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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Refugee Crisis Tests Stability in Tiny Nation

Balkans: Compelling interest in maintaining calm spurs Macedonians to work together amid ethnic tensions.

April 10, 1999|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia has found itself on a global hot seat in the past 10 days, with tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees inundating this tiny country and the whole world watching how it handled the crisis.

But the footage of Dantesque scenes of refugees held for days by Macedonian authorities in a muddy river valley at the border does not tell the complicated story of this country.

With unfriendly neighbors on most sides and internal ethnic tensions between the Macedonian majority who make up 66% of the country's 2 million people and the ethnic Albanian minority who make up 23%, Macedonia's stability as a nation was delicate, at best, before the war in Kosovo began.

The latest crisis in Yugoslavia could not have hit Macedonia at a more vulnerable time. The current government in Skopje is only a few months old, and the U.N. protection force that had patrolled its border with Yugoslavia for six years to prevent the spread of Balkan warfare into Macedonia is just being pulled out.

Even before the refugee flow reached staggering proportions, Macedonia's economy had been pummeled. Two-thirds of Macedonia's trade was once conducted with Yugoslavia, and that trade has evaporated, collapsing industry across the country.

More than ever in its seven years of independence, the economic, social and political crises sparked by the Kosovo conflict threaten Macedonia's precarious balance. But so far, the same factors that have kept Macedonia peaceful--it was the only republic to secede from Yugoslavia without bloodshed--have kept it stable despite the overwhelming pressures of the past few weeks.

Macedonians and ethnic Albanians share power in the government and slowly have been developing democratic avenues for addressing the deep gulf that exists between the two groups. So far, both the ethnic Albanians and Macedonians have seen the benefit of working together to maintain stability--and to keep the outside enemies at bay.

Although Macedonians feel an affinity with their Slavic brothers in Serbia to the north, they want to remain a separate nation, and most Macedonian Albanians have no interest in joining the larger, poorer Albania.

Both groups are also determined to court the financial support and protection of the international community to bolster their landlocked, mountainous nation.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has said that he included ethnic Albanians in his government because he wanted to show "the international community that the republic of Macedonia is firmly committed to go beyond Balkan standards so that we can be creators of stability in the region."

One essential factor in the country's stability is that the leaders of the ethnic Albanian population have been unified in urging their people to remain calm and orderly despite their outrage over the Macedonian government's treatment of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

The Kosovo Albanians crossed the border into Macedonia for refuge but were humiliated and forced to remain exposed to the cold and rain for as long as a week. Tens of thousands of people were left without adequate food, shelter or medical care and without any sanitary facilities.

"This is not the proper moment to launch protests, at least not in public," said Abdurauf Pruthi, a former member of the Macedonian and European parliaments and president of the El Hilal charity, which fed refugees at the border and placed many of them with host families. "We are concerned with preserving the stability of the country."

"We think [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic sent the refugees as a 'special war' against Macedonia. It's obviously an effort to provoke instability here," Pruthi added. "So far, he hasn't been effective. Let's wait a few days and see what happens."

Pro-Serbian, anti-NATO forces did stage a violent protest, attacking the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Skopje, burning cars and throwing rocks just after the airstrikes started more than two weeks ago. But no significant demonstrations have been held since then.

Nonetheless, the refugee crisis has sparked ongoing nonviolent struggles between ethnic Albanians and Macedonians--even at the highest levels of the government.

Arber Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, which has five ministers in the government, said the ethnic Albanian ministers were excluded from important decisions during the crisis, such as closing the border and keeping the refugees stranded there for days.

Doing so violated the power-sharing deal and was "very, very dangerous for the stability" of Macedonia, Xhaferi stressed.

Xhaferi said that, after trying to prod the government to treat the refugees humanely, he and the five ministers threatened to join the crowd at the border. Soon after that, the border was emptied overnight, so Xhaferi did not follow through on the threat.

But the episode revealed the Macedonian Albanians' exasperation at being shut out of government when it mattered most to their people.

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