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Thursday, 19 November, 1998, 20:32 GMT
The delicate balance of power
The Albanian population in Macedonia is beginning to flex its political muscle
By Joanna Robertson

Macedonia is the Balkan tinderbox that has so far failed to ignite - much to the relief of the international community which fears that violence there could engulf the whole region in war. The small land-locked state squeezed between Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Albania is the only former Yugoslav republic to have seceded from the federation without violence. But since independence in 1991 most commentators have predicted it would not be able to survive.

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A complex mix
Macedonia's two million people are a complicated ethnic mix. The majority population is Slav, but there are also substantial minorities of Albanians, Turks and Gypsies. The proportion of Albanians is a subject of heated debate. Official Macedonian censuses suggest they make up about a quarter of the population. But most Albanian sources put the figure much higher. Some suggest 40 or more per cent of the republic's citizens are Albanian.

Areas shaded in yellow show majority-Albanian areas
What is certain is that Albanians form a majority in the north-western parts of Macedonia along the borders with Albania and Kosovo, the Albanian-dominated province of Serbia. The towns of Tetovo (Tetova) , Gostivar and Debar (Diber) are largely Albanian. The capital Skopje (Shkup), in the north of the country, also has a strong Albanian presence.

A people in explosion?
Ethnic Slav Macedonians fear the Albanians may split their republic apart. Many believe that Albanian activists have a long-term dream to unite the Albanian-populated territories of Macedonia with Kosovo and Albania itself to form one new state. Such a state would include six million people - almost twice the population of present-day Albania. Albanian leaders in Macedonia deny they have such an aim. They say their only goal is to achieve equal rights for all ethnic groups within the state's boundaries.

Currently, there are two ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia, the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH) and the Party for Democratic Prosperity. Between them they have at least 24 seats in the new parliament elected on November 15 this year.

Lyubcho Georgievski now heads the ruling coalition...
Negotiations are currently continuing over the formation of a new governing coalition which will be led by a right-wing Macedonian nationalist party, the VMRO-DPMNE. Although the VMRO has a majority in the 120-seat parliament, it is likely to include at least one Albanian party in the government, thanks partly to Western pressure to maintain Macedonia's ethnic stability. Albanians were also represented in the outgoing government led by the ex-communist Social Democrats.

Second-class citizens?
..but President Kiro Gligorov, a Slav, is still in office
Despite their representation in parliament and government, most Albanians in Macedonia feel discriminated against. They are substantially under-represented in most public positions such as the military, police and civil service. Even in an overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian town such as Tetovo, the chief of police is a Slav. Macedonian politicians say they are working to end such under-representation. They point to a lower educational levels among some Albanians as a stumbling block.

But Albanians retort that the Macedonian authorities are preventing the development of Albanian-language education. The government in Skopje has denied official status to the University of Tetovo, now operating privately as the country's only Albanian-language university. But whatever the reasons for the lack of jobs, it is clear that severe unemployment among the young is breeding serious discontent.

A vanished vision
The town of Debar sits high on a hill in the far west of Macedonia, just five minutes drive from the Albanian border. Visiting in the 1930s, the British writer Dame Rebecca West described it as 'a vision of oriental loveliness'. Today, it is decrepit and architecturally unremarkable. What's striking is the large number of young men who pack the cafes down the main street, all day every day, playing cards or board games. Some of them have university degrees. But there is still no work. Some may have taken part in the fighting just across the Serbian border in Kosovo. But it is a subject no-one wants to discuss. Anyone suspected of being a military irregular could be arrested under Macedonian law, and many Macedonians sympathise strongly with the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in his struggle against Albanian nationalism.

A split community
A mosque doorway embodies the Balkans' mix of cultures
Just across the border from Debar is the Albanian town of Peshkopi. Once a small community in Debar's shadow, it now seems considerably livelier, though like the rest of Albania, substantially poorer. Once a year it holds a special folk festival which aims to the unite the divided Albanian communities of the Balkans. The presence of musicians from Serbia - who have braved hostile police patrols to attend the event - is a reminder that historically Kosovo and its capital Pristina are as much a centre of Albanian culture as the present Albanian capital, Tirana. The nationalist league which struggled to free Albania from Ottoman domination at the end of the 19th Century was founded in Kosovo. And for the 40 years after World War Two when Albania was isolated under the rule of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, it was Pristina University which was the freest centre of learning in the Albanian-speaking world.

Keeping the lid on
Following the withdrawal of some Serbian forces from Kosovo, the international community is trying to forge a political settlement which will enable the troubled province to enjoy a substantial degree of autonomy within the Yugoslav federation. The truce involves the deployment of international observers and monitors, as well as a NATO-led rapid reaction force, to be based in Macedonia, to support the monitors if necessary. Stability in the region depends on the success of the operation and the progress of the talks.

A victory for democracy
Despite tensions, the election was largely free and fair
In the meantime, Macedonian leaders are celebrating the conclusion of a two-round election which has been almost unmarred by violence or serious irregularities. The country, though still suffering from chronic under-investment, is beginning to regard itself as a success story in the region. In its early days, it suffered not only from internal minority problems but also from the attitude of most of its neighbours.

Greece denied its very right to exist under its current name, claiming the term "Macedonia" belonged to the ethnically Greek descendants of Philip of Macedon. Bulgaria accepted the existence of a Macedonian state, but continues to reject the notion that there is a separate Macedonian people. It says they speak a version of Bulgarian and therefore are ethnically Bulgarians. Serbia accepted a Macedonian state and a Macedonian people, but insisted there could be no independent Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The most damaging dispute, with Greece, has now been resolved with the adoption, for international purposes, of the official title "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)", and the alteration of the national flag to avoid replicating a motif Greeks claim as their own. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries Macedonia was the chief cauldron of war in the Balkans. Yet with international support the republic may be able to avoid reverting to the same role in the future.

Links to more Europe stories are at the foot of the page.


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