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Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 18:27 GMT
Ethnic divisions
A convoy of Macedonian troops heads for the troubled border
A Macedonian convoy heads for the troubled border
By south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Since Macedonians voted for independence in 1991, their new state's external stability has been gradually strengthened as Skopje has overcome the hostility and suspicions of its neighbours.

But internal security remains at times precarious in the face of what are often tense inter-ethnic relations between the Macedonian Slav majority and the ethnic Albanian minority.

map of region

Macedonia's Albanian community accounts - according to official figures - for 23% of the two-million-strong population, but ethnic Albanians say the real figure is more like one-third.

There's no way of checking the veracity of these claims - each side tries to inflate the size of its own ethnic community.

Minority rights

Disagreements also surface when it comes to assessing the conditions of Macedonia's Albanian minority.

Macedonian police on patrol after closing a road near Tanusevci
Macedonian police on patrol after closing a road 38km from Tanusevci
Macedonian Slavs say that Albanians are treated as equals, and they point to the fact that ethnic Albanian representatives have some of the top jobs in government.

Indeed, conditions for the ethnic Albanians have markedly improved since the once strongly nationalist Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski formed his government in 1998 and invited the previously radical Democratic Party of Albanians to join his coalition.

Macedonia came through the Kosovo crisis better than expected, accommodating hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees without upsetting the delicate ethnic balance in the country.

The most recent positive achievement was the laying of the foundation stone earlier this month for an Albanian-language university in Tetovo in the north-west - a long-held wish of ethnic Albanians who have been running their own unrecognised university in the town since 1994.

map of region

But radical ethnic Albanians argue that having six ministers in the government is little more than window-dressing.

They claim that their community is continuing to suffer discrimination in a whole range of areas - from access to public service jobs to education in their own language.

Resentment of what they see as their second-class status has pushed some ethnic Albanians towards greater militancy.

Smuggling

Mass unemployment and poverty have also provided a breeding-ground for those favouring the use of violence.

Refugees from Tanusevci in Kosovo
Refugees from Tanusevci in Kosovo
There have been isolated incidents - attacks on police stations and shoot-outs with security forces - many of which have been linked to ethnic Albanian involvement in organised crime involving cross-border smuggling.

Large-scale movement across the Kosovo-Macedonia border has also included armed ethnic Albanian militants who've been known to be operating, particularly in the inaccessible Sar mountains in the north-west.

Some of these fighters are former guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army; others have received their weapons from that now disbanded force.

Whether they are from Macedonia, Kosovo or from the Presevo valley in southern Serbia along the boundary with Kosovo, many of these militants share the objective of wanting to unite these Albanian-inhabited regions of the former Yugoslavia.

And that might be the first step towards creating a greater Albania.

It's not clear what support the radical fighters enjoy among Macedonia's ethnic Albanian community.

Nato's role

The more the ethnic Albanians become integrated into Macedonian society, the less likely they are to be attracted by the dream of a greater Albania.

But armed incidents - though so far these have been isolated - can create greater tension, and a tough response from the Macedonian security forces could lead to a cycle of retaliation.

That's one reason why Macedonian leaders are hoping that the Nato-led peacekeepers in Kosovo will do more to stop the infiltration of armed ethnic Albanians across the border.

Nato has freed Kosovo's Albanians of repression at the hands of Serbia, but as part of the same process it may have contributed to exacerbating the problem of ethnic Albanian militancy in the regions that border on Kosovo.

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See also:

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