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Balkan Report: June 5, 2001

5 June 2001, Volume 5, Number 39

GROWING SKEPTICISM IN MACEDONIA. As Javier Solana, the EU's security policy chief, became a regular guest in Skopje following the outbreak of the crisis, his visits and ideas increasingly lost support among the small Balkan country's ruling elite and population.

Every unsuccessful crisis resolution effort by Solana or any other Western diplomat -- like, for example, OSCE representative Robert Frowick -- contributes to a growing skepticism in Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 May 2001). This is true whether the sponsor is the EU, the U.S., NATO, or the OSCE. Many Macedonians have come to ask themselves whether the West wants a solution to the crisis at all, and if it wants one, what kind of solution that might be.

Over the past three months, there have been regular statements like this one by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer: "The [German] federal government is concerned about the violence in Macedonia which has flared up again in the area around Tetovo. The use of force by ethnic Albanian extremists, apparently the cause of the most recent conflicts, is to be strongly condemned.... The federal government reiterates its support for the territorial integrity of Macedonia and for the country's democratically elected government. The process of political dialogue carried out with the help of the high representative for the common foreign and security policy of the EU [i.e. Solana] must now be continued swiftly and with a view to achieving results. The government of Macedonia must also contribute to this. All those involved are urged to exercise the greatest restraint and refrain from doing anything which could further aggravate the situation." (Press release of the German Foreign Office of 24 May 2001).

The ambiguity of this kind of statement, and the apparent lack of clarity and vision, have led to a mushrooming of conspiracy theories in the Macedonian press during the past weeks. The main theme of such articles is that the West does not have any real interest in ending the Macedonian crisis that was triggered off by the ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) earlier this year. Some journalists even go so far as to blame the West for inciting the conflict.

According to most theories, the starting point was NATO's failure to secure the border between Kosova and Macedonia and prevent the rebels from infiltrating Macedonian territory. The West is also chastised for failing to control the economic and financial resources of the Albanian rebels that stem mostly from organized crime in Western Europe, such as cigarette smuggling and drug trafficking.

It was also pointed out that the Swedish Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (TFF) recently published an analysis which noted that the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) and the Macedonian army were trained and supplied by the same U.S. company, Military Professional Resource Incorporated (MPRI). Now members of the former UCK are fighting the Macedonian security forces.

In its latest edition, the Skopje bi-monthly "Forum" accuses MPRI of having "disabled" the Macedonian army by denying it a regular supply of arms on the grounds that certain arms to do not conform to NATO standards or because the Macedonians "do not need them." Thus, the article continues, MPRI (and, by implication, NATO) has contributed to the fact that the Macedonian security forces are not able to cope with the UCK rebels.

But if there allegedly are secret plans to dismember Macedonia -- the bread and butter of Balkan conspiracy theories -- what kind of plans might these be and who might stand behind them?

When the president of the Macedonian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Georgi Efremov, presented a plan for a possible solution of the interethnic conflict in Macedonia, he came in for tough criticism both at home and abroad. The plan Efremov put forward was to exchange heavily Albanian-populated areas of western Macedonia with Albania, while some Macedonian-populated areas around Lake Ohrid were to be added to Macedonia. Efremov also proposed "resettling" the scattered Albanian population from elsewhere in Macedonia to Albania.

At the peak of the almost hysterical reaction of politicians and the media to Efremov's proposal, the state-owned Skopje daily "Nova Makedonija" on 1 June published a front page article entitled: "Together with the Albanian [question], the Macedonian question will be solved as well." The article quoted unnamed "diplomatic sources" as saying that the international community plans to redraw the borders of the Macedonian state. Apart from the above-mentioned exchanges of territories, according to the "Nova Makedonija" article, the country would gain territories from Greece as well as from Bulgaria, and, in any event, not come off too badly.

But there is more. Even if the newspaper does not say so explicitly, it is clear that it believes that the eternal Evil One of all conspiracy theories is also behind this plan: the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA, so the theories continue, is also behind the U.S. company that trains the Macedonian army. And, of course, it is Frowick's alleged employer.

These conspiracy theories might contain some truth somewhere, but they are first and foremost a symptom of the growing fear that a civil war might tear the country apart -- a fear that might at the same time be giving rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The perception is, in any event, widespread that the West is unable to cope quickly and effectively with Balkan crises, be they in Bosnia, Kosova, or elsewhere. This combines with the confusion generated by diplomatic efforts beyond the understanding of many local people to produce a desire to find alternative allies and partners.

