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Balkan Report: September 21, 2001

21 September 2001, Volume 5, Number 66

THE MACEDONIAN PARAMILITARIES -- MORE APPARENT THAN REAL? A letter written by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reached the country's political leaders during the session of the Macedonian parliament on 17 September, the Skopje daily "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 18 September. Powell's letter focused on the issue under discussion in parliament -- whether the deputies should call for a referendum to decide on the constitutional changes or not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 14, and 19 September 2001).

But Powell also urged Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, as well as the other leaders of the main political parties, to withdraw special reservist units from the crisis regions. As the newspaper adds, these special -- or paramilitary -- units were also a point of discussion between NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and the Macedonian government recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 September 2001).

By coincidence, it has been the daily "Utrinski vesnik" as well as the weekly "Start" that have reported on a regular basis about the existence of these special forces. Both papers have close ties to the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). As the 18 September article stated, the special forces are called the Lions and they are under the more-or-less direct control of Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who belongs to Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE).

In recent weeks, "Utrinski vesnik" also reported about another group called Viper (Poskok), which tried to exact some kind of "patriot tax" from local shopkeepers and enterprises in the central Macedonian town of Prilep.

It is interesting, however, that neither the politically more independent daily "Dnevnik" nor the government-controlled "Nova Makedonija" have reported in depth about the paramilitary Lions.

The alleged role and activities of the Lions has come in for increased media attention in recent weeks, but only after Lord Robertson's comments did the Interior Ministry deny the existence of any Macedonian paramilitary group of that name. Boskovski did not deny, however, the existence of a special police unit called Lions. But he did deny that they are paramilitaries.

The weekly "Start" has repeatedly reported that the Lions as well as other paramilitary groups have been set up under the auspices of Prime Minister Georgievski. As the alleged mastermind behind the formation of these paramilitary groups, the magazine names Brigo Asparukhov, the former head of the Bulgarian Secret Service. The magazine then constructs a large conspiracy theory, which concludes with the allegation that Georgievski and Boskovski are conspiring against the Macedonian state by making secret agreements with the ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (UCK) to divide the country. Furthermore, "Start" of 24 August contends that groups like the Lions have been formed to fight political enemies -- especially from the SDSM.

While these reports about the existence and aims of the Lions might be exaggerated, there still remains the question whether and to what purpose Macedonian paramilitaries exist. According to the latest report on Macedonia by the International Crisis Group (ICG), some 3,000 Macedonian paramilitaries are active in the country.

In the latest issue of the Skopje bi-monthly "Forum," the magazine's editor in chief, Saso Ordanoski, examined the way the information about the paramilitaries has been spread by various "anonymous sources." Unidentified "insiders" invite journalists to so-called kitchen talks, in which they feed the journalists with "exclusive" information and half-truths. As this inside information is full of details, and most journalists are eager to publish such material before others do, they do not take time to cross-check the stories.

As Ordanoski writes, he himself was invited to such an informal kitchen talk. Afterwards he contacted some of the persons allegedly involved in the paramilitary scheme, only to receive denials.

But while some other Macedonian journalists who do not believe the reports about the paramilitaries suspected Western secret services of being behind the spreading of false information, Ordanoski says that the stories about the existence of paramilitaries under the leadership of Boskovski are the work of domestic sources close to the SDSM and Boskovski's political rival within the government, Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski.

Boskovski himself, however, gives a different explanation. In a lengthy interview with "Forum," he stated that the Lions do exist, and they are made up of policemen who performed especially well during the fighting against the UCK. As Boskovski said, they form an elite police force still "under construction" and thus officially not yet in existence. It is intended as a police rapid reaction force, he added.

Referring to the name Lions, which had raised various suspicions regarding the party affiliation of the force, Boskovski said: "If we called them 'monkeys,' everyone would agree to setting up the unit. If we called them 'crocodiles,' everyone would hail them. But the problem is that we called them 'lions.'" A yellow [or golden] lion on a red background is the symbol of the VMRO-DPMNE.

Hence the Lions are a police unit that is under the direct control of the Interior Ministry but that formally does not exist -- although it is already in business. Since this explanation comes after NATO and other international organizations protested against the use of paramilitaries in the fight against the ethnic Albanian rebels, it seems as if the interior minister wants to give belated legal status to at least one of the paramilitary groups.

