simple reason that for the last 50 years, all their educational, health and business affairs were with Viti, a town in Kosova, rather than with Skopje, from which unfortunately they were isolated due to wholly inadequate transportation and [communications]."

Bexheti argues the people of Tanusevci were never provided with Macedonian identity papers and that they also failed to register their births in Macedonia. He notes that Macedonian authorities should have foreseen that there would be trouble when they signed and ratified a treaty with Yugoslavia last month defining their countries' common border, including the Macedonian-Kosovar border.

The professor feels that "it is possible that [these] problems will spread to other parts of Macedonia. There are some who [believe] that the current situation in Macedonia regarding the constitutional and legal status of Albanians will result in [something like] what is happening now [but on a broader scale]. We must think seriously about changing the constitutional and legal status [of Macedonia] from a nation-state to one with a civic character -- that is, to establish a civil or bi-national state of Macedonians and Albanians, embracing the two main ethnic groups that live here and together make up 93 percent of all the citizens."

Tanusevci's rebels have been secretive about their aims and only publicly declared their goals on 5 March. In a fax to Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service, they said they are fighting for the equality of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

Bexheti says he believes the government has responded to the uprising as best it can. He feels that Skopje had no choice but to reinforce its troops and police and try to avoid direct confrontation, while seeking increased cooperation and understanding from the international community.

In contrast to Bexheti, whose party has been in the opposition for more than two years, the deputy chairman of the Tetovo-based Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), Menduh Thaci, is in a more difficult position. The crisis in Tanusevci has developed at a time when his party is the junior partner in a coalition government with the main Macedonian nationalist party, known by the acronym VMRO-DPMNE. Thaci says outside interests are taking advantage of Tanusevci residents. "I think that the people who are responsible for the incidents and problems in Tanusevci may be working for [other] services, for other interests -- but there is nothing to suggest that they are working in the interest of Albanians. I think in this situation one must look at the context -- or mosaic -- of the latest, very arrogant attempts to destabilize the Macedonian government and eventually the entire state."

Menduh Thaci says those behind the violence -- whom he suspects of being connected with the Serbian and Russian secret services -- are weakening his party's position in the government. He concedes that Macedonian police may have mistreated some Tanusevci residents, but he insists the police made no attempt at ethnic cleansing. In his words: "That's not precise."

Only those without identity papers were forced by Macedonian police to leave Tanusevci. But others left of their own accord to escape the shooting between rebels and Macedonian security forces. In fact, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says more than 500 residents, mainly women and children, left the village for Kosova late last month.

Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told our correspondent on 7 March that there are now 300 armed men in the village, many of them recruited in Viti.

Menduh Thaci estimates that out of a total ethnic Albanian population in Macedonia of between 700,000 and 800,000, "well under 100,000" lack Macedonian papers. Official estimates of the Albanian population are closer to 500,000. (Editor's note: the Albanians boycotted the most recent census, charging manipulation of data. Many ethnic Macedonians suspect that the real reason was that the Albanians feared that the census would reveal that their real numbers are far below the high figures that many Albanian leaders claim.)

In contrast to Bexheti, Thaci does not see the unrest in Tanusevci spreading to the rest of western Macedonia, where most of the country's Albanians are concentrated.

The gunmen "don't have a chance. These same people -- perhaps 90 percent of them -- six or seven months ago tried [to ignite unrest] in Upare, a village near Tetovo. But we as a political party were decisive in putting a halt to this within 24 hours. So it's complicated because they picked Tanusevci this time, since it is in terrain that is inaccessible for us."

Thaci, echoing the views of the Macedonian government, says his information is that most of the rebels in Tanusevci are from Kosova. He describes them as a mixture of UCK veterans, criminals, and smugglers.

Kim Mehmeti is an ethnic Albanian independent political analyst who heads the Skopje-based non-governmental Center for Multi-Cultural Understanding and Cooperation. He says Macedonia has been very slow to take an interest in Tanusevci after years of isolation and harassment of the villagers by Serbian police that ended only with the NATO air strikes in 1999. He argues that the border treaty Macedonia signed with Yugoslavia last month only added to the nervousness and mistrust felt by Tanusevci residents, which culminated in their rebellion.

Mehmeti feels that the Macedonian government should amnesty the rebels. "We [Albanians] are for the stability of this country. As far as I know, not a single Albanian has said he wishes to see this state dissolved. Where is the problem now? I have information that only ethnic Macedonians [police and soldiers] are being deployed [around Tanusevci]. What does that mean? [It means] that they don't trust us. These are the realities that I see. An organized state should not let such matters result in hysteria."

