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Balkan Report: September 30, 1998

30 September 1998, Volume 2, Number 38

Macedonia Wants Integration. President Kiro Gligorov and Foreign Minister Blagoj Handziski told "Bosnia Report" in Skopje recently that the country of about 2 million people is anxious for more foreign investment and for associate member status in the EU. They pointed out that Macedonia is an island of stability in a dangerous neighborhood, but that continued peace and development are closely linked to integrating Macedonia into Euro-Atlantic structures, especially the EU.

Handziski Fears 'Wave of Destabilization.' The foreign minister also turned his attention to Kosova, which, he noted, is a problem that has been long in the making. Handziski said that there are two root causes of the current crisis, both of which stem from the decision of then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to scrap the province's autonomy in 1989. First, Kosovars responded to the loss of home rule by boycotting state institutions, as a result of which the younger generation has grown up with little formal education, which increases their vulnerability to influence by extremists. Second, Milosevic's policies have meant that democratic institutions have "ceased to function" in the province, which makes peaceful conflict resolution more difficult.

The minister argued that the immediate difficulty for the region now is that the oncoming harsh Balkan winter could prompt thousands of displaced persons within Kosova to flee to neighboring lands in what Handziski dubbed a "wave of destabilization." He noted that his small country took in thousands of Bosnian refugees during the 1992-1995 war, and that one-third of those people have remained in Macedonia. The minister suggested that his country could possibly accommodate some 70-80,000 refugees from Kosova on a temporary basis, but argued that Skopje does not have the money to do more than that. Handziski added that the government could not allow a sizable number of Kosovars to remain in Macedonia lest their presence upset that country's delicate ethnic balance, in which ethnic Albanians constitute some 23% of the population.

Handziski recalled his government's earlier suggestion that Macedonia could open a "land corridor" to enable Kosovars to flee to Albania or Greece, but noted that this suggestion had prompted an angry response from Tirana. The solution, he argued, is not to devise elaborate plans for dealing with refugees, but to create conditions under which they can safely remain in Kosova. This, he concluded, means only one thing: Kosova's autonomy must be restored.

In the meantime, the minister stressed that the international community must present a united front in the face of what he called Milosevic's stalling tactics aimed at buying time. Handziski said that the value of NATO-led military maneuvers in the region is not that they might "frighten" Milosevic, but rather that they show him that there are no policy differences between the major powers for him to exploit. The minister recalled that the "master tactician" Milosevic is quick to sense differences among members of the international community, and that "he played that game for five years in Bosnia."

By contrast, Handziski had warm words for the current Greek government. He suggested that the former conservative administration of Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis wanted to "destroy this country," but added that the Kostas Simitis government has "absolutely normalized" its ties to Skopje despite some remaining differences over Macedonia's name. Handziski pointed out that ties to Athens are "solid" not only on a bilateral level, but also in multinational bodies and in the military sphere. As a result, he concluded, Greece has in the space of three and a half years become Macedonia's third largest trading partner (Germany ranks first) and the most important foreign investor.

It was interesting that Handziski barely mentioned relations with Bulgaria until "Bosnia Report" specifically asked about them. The minister noted that over a dozen bilateral agreements have been concluded and are waiting to be signed, but that the process has been held up by Sofia's refusal to recognize Macedonian as a language distinct from Bulgarian and agree to sign texts in both languages. When "Bosnia Report" asked him if it might not be possible to skirt the issue by signing the agreements in a third language - such as English or French - Handziski replied that this is "out of the question." He stressed that Macedonia insists that all of its international documents be concluded in two languages, one of which must be Macedonian.

What is Going on along the Kosovar Frontier? Earlier in that same discussion, Handziski noted that there are some 2,800 "tourists and guests" from Kosova officially living in Macedonia. He added, however, that there is not a single registered refugee among them. When asked about the minister's claim, ethnic Albanian sources in Skopje replied that the reason is that would-be officially-sanctioned refugees must apply for that status at the border, but that Macedonian officials tell them that they must return to Kosova while their applications are "being processed." The sources added that Macedonian border officials behave correctly to Kosovars when international monitors are present, but that the situation can be otherwise when there are no foreigners around.

Quotes of the Week. Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic told parliament on September 28 that "peace reigns [in Kosova] and life is returning to normal...There is no humanitarian catastrophe...All assertions to that effect are lies...As of today, anti-terrorist activities [against the UCK] have ended. They will be renewed only if any new bandit and terrorist activity reappears," "Nasa Borba" reported.

Albania's former Interior Minister Perikli Teta told journalists after his resignation on September 28 that "the Albanian 'political class' is unable to bring the country out of the current grave political crisis." He described the nation's leadership as "corrupt and incompetent."