The Prilep Viper paramilitaries are unlikely to receive such an honor. As "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 12 September, 12 members of that formation have been accused of racketeering and disturbing the peace. Dressed in camouflage uniforms and armed with guns, they had entered the tobacco factory as well as other firms and had forced the owners to "support" the patriotic paramilitaries with money, cigarettes, flour, and other food supplies. (Ulrich Buechsenschuetz,

CHALLENGES FOR CROATIAN TOURISM. (Part 2. Part 1 appeared on 11 September 2001.) In recent years, the conflicts in Kosova and Macedonia discouraged many potential foreign tourists from visiting Croatia, even though neither shares a common border with that country. But by 2001, such misconceptions seem to have disappeared. The latest statistics suggest that Croatian tourism has returned to the standing it had in 1989.

The first part of this article discussed the ecological challenges for Croatia's tourism. The number of tourists is on the rise, but it is not clear whether this is good for the environment.

Apart from promoting more ecological tourism, Croatia will have to reinvent its image. The 20 August issue of "Newsweek" called the Adriatic coast a spot for the "coolest vacations in Europe." But the article reinforced a number of misconceptions that suggest that the tourist industry has its work cut out for it where image is concerned.

According to that article, Croatia is a cheap country where everybody can buy a "dream house in a former battle zone." His example of this "real-estate porn" on the Adriatic is the case of a German former war correspondent who bought a four-bedroom beachfront stone and oak house on the island of Korcula for about $50,000 from a Serb who fled during the 1991-1995 conflict.

There are some problems here. First, Korcula was never in a battle zone. Second, it might be possible in some isolated cases to buy such gems relatively cheaply or easily. But in general, the acquisition of real estate in Croatia is a lengthy and bureaucratic affair. According to "Globus" of 24 August, foreigners have to wait nine months on the average before they get the Foreign Ministry's permission to buy property.

Some of the houses that are for sale belonged to Serbs who fled during the war of independence. There are currently 4,000 empty Serb houses in Croatia, as "Jutarnji list" reported on 29 August. It is unclear if the owners, most of whom now live in Serbia or the Republika Srpska, are still interested in their property or if they are ready to sell. As long as this problem remains unsolved, it is illegal to buy these houses.

Nor did the "Newsweek" article deal with the question of restitution of property rights for houses that the Communists seized from their political enemies or the Church after World War II. Today, many former owners or their descendants are trying to get their property back.

In Slovenia, for instance, some Americans of Slovenian origin have filed a claim to what belonged to them or their families before 1945. Some U.S. officials have suggested that Slovenia's NATO membership might be linked to the restitution issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 August 2001). The legal situation regarding property confiscated by the Communist regime needs further clarification in Croatia as well.

From a marketing point of view, the article does Croatia a poor service because it uses all the terms that Croatia has been trying to get rid of in recent years. This includes references to the country as a destination "behind the old iron curtain." The main part of the article, moreover, carries the title "Escape to the Balkans," which appears across a large picture of Dubrovnik.

Nor is this the only language in the article that will upset many in Croatia. The simplicity and originality that many tourists appreciate in the country is described as "Post-Communist Chic" in the title printed above the Dubrovnik picture. Perhaps it is the absence of air-conditioning -- a point mentioned several times in the article -- that led the author to think that the Adriatic coast is backward and old-fashioned.

In a street cafe on the island of Hvar in August, a conversation took place between an American travel- and adventure-magazine journalist and a German journalist. The American said he had recently talked to his editor, who asked him where he was. When he told him he was on Hvar island, Croatia, the editor replied he did not know where that was and that he would certainly never go there. The German said that he had difficulties getting a story on Croatia on the cover of his magazine because his editor claimed that "Croatia" conjures up visions of war or bad service in readers' minds.

In terms of tourism, "Croatia" needs to become a brand-name with a good reputation. The country's own public relations must promote a country which stands for high-quality tourism that respects the environment. The government will have to create legislation to help that kind of tourism thrive. And international opinion-makers can help if they give the country a chance to develop its new identity. (Christian Buric. The author is a freelance writer and consultant for strategic business communication based in Munich.

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK: "We are hopeful that it will work. If it doesn't, we will deal with it in our [own] way." -- UCK Commander Qela, quoted by AP from Skopje on 19 September, on the security situation after Operation Essential Harvest.

"If there is an intention to organize a meeting in the future, we call upon Mr. Kostunica not to try to lure us into a game of giving legitimacy to federal institutions." -- Igor Luksic, spokesman for Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists. Quoted by Reuters in Podgorica on 19 September, after the Montenegrins failed to show up for a meeting Kostunica called in Belgrade -- and to which he also invited federal Prime Minister Dragisa Pesic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 September 2001).