Mehmeti believes that the "them and us" mentality has been reinforced ever since the establishment of an independent Macedonia in 1992. He says he bristled every time Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, or his predecessor Kiro Gligorov, addressed the nation and said: "Macedonian citizens and other citizens." That implies, he argues, that the 40 percent of the nation's population who are not ethnic Macedonians -- but rather Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Muslims, Roma, and Vlachs -- are second-class citizens.

Moreover, Mehmeti says, current tensions and the loss of life in Tanusevci -- one Albanian resident three weeks ago and three Macedonian policemen on 4 March -- have, in his words, "lowered the level of Macedonian-Albanian ethnic relations to zero -- where they were in 1990."

Mehmeti believes that Albanians and Macedonians alike are being manipulated. He notes that Macedonian politicians and news media insist -- in his view without a shred of evidence -- that Albanians set the mine that killed two policemen on patrol near Tanusevci recently. Mehmet argues that the mine could have just as easily been set by others in an attempt to compromise the Albanians. (Jolyon Naegele)

CROATIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES BELGRADE-BANJA LUKA ACCORD. Speaking at RFE/RL headquarters in Prague on 6 March, Croatian President Stipe Mesic said the cooperation treaty signed in Banja Luka the previous day by Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Republika Srpska President Mirko Sarovic shows that the post-Milosevic Yugoslav leadership has not abandoned the former president's dream of creating a Greater Serbia. Mesic said that cooperation treaty will contribute to the further destabilization of Bosnia.

"Both Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should have their relations with Bosnia-Herzegovina as a whole," Mesic said. "We should not encourage the entities within Bosnia to get the impression that they are states. To be fair, it should be mentioned that Croatia also has an agreement on special relations with the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it's just a framework [accord]. Without any amendments and annexes to this framework, this agreement cannot be implemented. That's why I insist that our relations with Bosnia should be like relations with any other country -- [that is,] relations with the country as a whole, not particular parts of that country. The idea behind [both] these agreements is to connect Croat parts of Bosnia with Croatia and Serb parts of Bosnia with Serbia in order to encourage the continuation of the division of Bosnia."

Mesic also criticized radical Herzegovinian Croats in the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) who have threatened to create their own mini-state out of the parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina where Croats are in the majority. The Croatian president said similar moves by Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Serbs would mean the end of the Bosnian state.

"It is our duty to support the role of the individuals among Croats in Bosnia who are not for the division of the country [that is, Bosnia-Herzegovina], to support their political stands and to strengthen them. The Croatian Democratic Community has no legal right to pretend to be the only and exclusive representative of [the] political interests of Bosnian Croats, especially when this policy is disastrous," Mesic said

Mesic said that he has been encouraged by the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Yugoslavia. But he said the people of Serbia must face up to the crimes committed by their former leadership before relations between Zagreb and Belgrade can be completely normalized. "The departure of Milosevic is not enough. His policies have to go as well, and all those who were supporting his policy, who were creators of this policy, they have to be held responsible for their actions, and ultimately, to face the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Unless this happens, unless Serbia goes through a complete change and faces its history of the last 10 years, we are only going to be able to make small steps to improve our relations."

Mesic said he does not think the Macedonian leadership will need foreign intervention to help contain a conflict with ethnic Albanians guerillas on the Macedonian border with Kosova. But the Croatian president also urged the United Nations to move ahead with elections in Kosova as soon as possible.

"With regard to Kosovo, I think it would be good to hold elections as soon as possible because they will provide official and legitimate partners in negotiations with the government in Belgrade with regard to the future status of Kosovo. Extremists on both sides should be suppressed and the presence of the international community should be reinforced and needed for a few more years," Mesic said. (Ron Synovitz)

OBSERVATION OF THE WEEK. Prominent Kosovar political figure Adem Demaci recently told "Koha Ditore" that there is a link between the increase in violence along Kosova's borders and the proliferation of gasoline stations within the province. Both developments reflect the inability of many local Albanians to see matters in long-term perspective, he argued. (Fabian Schmidt)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. Membership in NATO's "Partnership for Peace is not a priority for us, but it is not excluded and has been discussed. I would need more time and a change of attitude before thinking about it." -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Quoted by Reuters in London on 1 March. See "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2001.

"Do not expect an overnight blitz." -- Unnamed NATO military official to Reuters in Brussels on 8 March. He was referring to the alliance's decision to allow Serbian forces to enter the safety zone along the border with Kosova.

Tanusevci is a remote and strategically unimportant village that is "abandoned by God and the Devil, and where there are only sleepy villagers, cows, and other animals." -- PDSH leader Arben Xhaferi, quoted in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 6 March.