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Monday, 2 April, 2001, 19:55 GMT 20:55 UK
Popular Albanian leader holds key role
Arben Xhaferi (left) shakes hands with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana
The international community has consulted Mr Xhaferi
By the BBC's Paul Wood

Macedonia's hopes of avoiding a deepening conflict might now depend, in part, on Arben Xhaferi, the charismatic leader of the republic's biggest ethnic Albanian political party.

But Xhaferi - pronounced Jafferi - has warned that time is running out.


My withdrawal [from government] would mean ... total war between Albanians and Macedonians

Arben Xhaferi
He has threatened that his Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) might leave Macedonia's multi-ethnic coalition government.

"I will give the negotiations one month to succeed," he said.

"If they fail I will withdraw from the government. My withdrawal would mean the complete polarisation of Macedonian politics along ethnic lines and it would be total war between Albanians and Macedonians."

Chants

Mr Xhaferi enjoys a huge following among Macedonia's Albanians.

At DPA rallies, it is his name they chant, rather than party slogans.

Xhaferi's career
Student radical in Tetovo
Philosophy student in Belgrade
TV journalist in Pristina
Leader of DPA in Macedonia
He is seriously ill, though, his voice so faint as to be barely audible. And the recent crisis has left him looking very tired.

When the fighting began a month ago, his party was severely critical of the guerrilla National Liberation Army, the new ethnic Albanian organisation which has begun an armed struggle in Macedonia.

They were called extremists, trying to recapture the glory of the Kosovo war without realising that their time had passed.

The guerrillas in turn accused the DPA of growing too fond of power and patronage, forgetting the "national interest" of their people in the process.

Immune from criticism

It is a measure of the widespread respect that Mr Xhaferi commands, though, that the guerrillas have shied away from direct criticism of him, saving their attacks for his deputy, Menduh Thaci.

DPA deputy leader Menduh Thaci
Guerrillas criticise Mr Thaci instead of Mr Xhaferi
In fact, the official demands of the guerrillas are similar to existing DPA policy: greater rights for Albanians inside Macedonia.

Mr Xhaferi opposes a federal solution for Macedonia, which the NLA say they want - but the fundamental disagreement is about means, not ends, about whether violence is justified in the pursuit of the ethnic Albanians' political aims.

Mr Xhaferi has appreciated the crucial fact which the guerrillas, in planning their campaign, did not: that the international community would never support anything which looked like a new separatist war in the Balkans.

Inernational pressure

"The guerrillas didn't withdraw because of [Macedonian] military operations," he told the French news agency AFP.

A US soldier guards the Macedonia-Kosovo border
Diplomacy, not guns, made the difference, says Mr Xhaferi
"They withdrew because they were under pressure from the international community - the US, the EU - and from Albanian leaders in Albania and Kosovo."

It was a mistake, he added, to enter a confrontation with the "powerful factors" in the international community.

He began his political career as a student radical.

Student organiser

In 1968, at the age of 20, he helped organise demonstrations in his native Tetovo, Macedonia's main ethnic-Albanian town.

After studying philosophy in Belgrade, he moved to Kosovo, where he became a senior editor at the state-run television station in the regional capital, Pristina.

He lost that job when ethnic Albanians were sacked from the station by Slobodan Milosevic's increasingly hard-line Serbian administration.

Then he stepped up his political activities and moved back to Macedonia.

Behind the receptionist's desk at his party headquarters in Tetovo is a picture of Adem Jashari, the first of the Kosovo Liberation Army's commanders to be killed by the Serbian security forces.

Greater Albania dream

A martyr to some, a terrorist to others, the late Mr Jashari is a reminder of how strong a grip the idea of Greater Albania has on the imagination of many ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and in Macedonia.

"It is quite normal to have these kinds of feelings," Xhaferi said.

"But this is emotion; politics is something else."

As negotiations get under way with the Slav-Macedonian party in the government, Mr Xhaferi will be deploying all his personal authority to make sure that emotion does not get the better of politics in Macedonia - threatening terrible consequences for all the republic's ethnic groups.

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