For the time being, it seems that Russia, Ukraine, and, to a certain extent, Bulgaria will be the military partners of Macedonia in the short run. This is because they give Macedonia what the West will not: weapons to fight the rebels. But Russia and Ukraine -- to the extent that they are interested in becoming involved in the conflict -- have little to offer Macedonia other than military equipment. For its real long-term needs, Macedonia has no alternative to the Western countries. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

WHAT HAPPENED IN BITOLA? It has been almost a month since Macedonian rioters smashed and set fire to a string of Albanian-owned pastry shops and cafes in Bitola (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 May 2001). The incident followed the funerals of four local policemen, killed along with four soldiers in an ambush by Albanian insurgents a few days earlier in the Sar mountains in northwestern Macedonia.

Since then, broken shards of plate glass outside the shops have been carted off. Graffiti -- crosses and the words, in Macedonian, "Death to the Albanians" -- have been scrawled on some shop facades. The blackened interiors remain a scene of devastation, with rotting cream cakes and baklava lying amid smashed mirrors and display cases.

During the traditional Sunday afternoon promenade, Albanians are nowhere to be seen. Many have left to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere in Macedonia or abroad.

Bitola, known to Albanians as Monastir, had a flourishing Albanian population until the mid-20th century. The town is revered by Albanians as the place where in 1908 and 1909 they adopted a standardized alphabet for the Albanian language using Latin letters, ending the practice by some of using the Greek alphabet and by others of using Arabic script to write in Albanian.

However, Bitola's Albanians have been a dwindling minority for the last half-century. Some 30,000 emigrated from the city and its surroundings to Turkey as part of a Tito-era Yugoslav policy to reduce the Albanian population in Serbia, Kosova, and Macedonia by offering Albanians the opportunity to leave.

According to the 1994 census, which many Albanians boycotted, Albanians make up only 2,000 of Bitola's population of 86,000, or just over 2 percent. An additional 2,600 live in surrounding villages. But the main ethnic Albanian political party, the Democratic Party of the Albanians, or PDSH, estimates the Albanian population is nearly double the census figure.

Ljubco Taskovski is a 35-year-old ethnic Macedonian and a reservist in the Macedonian army. He has a job at the local dairy plant and owns a trailer from which he sells fresh doughnuts on the corso. He says it was the brothers, sisters, and friends of the four murdered policemen who were the "organizers" of the rampage in the early hours of 1 May. They were joined, he adds, by others they met in the street: "It went on for about two hours, from shop to shop. We know whose shops these were. The people doing this were purely on a raid. They weren't carrying anything more than stones to break glass. They turned things upside down, but [did] nothing else."

Taskovski says some 50 people -- from Bitola and from the villages of the dead policemen -- participated in the violence: "They rose up in response to the deaths of innocent soldiers, and as a warning to the Albanians who are in Bitola -- not that we are going to kill people, but that we are going to draw the line. We can kill, but before [we do] that we will warn them. [If] we break glass and smash [their] workshops, [Albanians] will stop killing soldiers and policemen."

Taskovski's remarks echo an unsubstantiated report, broadcast at the time by a private TV station, which alleged that Albanians in Bitola and nearby villages celebrated the deaths of the four local policemen by firing off their guns in celebration. Several people interviewed said the TV report was one of the factors that incited Macedonians to riot.

Taskovski accuses some of Bitola's Albanians of being "terrorists" and of battling the Macedonian army in the north of the country.

Macedonia's deputy health minister, Muarem Nexhipi, is politically the senior member of Bitola's Albanian community. A Zagreb-educated medical doctor, he is a leader of PDSH and a possible successor to the ailing party chief Arben Xhaferi. Nexhipi was in Bitola during the unrest. He says a total of 42 shops and businesses, as well as about 10 kiosks, were attacked the first night whiled the police watched and did nothing.

Nexhipi says that about an hour after starting to set fire to Albanian businesses in the center of Bitola, the crowd moved to a pastry shop near his house, setting it on fire as well. When the fire department arrived, he says the crowd attacked the firemen, who Nexhipi says turned their hoses on the demonstrators, dispersing the gathering and saving the Nexhipi home from attack. He says that "a large number of police" intervened to protect his house from two subsequent attempts to set it alight.

Macedonian attackers demolished 17 additional Albanian-owned or managed businesses the following evening. Nexhipi says that after authorities declared a curfew the third evening, attackers burned down two Albanian-owned homes. One belonged to a man working in Switzerland, the other was owned by a lawyer who had agreed to take up the cases of people whose businesses had been torched. Fire inspectors subsequently suggested that the fire had been due to an electrical problem.

Bitola's Social Democratic mayor, Zlatko Vrsakovski, appeared on TV after the first two nights of violence had passed and appealed for calm. Almost three weeks passed before he lifted the nighttime curfew on 20 May.

