PRAGUE/SKOPJE -- Recent violence between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians has sent tensions soaring to their highest level since civil war was narrowly avoided in 2001.
Ethnic animosity has been simmering between Macedonia's two largest ethnic communities for a decade, since an armed rebellion by ethnic Albanians was brought to an end with the help of Western diplomacy.
In March, violence erupted in the capital, Skopje, after two ethnic Albanians were killed in the western town of Gostivar by an off-duty police officer during an apparent argument over a parking space.
On April 13, fears of ethnic conflict were stoked further by the discovery of five slain Macedonian fishermen beside a lake at the village of Smiljkovci north of Skopje. Four of the victims were in their late teens or early 20s. The fifth was a man in his 40s.
Authorities have not announced a motive for the killings nor named any suspects. But speculation about the gangland-style executions has focused on tensions with ethnic Albanians.
Skopje resident Violeta Mitreska tells RFE/RL she hopes such speculation does not bring a return to the ethnic violence seen in Macedonia a decade ago.
"What happened last [week] was very tragic. Such young people, I feel very sorry for their families," Mitreska says. "I don't know what to say, I hope that this will not endanger coexistence between Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia."
But not all temperaments are so cool in the former Yugoslav republic. On April 16, hundreds of angry young Macedonian Slavs marched in Skopje to protest the Smiljkovci killings. They chanted nationalist slogans and blamed ethnic Albanians for the killings.
Riot police later clashed with the stone-throwing demonstrators and prevented them from marching across a bridge to a mainly Albanian neighborhood in the capital. The police action won praise from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
But the street riots have further worried citizens like Smiljkovci villager Dejan Nedelkovski.
"I condemn this act," Nedelkovski says. "The situation just calmed down after the incidents which happened a month ago [in Skopje], which threatened ethnic relations. Finally, I thought that the situation was calming down, but now we have this."
Meanwhile, fearing ethnic conflict could escalate out of control, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has issued calls for restraint and a speedy investigation into the Smiljkovci killings.
Macedonia's interior minister, Gordana Jankulovska, also warned that speculation about who carried out the Smiljkovci killings could fuel ethnic tensions.
"The Ministry of Interior appeals to all citizens to restrain from speculation and not to encourage the fueling of passions or to encourage interethnic intolerance," Jankulovska said.
Avoiding A Repeat
Likewise, the U.S. Embassy in Skopje has urged "all parties concerned to remain calm, and to refrain from speculation or unfounded allegations."
Ethnic Albanian political leaders also are calling on citizens and media to refrain from exacerbating tensions. Among them is former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, who is now the president of the country's Democratic Union for Integration. Ahmeti also has met with U.S. Ambassador Paul Wohlers to discuss the threat posed by rising ethnic tensions.
Gostivar's ethnic Albanian mayor, Rufi Osmani, of the National Democratic Revival, has urged police, state institutions, civil organizations, and media to treat the Smiljkovci killings as crimes rather than ethnically motivated slayings.
Osmani had also urged calm and restraint following the killing of two ethnic Albanians in Gostivar last month.
Long-running animosity between the Slavic and ethnic Albanian communities in Macedonia predates the ethnic Albanian uprising of 2001, which was the final conflict stemming from the collapse of Yugoslavia.
NATO and European Union diplomats helped halt that fighting before it escalated into all-out civil war. Their talks brought about the signing of the Ohrid Framework Agreement on August 13, 2001, which set the groundwork for improving the rights and political representation for Macedonia's ethnic Albanians.
The Ohrid Framework Agreement provided for Albanian to become an official language, on the municipal level, along with Macedonian. It also led ethnic Albanian guerrilla leaders, deemed by Washington as terrorists, to dismantle their National Liberation Army and instead join the country's political process.
Macedonian political analyst Jove Kekenovski says the two communities should have developed peaceful coexistence by now. But instead, he says, poverty and unemployment have contributed to social frustration and rising tension.
Meanwhile, the prospect of integration with NATO and the European Union, which helped pull Macedonia from the brink of war in 2001, has faded. It is blocked by an unrelated dispute with neighboring Greece over the former Yugoslav republic's use of the name Macedonia.
Despite political cooperation within the coalition government, Macedonia's ethnic Albanian and Slavic communities continue to live largely separate lives. Diplomats say they often blame each other for frustrations stemming from the troubled economy.
The OSCE's High Commissioner on National Minorities also has expressed concern about increasing ethnic separation in Macedonia's school system, despite a government pledge in late 2010 to adopt an integrated education strategy.
In neighboring Kosovo, the government in Pristina has expressed condolences to relatives of the victims of the Smiljkovci killings. But Pristina has refrained from issuing further statements about the violence, treating it as an event in a foreign country that is unrelated to Kosovo's internal affairs.
Kosovo media also has exercised restraint in coverage of events in neighboring Macedonia, avoiding incendiary commentary and relying mostly on Macedonian news reports.
Written by Ron Synovitz in Prague based on reporting by Blagojce Kuzmanovski in Skopje; Arbana Vidishiqi contributed to this report from Pristina and Ljupco Nakev contributed from Prague