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Sunday, 23 September, 2001, 16:22 GMT 17:22 UK
Macedonian attitudes 'polarising'
Ethnic Albanian rebels approach NATO forces at Radusa, 20 September
Ethnic Albanian rebels have continued to disarm
By Misha Glenny in Skopje

The great majority of taxis in the Balkans are either beefy second-hand (and that is sometimes a euphemism for stolen) Mercedes from Frankfurt or Munich, or square boxes sporting now forgotten East European marks like Zaporozhets or Wartburg, once famous for their phut-phutting two-stroke engines.

In the centre of Skopje, the Macedonian capital, I stepped into one of the latter. Like all these relics, it is either white, red or a slightly nausea-inducing mustard yellow.

Macedonian leaves Christian church daubed with Albanian graffiti
An uneasy peace is holding in rebel-controlled areas

I think this one was white. Inside, a familiar scene - plastic hanging off the dashboard at oblique angles, tatty seat belts that do not work even though they have never been used.

And, on this occasion, swinging from the mirror is a black and gold saint, a miniature icon which marks my driver out as an Orthodox Christian from the Macedonian majority and not a member of the country's large Albanian minority that is chiefly Muslim.


The division of the mind has already been completed in Macedonia

I address him in Serbian and he replies in Macedonian - at this level the languages are mutually intelligible. I mention this as he assumed he was addressing a Serb.

He could not know that I was an Englishman who had spent the previous two hours trying to ascertain by phone and e-mail whether my sister who works in Manhattan had been anywhere near the World Trade Center that day - as this was the infamous day.

Hatred of the West

"Did you hear the news?" I asked the driver. "Did I hear the news?" he replied. "Ten more planes on London and we will have finished off the job," he ended with a flourish.

Macedonians have snapped - after 10 years of being patted on the back by the West for having constructed a model state of peace, harmony and understanding and 10 years of being congratulated for having avoided the path of aggression chosen by the Milosevic regime to the north.

Ethnic Albanian children pose on knocked-out Macedonian tank
Memories of the civil war are still fresh

After this decade of hugs and kisses, the West has suddenly turned around and told them that they have been insufficiently nice to their Albanian fellow citizens and they have to make all sorts of changes to their constitution and to their behaviour.

Well, this has gone down like a cup of cold sick among Macedonians. Their perception of the world is very different from how it is viewed in London or Washington.

The world is not divided into civilised countries and those who support Muslim fanatics. The world according to Macedonia is divided into civilised countries, like theirs, and the Americans who appease and even support Muslim fanatics like the Albanians.

Theirs is a distorted perception. For one thing, Albanians are not Muslim fanatics, and, for another, American strategy in the region is devised as much by indifference and ignorance as it is by any coherent purpose, satanic or saintly. But it is not solely the flower of a richly-fertilised imagination.

Shattered society

The Macedonians are now being coerced into policies by Nato (for which read Americans in any Balkan mind, whether Albanian, Macedonian, Serb, Bosnian or whatever) which in their opinion is likely to lead to the division of their state into protected 'entities' along the lines of Bosnia and Kosovo.

Sadly, and I consider it a genuine tragedy, the division of the mind has already been completed in Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanian service station - which had been under construction - damaged by bomb blast
Violence has continued in recent weeks

If I was hanging onto the idea of some connection between Macedonian and Albanian perceptions of the their future until last week, that has now evaporated.

In Skopje I attended a conference of intellectuals from both sides only to be offered visions that inhabit parallel worlds in parallel universes. The twain simply no longer meet.

And so, notwithstanding the current Nato force and a possible reduced follow-on force, Macedonia with its now irreconcilable peoples threatens to sink back into what one English novelist described almost 100 years ago as a country that was "not so much a nonsense world - it was too alarming for that - but as a world of nightmare wherein everything was distorted. The spirit of disorder, monstrous, uncouth, terrifying - reigned supreme."

And for this, the Macedonians blame the Americans while the Albanians fear that if the Americans disengage, Russia will fill the vacuum. Who said this is now a new world? All seems pretty familiar to me.


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