Nexhipi suspects the real reason for the unrest can be found in Bitola's legacy as a key garrison town of the former Yugoslav People's Army, or JNA, due to Bitola's proximity to the Greek border, 16 kilometers to the south. When the army withdrew to Serbia nearly a decade ago, Nexhipi says the majority of ethnic Serbian JNA officers and their families stayed behind in Bitola. He says they now have Macedonian citizenship and have been active in the past in organizing what he terms "anti-Albanian initiatives and demonstrations." Nexhipi estimates that between 30 and 50 Serb former JNA officers currently reside in Bitola:

Nexhipi believes that "there has been something grave going on Bitola for years. Groups of [Serb] people are at work, conducting operations. So because of all of this, we were afraid when we learned about the murders of the four [policemen] from Bitola. We knew from past experience that whenever anything, clashes or whatever, occur involving the Albanian question in Macedonia or Kosova, it will be reflected in Bitola. We knew that there would be broken shop windows, that someone would make a show of power toward a symbolic number of people."

Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told RFE/RL on 30 May he has not previously heard the allegations that former JNA officers might be involved in the Bitola unrest. But he suggests there may be a connection if the former officers, rather than retiring from the military, joined Macedonia's security forces: "I don't see how they could organize the events if they're retired. If they are active, it will be good for all of us here to know what positions they are in now, and to investigate such rumors. It's [more effective] to be in a position to be active, and to be employed formally in the ministries [of Defense or Interior] or in some of our [secret services], and in that way have an impact on that kind of movement, of the rebellion in Bitola."

Vladimir Milcin is executive director of the Macedonian branch of the Open Society Institute, based in Skopje. In a recent essay, he wrote of his own suspicions regarding the Bitola incident:

"There is something smelly in this dim story, something that stinks much more than the burnt shops in the bazaar in Bitola. Power and money are [at work in] this death game. [Someone] is encouraging enmity to incite voluntary or violent ethnic cleansing."

Milcin says the aim is to divide Macedonia into ethnically pure regions as a prelude to partition. He predicts that what is left of Macedonia will not be able to survive as an independent country.

The Open Society Institute chief adds that the Bitola residents involved in the attacks on Albanian businesses were provoked by the fact that despite an official order for all four caskets containing the remains of the dead policeman to remain sealed, the brother of one of the dead men insisted his coffin be opened. The mourners, he says, were horrified by the sight of a burned body.

Milcin says he is convinced the unrest was organized:

"On the day of the funeral, the state secretary at the Interior Ministry was there, Ljube Boskovski, who has since become [on 13 May] minister of the interior. And he remained [in Bitola] overnight, until the next day. The mayor of Bitola, [Zlatko Vrsakovski], asked police to intervene. The police didn't do anything except protect the house of Mr. Muarem Nexhipi [from the PDSH], the deputy minister of health."

Milcin says the police did nothing to stop the violence during the first two nights of unrest and notes the curfew was only introduced on the third day. He says members of a private Macedonian security agency, Kometa, led the mob in the unrest. He accuses Kometa of having very close relations with the nationalist party of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, known as VMRO-DPMNE. "I don't believe that what happened in Bitola [was] something spontaneous. I think that basically, [the incident was] stimulated and supported by some people close to VMRO, to the government."

Interior Ministry spokesman Pendrovski, when asked whether any evidence has been found confirming suspicions that the unrest was organized, says that until now there have been "only rumors:" "I have heard some rumors, or 'semi-information,' about the so-called Macedonian organizations -- 'Lions' and 'National Front for the Liberation of Macedonia,' or something like that -- that are [allegedly] behind the events [in Bitola]. But so far we have not confirmed anything."

The Lions and the National Front are previously unknown groups which have claimed credit for the attacks. Pendarovski says there are suspicions at senior levels in the Interior Ministry that local police chiefs in Bitola may be close to these secretive groups. But so far, Pendarovski says, investigations of the unrest have not gotten very far -- in part, he says, because the ministry is concentrating its efforts on the fighting around Kumanovo in the north of the country. "Unfortunately, we've had only four charges brought against four people -- criminal charges -- and all of them, according to our law, have been released and can defend themselves [while] being free. And after that it's up to the court in Bitola, the local court in Bitola, to proceed further with criminal investigations."

Milcin of the Open Society Institute says Bitola has been impoverished since 1997, when Albania's TAT pyramid investment scheme went bust, and many residents lost their life savings. Bitola, in Milcin's words, "is a town which is easily pushed into being involved in events like a pogrom." (Jolyon Naegele)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "We heard some interesting suggestions for cessation of hostilities [from President Boris Trajkovski]. But we should discuss it with those who are waging the war." -- PDSH leader Arben Xhaferi. Quoted by AP in Skopje on 1 June.

The crisis in Macedonia "is not about minorities' rights, but about territorial create a big state, whether that is called Greater Albania or Greater Kosovo.... Many states have become hostage to the Albanians.... We need concrete measures to get rid of extremism and violence from Kosovo." -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Quoted by AP in Bucharest on 1 June.